Gods Behaving Badly
By Marie Phillips
Back Bay Books, 2008
ISBN 978-0-316-06763-8

Does God exist? That’s always been the ultimate question. What if the answer is yes, but all the prophets were fakes? What if Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Zoroaster, and all the rest were a bunch of charlatans and the Greeks got it right? What if Zeus is the Big Cheese and Apollo, Aphrodite, Athena, Demeter, and the entire cast of Olympians were the Real Deal? And what if they are living among us?

That’s the delightful premise of Marie Phillips’s funny novel. Her title reflects something that commentators as old as Aristophanes noted—if the gods are among us, it bodes badly for the human race. If you recall any mythology at all, you’ll remember that the Olympians are not models of virtue; in fact, all human vices—gluttony, lust, jealousy, violence, etc.—are writ large among them. The only thing they like better than messing with humanity is quarreling with each other—bonus points if one of their fights also destroys a few human lives. In Gods Behaving Badly most of the Olympians are living in a filthy ramshackle house in London, their power slowly eroding from centuries of boredom and the fact that no one believes in them anymore. To make ends meet they have day jobs. Aphrodite is a telephone sex worker, Apollo is a TV psychic, Dionysius runs a dive bar, Artemis is a dog walker, Athena is a professor who speaks in MLA-style jargon that no one understands…. Each has a serious personality disorder. Eros (Cupid), for instance, is so desperate to find meaning that he’s trying hard to become a born-again Christian even though he knows Jesus isn’t a deity.

A personal battle between Aphrodite—who has disinterested sex with everyone—and the arrogant Apollo gets out of hand when Aphrodite convinces her son Eros to shoot an arrow into the Sun God’s heart that makes him fall hopelessly in love with a mortal. The object of his affection turns out to be the rumpled Alice who, as the Fates would have it, ends up being the housekeeper to the gods. Among the many problems is that Alice—a whiz at Scrabble, by the way—already has a sort of boyfriend in the mortal form of shy, mousy Neil. To say much more would be to give away too much. Let’s just say the fate of the world and a trip to the Underworld also factor into the plot.

Parts of this book are laugh out loud hysterical. You need not brush up on mythology as Phillips gives you all the reminders you need to put things in context. Her prose is crisp, direct, and clear. It is her first novel and there are certainly times in which she’s trying way too hard to be clever and things come off as sophomoric. She also borrows a bit too obviously. The idea of accessing the Underworld via a hidden subway passage is a blatant steal from the Hogwarts special train in Harry Potter, for instance; and the idea of diminishing deities among us is the central premise of Neal Gaiman’s far superior (and more serious) American Gods. Nonetheless, Gods Behaving Badly is like fast food—it’s quick, it tastes good, and it won’t hurt you as long as you don’t overindulge and try to make this romp into The Satanic Verses.

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