Zachary Mason - Odysseus in the Borgesland: Alternative episodes, fragments, and revisions of Homeroids

Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey (Starcherone Books, 2007)

«Following the structure of the ancient Greek classic, The Lost Books of the Odyssey features alternative episodes, fragments, and revisions of Homer's original Odyssey and, equipped as well with a faux-authoritative scholarly introduction, richly carries off the illusion of being the lost ur-text of Homer's masterpiece. Justifying comparison with the great postmodern fictive hoaxes of Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, and Robert Coover, this is a one-of-a-kind book destined to become a classic in its own right. The Lost Books of the Odyssey was selected for the Starcherone Fiction Prize by final judge Carole Maso in Starcherone Books's 4th annual blind-judged competition.»

"Mason's book is incredibly impressive. Beautifully written, intelligent, war-inflected in all the most ancient and contemporary ways, filled with all kinds of pleasures. An ambitious feast!" Carole Maso

"A stirring revelation: Zachary Mason's astounding glosses of The Odyssey plunge us into an unforeseeable and hypnotic dimension of fiction. Of the three possible interpretations of the work that he proposes - Homeric stories anciently reproduced by recombining their components, a Theosophist dream of abstract mathematics, and pure illusion (that is, it was all made up by him) - the result is one and the same. This enthralling book is his doing, whether as translator, conjuror, or author. I vote for number three." - Harry Mathews

"That each story is all stories, that the tale foretells the teller's life, that the poem kills its hero, that one word will suffice, that all times are today, that everything changes, that nothing changes - from these riddles Zachary Mason crafts his book. It encodes the astonishments others promised to decipher, the secret of secrets, the last meaning. We feel its mysteries within our grasp, just a page away. Even this is prefigured. This is the book I always meant to write." - R. M. Berry

«From the time I was eight up until a little over a week ago, I truly believed that no one in this world could match my blind infatuation with the oddities, obscenities, and romantic notions of Greek mythology. I will even go so far as to divulge that, at the tender age of ten, after weeping unapologetically in a literature class upon realizing that Persephone would not be able to return to the earthly world because she had eaten six measly pomegranate seeds, I actually begged my mother to buy one of these “mysterious” fruits so I could relish the sensation that enslaved Persephone to Hades, king of the underworld. Of course, in Michigan in the 1980s, pomegranates were ridiculously expensive; I bit into a three-dollar piece of fruit as if it were an apple and, though it tasted like pesticides and cement, I felt a closer connection to my mythology fantasy world.
Enter The Lost Books of the Odyssey and its author, Zachary Mason, in whom I have either found my match or my soul mate.
Lost Books is the story of Odysseus, but is also not the story of Odysseus. In forty-four short chapters, Mason explores several hundred possibilities of how the Odyssey could have been. He manages not only to unearth the most obscure trivia surrounding the mythic lives of every character, but also manufacture new trivia by expounding on lost footnotes and random accounts recorded somewhere in suspended time. Mason defines each character—Patroclus, Helen, Paris, Athena, et. al.—filling out every epic hero with the psychological dimensions we (or maybe just I) have attributed to them since we first heard the myth of Achilles and his accursed heel.
Did the original story of the immortal-but-doomed Achilles delve into the warrior’s fascination with the wounded, the revulsion he felt toward the dead and burned? I don’t recall that nifty tidbit in any of my books. But perhaps we’ve always taken the basic information, the classic elements of melodrama, and filled in our own blanks. “Wounds fascinated Achilles,” Mason writes:
When Patroclus got a scratch Achilles would fuss over him like an old nurse, endlessly bandaging and salving what could as well be left alone. But when a Greek was mortally wounded, even one of his own men, Achilles would not so much as look at him. When the bodies of the fallen were wound in orange sheets and burned on a pyre, Achilles was always elsewhere.
Mason’s tales are versions of recurring dreams. In one chapter, Odysseus could very well have killed and scalped Helen to end the war; in the next, he does not kill her, instead steals away and marries her. All our characters’ faces are undefined, but we recognize them wholly as we would any cast of characters filing through our dreams—faces disappearing just as we move to get a better look, morphing into others, circumstantially. And, just as in dreams, they are all of a weighty importance, seeming always to mean more than what can be explained on the surface. Mason plays with this idea quite a bit. He writes that there is “one image in a warped hall of mirrors.” At another point, Odysseus describes himself as “a hand trying to grasp itself by reaching into a mirror.” Earlier on, Odysseus, actually having read The Odyssey in this chapter, says, “The essential insight is that the text is corrupt, or, if not corrupt, then incomplete, or of a calculated obscurity.”
With these continual narrative hints that something is indeed amiss, Mason makes no apologies for the meandering narratives, understanding the value of contrivance in storytelling, scoffing at the contemporary obsession with deftly “realistic” plotlines, and thumbing his nose with humorous asides and sparse footnotes that attempt to “explain” situations more clearly by adding two or three more tortuous forks to the hazy dream-road. A perfect example is “Record of a Game,” a chapter riddled with possible falsehoods that attempts to explain the origins of chess and its direct descent from The Iliad.
I have to say that for all this analysis, what I most wanted to do was just reproduce some of Mason’s amazingly beautiful lines, but to start excerpting all the pages I dog-eared would quickly exceed fair-use provisions. I cannot begin to express the fluidity of Mason’s language, how each word has been painstakingly chosen to fill its sentence as though no other word were possible. Which brings me to one of my few true criticisms: This book is not a novel. Experimentalists may disagree, but I think of this book as a series of vignettes whose collective impression sustains a novelistic momentum. I might just as easily argue that Lost Books is actually an exquisite book of poetry, meditations on the same theme—but I refuse to consign language this good to the care of poets only. Fiction should be this meticulously beautiful, too.
