- Experiencing Hektor: Character in the Iliadby Lynn Kozak
Why is the Iliadlike Game of Thrones? Kozak avoids putting the question so bluntly, but that blockbuster show in particular (amidst Star Trek, Alias, X-Files, Breaking Badand more) looms large in her viewing of Homer through the lens of "serial poetics." A sharp and contemporary performance-driven analysis of the narrative devices that make both the epic and epic shows work, the book is largely successful in transposing the Iliadscene-by-scene into the conceptual world of TV story-telling. The interpretive results are mixed. Often it reads like an incongruous combination of scholarly commentary, CliffsNotesand screenplay. At its best, on the other hand, this volume advances our understanding of the poem overall as a living, evolving composition, even if the gains for reading individual passages are minimal. It is ideal (in moderate doses) for introducing today's visually saturated undergraduates to the ancient masterpiece using terms they will instantly understand.
As the author notes (4), comparing Greek epics to serials is not original with her: in 1991 Florence Dupont explored their mythopoeic similarities, invoking JR and Miss Ellie alongside Odysseus and Achilles ( Homère et Dallas: Introduction à une critique anthropologique. Paris: Hachette). Scholars of the Victorian novel, especially, have played the TV angle for years. The new twist is Kozak's sustained focus on how "character" is negotiated in serial compositions, her object being "not to determine who Hektor is, but rather to demonstrate where the epic invites its audiences to think on who he is" (21). While her detailed notes (239) document numerous attempts to explicate Homeric characterization (including key works by Leslie Collins and Graham Zanker), she politely skirts the broader intellectual gap: that "character" on the whole has been notoriously undertheorized in literary studies, forced out for decades by 20th-century structural narratology (from Propp to Greimas and Bal). Students of Homer have by now absorbed the old-school treatments by Bal's student Irene de Jong (e.g., A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey. Cambridge UP, 2001) so Kozak's fresh approach, reaching beyond analepses and focalizers, is welcome. But she cannot be said to have tackled head-on the theoretical topic of "character." In practice, her exercise amounts to a narrower walk through the plot, to point out where and how the poet supplies character-information—how we discover and "experience" Hektor.
In a richly illustrated and fun introduction ("Binge-watching the Iliad"), she explains critical terms taken from work by Michael Z. Newman, Jason Mittell and Murray Smith on the poetics of serial television and film. A "beat," the [End Page 343]smallest unit, comprises a single action (a conversation, a fight) typically lasting two minutes; a "sequence" involves multiple beats featuring several key characters (Kozak's example: an 18-minute battle scene in the "Hardhome" episode of Game of Thrones). An "episode," a longer stretch of narrative featuring a delicate interplay of resolution and suspense, might correspond to a single Iliadbook, but, as Kozak nicely points out, could also be constructed "live" by any poetic performer, through a careful deployment of breaks in many possible places. From her own invaluable experience as a director and dramatic reciter of the Iliad, she estimates that such significant pauses could last a half an hour to an hour and a half—not quite like waiting a week for your next fix of The Wire, but enough to tantalize an audience through silence.
"Arcs" offer the most promising TV-derived concept for assessing Homeric characterization. They create an "illusion of continuity between disjointed beats and episodes" (15). Something like a fictional mimetic lifespan, the "arc" is what persuades us of a character's reality, even of his or her extra-narrative existence. Air-time and allusion are among the means by which an arc is sustained. Among several intriguing suggestions tied to "arcs," Kozak makes the good point that many warriors mentioned once in the Iliadare "red-shirts"—a Star Trekfan term...