Classic Review: The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break
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Generally, when I talk about a book as a classic of its genre, anything I say about it beyond that point is going to universally positive. Sadly, for The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, this just isn’t the case.
This book came out ahead of the far better known, but thematically similar, American Gods, which also deals with old mythology travelling with immigrants to their new nation. While American Gods dove into the fantastical with gusto and became a well-known, and well-loved fantasy book, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break instead decides to saunter down the path of literary fiction, sticking as close to reality as possible with only brief surrealist breaks to explore the mythical nature of its protagonist.
I have a marked preference for genre fiction where the story would fail without its fantastical elements, and this book illustrates why I have that preference quite clearly. The author takes a mythical character and rather than recognising the divine roots of his creation, or acknowledging that mythical creatures are larger than life, he instead chooses to drag them down to a particularly small and petty level of mankind. At no point do we see the Minotaur as any more or any less than the humans around him. He is treated consistently like a human, albeit one with some sort of disability, rather than as an immortal, powerful and murderous creature.
There are a few attempts throughout the book to acknowledge the Minotaur’s nature, and the idea that he has lived through cultures other than the American one that dominates the book, and while they are appreciated; they are mostly fumbled. There is very little effort to integrate these ideas for the character with the actions of the character. The plot could have rumbled along just as easily without the Minotaur being a Minotaur. Nothing that was unique about him was relevant.
The author brushes perilously close to issues of sexuality and race, moving past them quickly but still showing unflattering hints of his own values within the brief references he makes. I think that the main fault of the book is that the Minotaur and the author are entirely too entangled. The “outsider perspective” that the author was attempting is still viewed through the lens of his own experiences, which is a genuine shame because a fully developed mythical worldview would have been much more engaging.
Which brings me around to the parts of the book which truly excel. There are a few bright moments where the Minotaur’s physical and mental limitation are displayed clearly but nowhere does this book shine so much as its time in the kitchen. It is one of those few moments in a book where research or personal experience really pay off. The Minotaur has adopted cookery as his profession; he has judged that people will always need to eat and he is good with his hands. The action within the kitchens of the restaurant where he has found employment is the best part of the book by a wide margin. I would pick up a kitchen drama book by this author in a heartbeat, but modernising mythology doesn’t seem to be his forte.
As with many literary works, this book doesn’t have a plot, so much as it has a series of events that are tied loosely together. The scenes are distinct from one another. The character’s motivations from scene to scene are equally fragmented.
The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is interesting because of the peculiar timing of its publication and fans of American Gods or The Wicked and the Divine might want to pick it up to see the polar-opposite approach that it takes to the subject, but it doesn’t have much to recommend it outside of its place in popular culture.