In the end, I don’t care how we classify The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Good, inspiring, lasting literature needs no more classification. I suppose I’m a bit biased by my attachment to the subject matter, but that just means Zachary Mason could have failed more easily than succeeded in his resurrection of The Odyssey. It is lucky for me that he succeeded.» - A Wolfe

«Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey would seemingly qualify as a "novel" only if we define the form in the barest possible terms: a lengthy composition in prose. Puporting to be a decoded translation of a series of "extra" episodes of The Odyssey (decoded because, according to the translator, who provides an introduction to the book that has now been made of them, they have existed as an encrypted manuscript the means of decrypting which has only recently been discovered), it bears no resemblance to the sort of unified narrative most readers expect to find in a novel. There is no plot other than the preexisting plot of the Odyssey, on which the "lost books" perform multiple variations. Similarly, while Odysseus is presumably the protagonist (if it isn't the "translator"), many different versions of Odysseus, assuming many different roles, are presented in the 46 episodes comprising The Lost Books. The stories are told from many different points of view, both first-person and third-person (one of the most affecting of the tales is told by the Cyclops, lamenting his blindness at the hands of Odysseus (and for whom he expresses great hatred)), and while one might read the tales simply as a collection of stories, this would rob them of the coherence they ultimately attain as a set of imaginative supplements to the Odyssey narrative - taken together, they form a kind of anti-Odyssey, an implicit commentary on the Homeric version of the story achieved by highlighting its elisions and sounding out its interstices.
Such a strategy does require some familiarity on the reader's part with the Odyssey itself, since the effects created by this sort of rewriting and rearranging to an extent do depend on our recognition that an episode from Homer's text has been recast - Odysseus returns to Ithaca to find his people "all astonishment and delight" and Penelope dead, Achilles abandons the Green encampment to do good works in the world, perhaps to spend "a year in contemplation in the shadow of a tree" - or a character or episode has been enhanced or freshly emphasized. While it is certainly possible that the reader only minimally acquainted with both The Iliad and The Odyssey would still find Mason's alternative versions diverting enough, the humor and the wit embodied in Mason's counter-narratives, as well as the cleverness of their construction, will surely strike the Odyssey-literate with more force and efficacy than those who know Homer's epic only in its barest outlines, if at all. By no means is The Lost Books of the Odyssey a book to be enjoyed only by classicists, but it helps to be a reader with an interest in literature, and The Odyssey's role in its history, that overshadows whatever interest most readers of novels profess to have in encountering "real life" in fiction.
Despite these potential obstacles to a broad audience for a book like The Lost Books of the Odyssey, it is, in my opinion, nevertheless a work of "experimental" fiction that many readers would find enjoyable if they were to give it a chance. Not only are many of the invented episodes entertaining in their own right, but gradually one comes to anticipate what new twist on the Odysseus story Mason will offer, in a way that is almost analogous to the pleasurable anticipation readers feel when looking forward to the next turn of plot in a conventional narrative. Equally rewarding is the opportunity to reflect further on the Homeric themes of war, honor, leadership, and sacrifice, which, if anything, are accentuated even more intensely (if at times ironically) through the liberties taken with the story of the Trojan War (e.g., the chapter narrated by Odysseus that begins, "I have often wondered whether all men are cowards like I am") and through the parallels that might be drawn between this re-told Odyssey and our own ongoing, ill-conceived war. The Borgesian frame provided by the translator's introduction and an appendix relating the history of the lost books contributes an additional tongue-in-cheek element that completes the novel's masquerade as a feat of "scholarship."
For me, the most successful works of experimental fiction always "entertain," even when they reject or subvert the usual devices conventionally considered the source of fiction's ability to entertain - the devices that create "compelling characters," dramatic narratives, "vivid" settings, etc. (Gilbert Sorrentino's novels provide a good example of this ability to entertain while dispensing with the standard accoutrements of entertainment.) In experimental fiction of the postmodern kind, this is frequently accomplished through comedy and satire. In the case of The Lost Books of the Odyssey it is achieved through what might simply be called ingenuity, along with a certain amount of chutzpah. This may or may not be an approach all readers can appreciate, but I found this novel a pleasure to read nevertheless, and I highly recommend it.» - Daniel Green

"Whenever the great classicist Arthur Way was asked about the perils of the undertaking, he’d always answer with the glimmer of a smile in his eyes: “Well, that’s the trouble with ‘writing Homer’ … Homer did it first, you see.”
He was making a point regarding the toughest act in the world to follow, and he knew what he was talking about: in 1945 he took on the task of translating into English Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomeric, a long and detailed epic telling of what happened between the death of Hector – with which the Iliad concludes – and the fall of Troy. Quintus Smyrnaeus’ book has been enjoyed by readers hungry for more Homer since it was written in the fourth century, but it’s a maddening book: the critical mind wants to believe it’s got some kind of sanction, that Quintus was working from material we no longer have. This material would be the so-called ‘Cyclic Poets’ who first chronicled this story in the wake of Homer: the Aethiopis and Iliupersis of Arctinus, the Little Iliad of Lesches, etc. But even to the untrained eye, Quintus seems to be making rather free with his sources… Arthur Way was not the first scholar to wonder if he wasn’t in main part just making stuff up.
