A Modern-Day Persephone, Seduced by Opioids and Wealth

FRUIT OF THE DEAD, by Rachel Lyon

Quick: What do Edith Wharton, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Geoffrey Chaucer and the Australian experimental rock duo Dead Can Dance have in common? Answer: All have been inspired by the tale of Persephone, Demeter and Hades. The art resulting from this inspiration has ranged from prose to poetry to haunting darkwave jams.

Joining these luminaries (and still others, Ezra Pound and Dante Gabriel Rossetti among them) is Rachel Lyon, whose second novel, “Fruit of the Dead,” turns Persephone into a pink-haired slacker and Hades into a hybrid of Jeffrey Epstein and Richard Sackler.

As with any story that has been around for thousands of years, there are many versions of the origin myth. Lyon’s chapter titles reproduce lines from Hugh G. Evelyn-White’s translation of the Homeric hymn to Demeter, which is a superb blueprint to follow.

In case you’re dusty on anonymous poems of the seventh century B.C., the hymn goes like this: A young and gorgeous Persephone is flouncing around a meadow when she spots a narcissus flower. Leaning over to pluck the blossom, she’s startled when the earth yawns open and Hades, god of the underworld, pops out like Freddy Krueger. He abducts Persephone. The girl’s mother, Demeter, wanders the earth in a rage searching for her lost daughter. (I’m skipping the hymn’s B and C plots, as well as its many descriptions of hairdos and bosoms.)

Hades, meanwhile, tricks or coaxes his abductee into eating a pomegranate seed. When Demeter reunites with her daughter after a wearying journey, Persephone admits to swallowing the magic fruit. Terrible mistake. By a mechanism not elucidated in the text, the pomegranate gaffe means that Hades gets to keep Persephone as his bride for one-third of each year, while the rest of the time she is permitted to rejoin her mother in Olympus.

In Lyon’s capable update, Persephone becomes Cory Ansel, a recent high school graduate who has been accepted to zero colleges and is working as a camp counselor to kill time until her next move. Demeter — the goddess of grain — becomes Emer Ansel, an executive at an agricultural NGO. Hades is Rolo Picazo, the billionaire C.E.O. of a pharmaceutical company that manufactures a drug similar to OxyContin.

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