When I was a kid, I always felt sad after finishing a good book. I worried that I might have read the last good book on Earth and that I’d never find another one again. Fortunately, I’ve overcome that fear. One reason is that writers continue to produce amazing novels each year. But another is that so many good books already exist, just waiting to be discovered. Last week, I finished one of those good books, Emily Prager’s Clea & Zeus Divorce. Published in 1987, Clea & Zeus Divorce is the story of a one of a kind marriage — and the end of the world.
Clea and Zeus are two halves of the most popular vaudeville act around. Their live shows combine witty dialogue with juggling and contortion, heavy symbolism with avant guard movies and interpretive dance. Clea’s deer-hoof boots and punk-rock hair make her the envy of both women and men, while Zeus’ six-foot-seven frame and Rhodesian accent belie is ability to dance like wind in the air. The shows Clea and Zeus in Love and Clea and Zeus Grow Up were international box-office hits that made the couple super stars. So Clea and Zeus shock everyone when they announce that the next show will be there last: Clea and Zeus Divorce.
How? Why? Their ten year-long marriage looked so good. But as the stagehands prepare the set and draw the curtains for the final performance, it becomes clear that their marriage is not perfect. Zeus hides in his dressing room, getting stoned, while Clea wanders the set, anxiously awaiting a nuclear blast that she is sure will envelope them all at 10:00 pm. The two go on — they’re too professional not to — but each one’s act is just a mask that hides the torment behind their eyes. As the story progresses and the show cuts to commercial break, we learn more about their troubles. Zeus’s become obsessed with his toy boats and Clea’s become obsessed with the bomb. And death haunts them both — Clea’s mother died of leprosy while Zeus accidentally shot is mother during a rebellion in Rhodesia. The couple has grown apart and, as the final straw, committed adultery. But their chemistry on stage is magic and Clea and Zeus Divorce is their best show yet. There’s still some hope for reconciliation. But as the clock moves closer to 10:00 pm, the reader’s left with the feeling that maybe this is the end — and that something is sure to explode.
Prager is a former writer for Saturday Night Live and editor of the National Lampoon Magazine. Despite her grim plot, Clea & Zeus is written in a tongue-in-cheek manner that is both funny and profound:
“Here are the facts as I know them.” She turned to the wall behind her, where she yanked down a Nicaraguan tapestry to reveal an elaborate chart entitled “Blast Effects of Air-Burst Weapons at Optimum Altitude for Range Indicated.” The company murmured . . . The assembly laughed nervously.
“Yes,” Clea went on, “I even pointed out that the ratings during such a blast would be shitty and make us look bad, but the network counted with the inescapable fact and one terribly deductive to any performer: For over two million people, ours could be the last TV show watched in recorded human history. I had to give in.”
In addition to Clea & Zeus, Prager is also the author of the classic story collection A Visit From the Footbinder. I’ve never read Footbinder before but now I’ll have to. And I’ll have to be sad for a day or two until I can find a book as good as Clea & Zeus.