To a classicist, the thought is heresy, which is why classicists have always been the killjoys of the intellectual world. In truth, Quintus – whoever he was – probably couldn’t help himself. Homer is the beginning, the great inexhaustible font for so much of Western literature that he’s attracted hopeful collaborators since the moment his works saw the light of day. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides all try their hand at adapting his elemental drama for their own more specific ends, and when classical learning returns to the West ten centuries later, fiddling around with Homer returns just as promptly, with Chaucer leading the effort in his Troilus and Creseyde, a full-out masterpiece that wouldn’t be nearly so effective if it weren’t standing on Homer’s shoulders, plying us with invention after invention whose cleverness works so well precisely because it’s playing off a text we all know already.
After Chaucer, the list is practically endless. Shakespeare takes up the story of Troilus and Cressida himself; a thriving anonymous poetry-cycle centers on the love between Achilles and Patroclus; every great translator, similarly, makes subtle alterations, little changes to let the reader know that they were here, that they made the works their own even while they were striving to disappear into them.
The 20th century ran rampant with ‘writing Homer.’ The Internet age may well see the great and final flowering of the novel as it had been known to all ages before, and so it’s perhaps fitting that the age so consistently looked back to the beginning of all secular, popularist entertainment, to Homer and his endless, endlessly transmuting matter. A long roster of writers went hunting in Homer for the themes that spoke to each in turn, and the result are books that couldn’t be much more different from Homer in their aims and executions – but which couldn’t exist at all without him.
Christopher Morley’s Trojans and Greeks talk like early 20th century enlisted men; there’s an Edwardian aura surrounding their pranks and slang. The century’s greatest writer of historical fiction, Mary Renault, chose to avoid working in Homer’s shadow (although she does mine the same approximate time period, the 6th century B.C., in her two novels starring Theseus), but such reluctance is on display nowhere else: the film The Private Life of Helen of Troy was adapted from a book that had already been a best-seller, and the book and movie spawned innumerable imitators that came and went out of print in the middle of the century. Science fiction writer Marion Zimmer Bradley followed up her groundbreakingly feminist retelling of the Arthurian cycle, The Mists of Avalon, with her version of the Siege of Troy as told from poor prophetic Cassandra’s point of view in The Firebrand, which sold enormously and introduced a whole new generation to Homer’s characters.
The waning years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st have seen a renaissance in this peculiar sub-genre, as more and more writers allowed themselves more and more liberties with the canon. Perhaps the most traditional of all these was Sarah Franklin’s Daughter of Troy, which imagined the story from the viewpoint of captured war-maiden Briseis and which positively bristles with wry humor and pointed insight. Elizabeth Cook’s slim novel Achilles burns away the fat of the story into raw bullet points of almost poetic precision, as in her version of the death of Hector:
Achilles takes his sword too. After the day’s slaughter the divine blade still flashes like the sun. There is all the time he could ever want. He looks Hector over, scanning the armour that fits him so well, searching for a place to insert his blade. Like a lover taking in every inch of his beloved as they lie in the hot sun. All the time he could want, no rush, no fear of missing.
There is one point where the armour does not close over Hector. The tender diamond hollow between the clavicles is naked. Achilles fits his sword’s tip here.
Slowly, evenly, the pressure mounting, he pushes.
In the world of music, Suzanne Vega, in her song Calypso, re-imagines Odysseus’ long stay with the eponymous nymph, who in Vega’s lyrics emerges as sympathetic – but still possessing the self-deluding stubbornness we find in Homer (where she’s summarily ordered by the gods to release her captive but still contrives to make it sound like her own decision):
My name is Calypso. I have let him go.
In the dawn he sails away, to be gone forevermore.
And the waves will take him in again, but he’ll know their ways now.
I will stand upon the shore with a clean heart and my song in the wind.
The sand may sting my feet, and the sky will burn.
It’s a lonely time ahead. I do not ask him to return.
I let him go. I let him go.
Barry Unsworth treats the material in his best book, The Songs of the Kings. Mark Merlis gives the whole story a gay-hustler makeover in The Arrow of Time. John Barton spawned an epic ten-hour stage version of the story in Tantalus. In black and white comics, Eric Shanower is bringing us the entire Homeric saga and every possible detour (and, in something of a narrative feat, entirely without the presence of the gods), in Age of Bronze. Perhaps most impressively, the last fifty years have seen the slow, incremental publication of Christopher Logue’s utterly unique – and utterly Homeric – War Music:
Odysseus and Calypso, by Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901)
‘There’s Bubblegum!’ ‘He’s out to make his name!’
‘He’s charging us!’ ‘He’s prancing!’ ‘Get that leap!’
THOCK! THOCK!
‘He’s in the air! ‘Bubblegum’s in the air!’ ‘Above the dust!’
‘He’s lying on the sunshine in the air!’ ‘Seeing the Wall!’ ‘The arrows to keep him up!’
THOCK! THOCK!
‘Ole!’ ‘He’s wiggling in the air!’ ‘They’re having fun with him!’
‘He’s saying something!’ ‘Bubblegum’s last words!’
‘He’s down!’ ‘He’s in the dust!’ ‘Bubblegum’s in the dust!’
‘They’re stripping him!’ ‘They’re stripping Bubblegum!’
‘Close!’
‘Close!’
‘You can’t see anything!’
‘His mother sold her doves to buy his plate!’
‘You can’t see who to kill!’
So it’s to a deep and varied tradition that Zachary Mason now adds his own voice, in his new novel (or else a piece of one), The Lost Books of the Odyssey.
