The Medusa Frequency

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Herman Orff supports himself by writing the balloon captions for CLASSIC COMICS; he has done adaptations of TREASURE ISLAND and IVANHOE, among others. He spends his nights trying to write a third novel. His first two sold few copies and were remaindered quickly; “eight years had passed . . . and so far page one of the next novel hadn’t turned up.” One night he reads a flyer that has been slipped under his door: “ART TROUBLE? COMPOSERS, WRITERS, FILMMAKERS--STUCK? NOTHING HAPPENING? NO IDEAS? WHY NOT HEAD FOR IT?” Herman, intrigued and hoping for a solution to his writer’s block, makes an appointment and undergoes a kind of electroshock therapy. Early the next morning, he meets the rotting head of Orpheus under Putney Bridge, and the head begins to tell Herman his story.

THE MEDUSA FREQUENCY is a challenging, delightful novel. Russell Hoban uses language that catches the reader’s attention. THE MEDUSA FREQUENCY is frequently humorous: Herman sees the head of Orpheus variously in a wilting cabbage, a football, and a grapefruit, which he later accidentally eats, forgetting for the moment that it has been telling him a story. Hoban’s language is also often poetic: As Herman works at his computer, “the words come out of a green dancing and the excitation of phosphors.” Everything in the novel is intricately connected to everything else, through the names of characters--Orff, Orpheus; Luise, Eurydice; Melanie Falsepercy, Persephone--through repeated phrases and paragraphs, intertwining plot elements, and through its themes.

Hoban uses the story of Orpheus and Herman Orff to meditate on art and reality and love and fear and fidelity and betrayal. As the head of Orpheus begins to tell its tale, it comments, “Sometimes I can’t make the distinction between how things seemed and how they actually were.” Hoban urges the reader not to make the distinction between reality and art--what a character perceives as real is real. Orpheus says that he did not turn toward Eurydice too soon; what he did was turn away before he had “ever fully perceived her.” Luise, Herman’s former lover, writes that “I trusted you with the idea of me and you lost it.” Looking is not enough; perception involves understanding, and lack of understanding is betrayal.

The reader should not turn away too soon from THE MEDUSA FREQUENCY: Its “strange and flickering and haunting” reality can be revisited again and again.