The aforementioned Arthur Way once remarked that the two qualities necessary for ‘writing Homer’ are ‘an ear for words’ and ‘a touch of lunacy.’ The reader will observe from the little biography of Mason provided in the book that he’s quite likely to have both:
Zachary Mason was educated at Trinity College, the University of Michigan, and the Sorbonne. He is currently the John Shade Professor of Archeocryptography and Paleomathematics at Magdalen College, Oxford. He divides his time between Oxford and the Greek island of Ogygia. He lives with his cats, Talleyrand and Penthesilia.
Even the least wary reader will get the sense that our author has a, shall we say, playful relationship with what is commonly known as the truth, but a moment’s reflection shows this to be a perfect stance; Odysseus, in his many voyages home, is forever refashioning himself, as is the truth he claims to embody.
Mason’s book is one of unabashed lyricism, a manuscript broken up into 46 chapters and no straightforward narrative line. These are glimpses, varying in length but none very long, turning on various points of the Homeric myth-cycle (despite the title, the fragments cover a good deal more matter than just Homer’s Odyssey), generally combining to yield a picture of Odysseus and the various stages of his life. Mason’s command of English prose is soaringly intelligent, and his ability to evoke the strange and the wondrous is as hard and swift as a poet’s:
In lassitude after love Odysseus asks Circe, “What is the way to the land of the dead?”
Circe answers, “You are muffled in folds of heavy fabric. You close your eyes against the rough cloth and though you struggle to free yourself you can barely move. With much thrashing and writhing, you manage to throw off a layer, but find that not only is there another beyond it, but that the weight bearing you down has scarcely decreased. With dauntless spirit you continue to struggle. By infinitesimal degrees, the load becomes lighter and your confinement less. At last you push away a piece of coarse, heavy cloth and, relieved, feel that it was the last one. As it falls away, you realize you have been fighting through years. You open your eyes.”
This is the most beguiling strand of a generally beguiling book, this way Mason has of gorgeously dramatizing how alien the world-views are of the various supernatural beings who populate his story. Since this is the story of Odysseus, the book will necessarily have much of Athena in it, and Mason imparts to her a strangeness and a yearning all her own:
Water-logged, frozen, exhausted. Odysseus clung to a floating spar, dark waves surging over him. He could not help but think that this was happening to someone else, that someone, a stranger, was being consumed by the sea, was near drowning. His teeth had long since stopped chattering when a were-light appeared on the waters and his mind went from pain to dullness to clarity – Pallas Athena was with him. He said, Goddess, who are you, to find me and bear me up when I am lost in the waste? In the sudden stillness she said:
Water flowing through pipes, pouring into unlit reservoirs there to eddy in silence. Runes of ephemeral fire. A book of many pages written in inks that vanish and reappear. A twilight forest haunted by beasts, watchful and inquisitive. Steadfast of heroes. An onion, an ocean, a palimpsest, a staccato machine of oiled iron gears. These are among the metaphors with which I describe myself, like a hand trying to grasp itself by reaching into a mirror.
And not just Athena’s voice, but her relationship with Odysseus: Mason creates a kind of bond between the two, lopsided, awkward, and unprecedented in the dealings of gods and men. This can be tricky stuff to write – more than one adaptor of Homer has lingered over this particular relationship, to get it exactly right, as Mason obviously has:
She carried me through the war. Nestor said he had never seen a god so openly love a mortal and I suppose it is true. So much so, in fact, that my friendships with other men were strained – more than once I overheard someone call me uncanny and some of the Achaeans made the sign against the evil eye when I passed. But I did not care – their fear added to my mystique and made them pliable, easy to manipulate, and anyway I had her.
Like so many Homeric interpreters before him in the last century, Mason decides to inject his proceedings with many anachronistic modern notes and tones. Characters think and act with almost exclusively modern sensibilities – they speak of psychoanalysis, of China and India, of young girls’ ‘coming out’ in society, and the like. This adds a good deal of fun to The Lost Books of the Odyssey, as well as some nifty juxtapositions with freighted mythic iconography. In one fragment, Odysseus steals up on three mysterious women conversing in the dark. The reader will think of the Weird Sisters from Macbeth, perhaps – and will be drawn up short, delightedly so, by the entirely modern diction:
Ten years is ten years, no matter how you cut it,” said one, brandishing a cooking knife. “You can interpret all you want but the facts are inescapable.”
“Mere simple-minded literalism,” said another, using a ladle to stir a tarnished copper pot on a tripod all but swallowed by the flames. “If it said he was to be brave like an eagle, would you have him plucking mice out of fields and climbing a tall tree to sit on a nest of sticks and guard an egg? It is understood to be a guideline, an indication to be fleshed out as required by the details of the situation, and not an exact recipe…”
“It is exactly a recipe, only far more binding,” said the first in a voice like a fast, cold wind.
“…unless you’re a blockhead,” finished the second.
“Blockhead yourself, Miss I-shall-do-as-I-please-for-it-is-only-a-guideline,” said the first. “I beg your pardon most humbly, great Madame. I never meant to imply that one as august as yourself should be obliged to be bound by the iron chains of necessity.”
“Tut. There is some room to move within those chains, and I say he has suffered enough,” replied the second.
“He has not begun to suffer,” said the third, whom Odysseus now saw was the fairest and most terrible. “If he got home now he would be unmarked. His suffering, as you are pleased to call it, would be the stuff of tales to enliven the winter of his old age, stories for his grandchildren. Fie on you. We will draw him thin and fine.”
The book is full of such marvelous stuff, and weighed against it in the balance is one thing, but it’s a big thing: conceit. Not the ‘is my hair just perfect-does my butt look big in this?’ kind of conceit, but rather the hoary old gremlin so well known to undergraduate English majors: the organizing trick, the gimmick by which the author feels compelled to tell his story. Countless promising novels have been fatally marred by their author’s weakness for conceit, and The Lost Books of the Odyssey very nearly shares their fate. Conceits are just that deadly.
Mason’s conceit in The Lost Books of the Odyssey is both unoriginal and incredibly distracting, a potentially lethal combination. The unoriginal part can be guessed from that author bio: he poses his book as the genuine article, an actual fragment of the lost post-homerica that perhaps lay open on Quintus of Smyrnaea’s desk while he was working seventeen centuries ago. These Lost Books disgorge their mysteries only when plied with cutting-edge cryptographic algorithms, but aside from the mathematical mumbo-jumbo, the device isn’t at all different from the one countless Sherlock Holmes pastiche-writers have been using for a century: this is Doctor Watson’s battered tin dispatch box, only with algebra.
Which would be bad enough and could be safely confined to the introduction and the historical appendix, if it weren’t for the second part, the distracting part, because, alas, Mason keeps picking at his conceit, ill-advisedly proud of the gimmick he’s created. The whole ‘I’m-just-transmitting-what-the-cryptology-tells-me’ gambit is a blank check for him to indulge in any little fixation he wants, such as the disastrously out of place chapter on modern-day chess, which necessitates this excruciating footnote:
This chapter is clearly a late addition to The Lost Books. The language is credible Homeric Greek, but the contents are, at the earliest, late Renaissance and the tone is more scholarly than narrative. The text of this chapter is the most corrupt of any in The Lost Books. There are long sequences of uninterpretible triplets that are, most probably, due to errors in encoding. I have therefore been obliged to use greater license in this chapter’s translation.
And lest the reader think this amount of hyperventilating (instead of merely excising the goddamn chess-digression, for Pete’s sake) is as bad as these distractions get, sample this little elucidation:
Mathematically, the structure of this chapter is this: the nth section encapsulates the telling of the n+1th section, is encapsulated by the n-1th, is a continuation of the n+2th, where all section numbers are computed modulo the total number of sections. Since the number of sections is odd, each section ends up containing, contained by, continuing, and continued by every other section.
Got that? Everybody still enjoying themselves?
That such gallimaufry might be intended by its author as tongue-in-cheek cannot possibly matter: the act of so regularly drawing attention to the scaffolding of the story only weakens the spell of the thing overall. Not simply dumping this burden of exegesis is the telltale mistake of a first-time novelist (or, ever so much worse, it’s a conscious gesture toward some species of dippy poststructuralism). Talleyrand and Penthisilia might have known better.
Still, amazingly, it does not scupper the book, and for that miraculous fact Mason has only his own linguistic virtuosity to thank. His writing is so spellbinding, so fluid and suggestive, that any irritation the reader may have felt at his gimmickry is washed away time and again by the sheer symphony of his invention. When it’s not tediously explaining itself, this is very much a book to get lost in – much as Odysseus is lost, going from one possible mythic future to another as the story-fragments spin forward:
Perhaps he went through each scene of his life and held it fixed in his mind’s eye until it disappeared. Eventually even his most vivid memories (the first time he touched Penelope’s skin, falling overboard and gasping just as a wave broke over his face) would fade to burnt-out after-image. Then, perhaps, he contaminated and diluted the remaining fragments of memory, rearranging them in every possible permutation: Penelope as a vapid giggler with apple green eyes, Penelope as a heavy immovable woman whose chief pleasure is resentment, Penelope as a young wanton who in middle age cherishes respectability above all things. Eventually, memory is subsumed in white noise.
Even this, though, would be not quite enough. There must have been some final discipline that destroyed the last vestiges of self, but, whatever it was, it was so thorough that I lack the capacity even to imagine it.
With relief, I open the stove and feed the book to the flames. It is the last link to who I was, and there is just enough of me left to realize it. The book writhes, blackens and disappears. Now every debt is paid, every sin is erased and I can begin anew, I who was once Odysseus and now am no one.
Passages like that fill this gem of a book and recommend it easily over the cacophony of the calculus involved.» - Steve Donoghue

"In fact," writes Zachary Mason, as if anyone could doubt him, "there have been innumerable Trojan wars." And how could he be wrong? What era has been free of stupid wars that threaten not to end, or of the stupid, stubborn kings who start them? (So much staked for handsome Helen? Come on, there must have been oil under Troy!) Little comfort to the Trojans, or to those outside the Green Zone, but wars do end eventually. Heroes and villains, should they survive, sail home. Some make it. Some don't. And some, even once home, never quite return. "And if you find her poor," quipped Constantine Cavafy, cruelly, "Ithaca has not defrauded you."
Wars. Journeys. Monsters. Storms. An angry god. A visit with the dead. A faithful or unfaithful spouse. A destination that recedes, apparently infinitely, the closer you get. The Odyssey provides fodder for a story or two, some high-minded metaphoric play, a nest of cliches if things go awry. "Inevitably," Mason continues, "each particular war is a distortion of its antecedent, an image in a warped hall of mirrors." So Virgil reads Homer, pilfers what he can and lets Aeneas, a Trojan, found Rome. Ovid picks up Homer's pen and hands it to Penelope. (The first of his Heroides is a letter from Odysseus/Ulysses' wife to her tardy mate: "You were careful, I'm sure, to always think first of me.") Lucian sends Ulysses to the moon. Dante grants him a glimpse of purgatory, then drops him in hell.
Eventually, Homer - and Odysseus - would become something like a beginning, the myth at the origin of the West's many myths. "I am become a name," Tennyson wrote of the questing hero, whose archetype he helped cement. James Joyce, from what I understand, also got involved.
Joyce casts a long shadow, but Odysseus' wanderings did not stop with Ulysses. He left a trail of salt and sand across Ezra Pound's Cantos. Louis Aragon abducted Odysseus' son, tender Telemachus, subjecting him to a novella of Dada high jinks. Unfazed, Odysseus climbed in bed with the poet Cavafy, with Nikos Kazantzakis, with Robert Graves. Derek Walcott reimagined him in the Caribbean. Pop has not neglected him: See the Coen brothers, Sting, "The Simpsons."» - Ben Ehrenreich

"The hero of Homer’s Odyssey is a modern man in ancient times, an eloquent outfoxer whose life is one long, furious act of self-invention. The embodiment of metis, or “cunning intelligence,” Odysseus adopts false identities fluidly and fully, invites a god’s wrath rather than let an act of cleverness go unknown, risks death to hear the ruinous songs of the Sirens because he cannot bear to let the opportunity pass.
The story of his 10-year journey home employs a narrative structure as complex as its protagonist and has inspired versions by writers as disparate as James Joyce, Margaret Atwood, and Joel and Ethan Coen. Now, into the tradition steps Zachary Mason with The Lost Books of the Odyssey.
Mason’s conceit, explained in a brief preface, is that his novel is a translation of a pre-Homeric papyrus comprising “44 concise variations on Odysseus’ story that omit stock epic formulae in favor of honing a single trope or image down to an extreme of clarity.”
It is true that more has been written and lost about the exploits of Odysseus than has been preserved, and Mason is on to something in suggesting that the Homeric version makes canonical what was once “formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck.” The Lost Books of the Odyssey, though, would more plausibly have been excavated from the files of Jorge Luis Borges or the early drafts of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities than from Mason’s proposed “rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus.”
The first “lost” book, “A Sad Revelation,” begins at one of the story’s pivotal junctures, the hero’s return to Ithaca. In the Homeric version, Odysseus’ house is overrun by suitors demanding that his wife choose a new king from among them, and the hero approaches cautiously, full of strategy and subterfuge.
Here, he picks up his sword, walks home and finds a man, “soft, gray and heavy,” dozing before a fire. Penelope has followed convention and remarried. It is the least dramatic of all possible returns, and Mason captures the horror of this banal defeat. Odysseus reflects on the countless tableaus he has imagined in place of this one — a kind of Odysseus-as-Mason moment — then realizes that “what he sees before him is a vengeful illusion, the deception of some malevolent god.” He flees gleefully, a vista of endless possibility opening before hero and reader both.
In “Guest Friend,” the ruse by which Odysseus dodges assassination is less interesting than the Borgesian construct at the story’s heart: “that each man lives out his life as a character in a story told by someone else.” Silence is a mercy, granting quiet death to a distant stranger, and the mysteries of life might unravel if one could find one’s teller.
“Agamemnon and the Word” is similarly cerebral; the leader of the Greek army commands his wisest counselors to write a book explaining the world. Over several lifetimes, the king insists on ever greater brevity, until at last he predictably orders a single word, which Odysseus delivers.
The power of language and the magic of storytelling are never far from Mason’s mind. He delights particularly, and perhaps excessively, in inventing creation stories about the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” In one chapter, they are scripts written by the gods and double as symbols of war’s folly: “There have been innumerable Trojan wars... each representing a fresh attempt at bringing the terror of battle into line with the lucidity of the authorial intent.” In another, the books are chess manuals taken to an extreme of abstraction.
A pair of rather listless tales credit Odys­seus himself. In “Fragment,” he is a habitual sower of lies, one of which is set down as the “Odyssey,” and in “The Iliad of Odysseus,” a cowardly and cruel iteration of the protagonist — Odysseus as the Trojans of Virgil’s “Aeneid” saw him — becomes a bard and distorts his minor misdeeds into heroic fare.
Mason’s prose is finely wrought, but his chapters sometimes read like intellectual exercises masquerading as stories. It is when the emphasis shifts to exploring character and theme, and The Lost Books of the Odyssey engages more substantively with its source material, that the novel achieves real emotional resonance. In the haunting “Epiphany,” Poseidon’s wrath becomes a cover story for Odysseus’ troubles. In truth, the affection of Odysseus’ protectress, the goddess Athena, has reached its logical conclusion: she offers herself to him, with immortality thrown into the bargain.
Odysseus, feeling like “a child watching his father, incorruptible and immovable, beyond all weak human passion, dissolve into tears,” rejects her and is forsaken: “I do not think she persecuted me — that would be beneath her — but I have felt her absence. . . . And I was reckless, after she left me, and I paid.”
The final chapter, “Last Islands,” is another success. An aged and restless Odysseus, not unlike the protagonist of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” decides to retrace his path to Troy. The sites of his former glory are diminished, overgrown, and he accepts it with equanimity. Troy has become a tourist attraction, replete with actors costumed as heroes. There Odysseus finds peace, mediated by Athena and an ambiguous blend of feebleness and self-deception.
Mason’s episodes are scattershot, as unearthed fragments tend to be, and yet there is a pleasingly programmatic under­current to the variations he plays, as if he has devised an algorithm to chart the infinite arrangements of his narrative elements, then selected a few to render. His approach embraces all of Greek mythology, and the nuance and ingenuity of his riffs and remixes confirm his command of the material. He speaks as Achilles, the Cyclops Polyphemus and the loyal swineherd Eumaios; recasts the story of Persephone and Hades with Helen and Paris in the lead roles; makes Theseus a time-traveler; sends Achilles on a mission to conquer a decidedly un-Greek heaven.
Mason’s repertory of Odysseuses is extensive — they are comic, dead, doubled, ghosts, amnesiacs — but when the need arises, he provides an exquisite Homeric version, dripping with metis. “I will make your friend there as alive as you are,” the hero, referring to a dead Patroclus, assures a “clay simulacrum” of Achilles in “The Myrmidon Golem,” a mash-up of Greek mythology and Jewish folklore. Then, true to his word, he kills the golem. An equally wily, voice-throwing Odysseus fools the Fates into giving him better than he deserves in “One Kindness.” Such moments center the reader, fortify his reserves for the journeys to come.
Some are rocky indeed. At times, Mason’s conceits go nowhere, and don’t get there fast enough. The results are chapters missing the sense of purpose and play that animate the book’s best efforts, chapters shrugged off the moment they end. The Lost Books of the Odyssey calls itself a novel, but Mason’s approach is decidedly that of a short story writer, and he often hangs everything on a chapter’s final lines — searing it closed with flashy twists more clever than satisfying, or cinching it together with tidy bows.
Even when he falters, though, Mason’s imagination soars and his language delights. He is a writer much like his protagonist: prone to crash landings, but resourceful and eloquent enough to find his way home." - Adam Mansbach

"Physically and in its narrative structure, Zachary Mason’s first novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, reminds me very much of Einstein’s Dreams. Even the authors come from similar environments, Alan Lightman being a physics professor at MIT and Mason an AI computer scientist who once taught at Oxford. Both books are short, with Lightman’s at 192 pages and Mason’s at 228. And both are comprised of a series of brief chapters, dreams, or reimaginings.
In the preface, Mason lays out his framework: These pages consist of 44 papyrus variations on Odysseus’ story—the source material, if you will, for Homer’s epic poem. These 44 chapters then, are the “lost books.”
Who is Odysseus? Warrior, sailor, wanderer, canny politician? And by extension, who are we? Are we merely characters in a story as told by someone else? Or are we the inventors of our own lives? Mason asks these questions in various creative ways, including a “Fragment,” all that survives, of the 45th book. Odysseus molded his own reputation, taking what preceded him and fashioning it to his own will. One of his “lies” became Homer’s Odyssey.
In “A Sad Revelation,” after having been gone 20 years Odysseus returns to Ithaca to find his wife, Penelope, remarried—to an old man. Realizing that Penelope herself is much older, he blanches at the thought that he is as well. Refusing to accept this, he flees, feeling that the gods are playing tricks. Homer’s version, on the other hand, has Penelope surrounded by suitors looking to displace Odysseus as Ithaca’s king.
In The Other Assassin Agamemnon, distrustful of the acclaim that Odysseus has garnered, signs his death warrant. Ironically, the man assigned to carry out the task—no one has looked at the name of the condemned person on the document—is Odysseus himself. He reports to the court that the assassination of Odysseus has been carried out. He also reports that Odysseus, before his death, swore to slay the man who ordered his execution.
These first two “lost books” are narrated in the third person, but “The Stranger,” the third, switches to first person. Or first double-person: Odysseus, on the shores of Troy, is visited by an alternate version of himself, who tells him
What now?… I see that my life is occupied. I made no plans for this. I cannot imagine a plan. In effect, I am exiled from my life. I wish I had not come.
This is some self-pity on Odysseus’ part. But is it self-pity if the self doing the pitying is your alternate self? His other self takes leave, and Odysseus doesn’t meet him again until his return to Ithaca. The man sits on his throne with his Queen, Penelope, and tells the returning Odysseus that “of the two of us I think that you, freed from necessity, are the happier.” Such are some of the dizzying reimaginings of Mason’s book. Mason gives us several stories of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca—each one different from the last, and most in Odysseus’ own words. There are a few stories told by other players (Achilles’ “Victory Lament” for example), but the authorial voice and Odysseus’ point of view are most prominent.
“The Fugitive” is an extraordinary commentary not only on free will, but on history itself. In it, Odysseus finds a book called The Iliad which tells the story of “his” war. He reads that the book was written by the gods before the wars, and is not history at all but “divine archetypes.”
… there have been innumerable Trojan wars, each played out according to an evolving aesthetic, each representing a fresh attempt at bringing the terror of battle into line with the lucidity of the authorial intent. Inevitably, each particular war is a distortion of its antecedent, an image in a warped hall of mirrors.
Following this is a sly aside to the effect that sometimes, and by mistake, both The Iliad and The Odyssey have fallen into the hands of some of the players—Agamemnon, Achilles, Priam. It made no difference in their actions, it seems.
“Helen’s Image” is one of the more imaginative retellings. Like many, it turns what we know from Homer on its head. Here, Helen escapes Agamemnon with Odysseus, and Paris absconds with Penelope, all the while thinking she is Helen.
“The Book Of Winter” takes on the temperature and feel of its title. It’s lyrically told by Odysseus, who finds himself in a cabin in the woods, surrounded by
the susurrus of falling snow, the tracks of deer and hare encircling the house, the black rooks landing heavily on laden branches and sending down white showers.He’s not unhappy and “despite the monotony” is “never bored.” But who has built this place and stocked it with food? Who is he, in fact, as he doesn’t even know his own name? He has the slash on his thigh that all versions of Odysseus have, so at least we know. Searching the cabin yet again, he finds a book behind the wood pile and reads it straight through—it’s the story of Odysseus—but doesn’t recognize himself, wondering “what the book was meant to tell” him. He finds it full of allegorical possibilities, and even entertains the idea that the story could in some small way be his own. But is he the cyclops? Telemachus? Penelope? He rereads the book and is shocked at the revelation that he is in fact, Odysseus. Or, more accurately, that he has ceased to be Odysseus in order to escape the wrath of Poseidon. By forgetting himself, he has ceased to be himself. The logical conclusion is to do away with the final traces of identity.
With relief, I open the stove and feed the book to the flames. It is the last link to who I was, and there is just enough left to see it. The book blackens, writhes and disappears. Now every debt is paid, every sin erased and I can begin anew. I who was once Odysseus and now am no one.
This is a book that I’ve grown to appreciate more upon reflection—and that’s rarely the case for me. Take “Record of a Game,” for example, which I glossed over at first. Revisited, the chapter gives the reader a brief history of the nature of the game of chess and descriptions of the pieces, and here Mason yields up yet another parable for the origin of Homer’s books. The game of chess originated in India and migrated to Achaean society. By the eighth century B.C., a certain game primer had taken on essentially literary characteristics.
This book came to be known as The Iliad and contained what appeared to be meaningless lists of names which bore a striking resemblance to Book Two of Homer’s classic and its Catalog of Ships (which “can be usefully read as a treatise on positional play in the opening [of a chess game]”). Another manual of Achaean chess, called The Odyssey (“most likely apocryphal”), is the record of “a long and bitter endgame.”
It has been speculated that the Odyssey is a sort of fantastic parody of a chess book, a treatise on the tactics to be used after the game has ended and the board been abandoned by the players, the pieces left finally to their own devices and to entropy . One of the few surviving pieces is Odysseus, inching across the crumbling board toward the home square.
And here’s Odysseus, abandoned by his god:
I often wondered what had happened to Pallas Athena. Her absence grieved me and I was no longer sure I had not imagined her. It is unlikely she was an illusion, I told myself. Most of the details of my travels have become vague but I will never forget the clarity of mind she brought me, like a lucid, sunlit dream.Mason gives us several alternate looks at the cast peopling Homer’s books. What he doesn’t do, though, is tinker with the great themes: predestination or free will, the nature of identity and sense of self. And he updates the epic stories with some new concerns for our age, the nature of art and of history-telling. The Lost Books of the Odyssey was originally published by a small press, Starcherone Books, in a very limited edition. At the time, the author commissioned the horse at right to accompany mailings to major literary reviewers. How’s that for creativity?
As for the future, Mason may retell Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and could well move into Richard Powers territory with a planned book on artificial intelligence as pomo-lit. I look forward to more from him." - Charlie Wendell

" 'I have never been at a loss for a tale, lie, or synonym,' says the hero of Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey, who shares this much at least with Homer's Odysseus.
Mason's Odysseus shares many of the same adventures, as well. He battles with the Greeks at Troy, endures a long journey home in which he meets "the cannibal Cyclops, the lotus eaters, the sirens, Circe, and inexorable Scylla," and in the end he's reunited with his wife, Penelope.
But in Mason's inventive first novel, it may be that Odysseus is married to Helen instead, or returns to find that Penelope hasn't waited faithfully, or has killed herself on the prophecy that Odysseus would never return.
"No man will return to you, but not for a long while," she's told at Delphi, right after Odysseus, captive in the cave of the Cyclops, has given his name as No Man.
It doesn't matter if you've read The Odyssey 30 years ago or never. The familiar story points are all highlighted here, or are filled in by Mason over the course of the narrative. And part of the fun is losing track of what is authentic Odyssey, and what he's making up, in the footnotes especially.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey is a collection of separate stories, single episodes, variations on elements of the classical epic, which, we're reminded, was itself an assembly of scattered fables and bardic variations.
In Book 18, "The Iliad of Odysseus," in which Troy overruns and slaughters the Greeks, Odysseus flees to become a wandering bard: "I took to telling the story of Odysseus of the Greeks, cleverest of men, whose ruses had been the death of so many. ... It was when I was a guest in Tyre that I first heard another bard singing one of my songs and it occurred to me that I had in my hands the means of making myself an epic hero."
Mason's brief bio says he is a computer scientist specializing in artificial intelligence, and he follows in the small-chapters tradition of such ingenious scientist-first novelists as Alan Lightman in Einstein's Dreams (medicine, physics) and Alessandro Boffa in You're an Animal, Viskovitz (biology). Like any novel without a running narrative, Mason's book has its strong and its not-so-strong chapters, its disappointing third quarter. But it is often wondrous, illuminating, and so expertly told it brings you back to the spell of the original.
In one breathtaking chapter, Death, going by the name of Paris, steals Helen, and an enraged Menelaus insists the Greeks follow after.
"Soon the dark hulls ground on the sands of Ilium, Death's country... The sand crackled underfoot – Odysseus scooped up a handful and saw that it was made up of ground bone, tiny fragments of tooth, skull and vertebrae... The augurs stared forlornly at the birdless sky."
The Lost Books of the Odyssey is an impressive fictional debut, and Zachary Mason is definitely a writer to watch." - David Walton

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