The Lost Books of the Odyssey:
by zachary mason
farrar, straus & giroux
240 pages, $24
What if, after ten years of twists and turns on that familiar, wine-dark sea, Odysseus returns to Ithaca and finds Penelope married, and to a man so unlike himself—a man who never has been, and never will be, a hero?
That is the opening scene of Zachary Mason’s beguiling debut novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a compendium of forty-four short, self-contained stories based on Homer’s Odyssey (and a few other books, including the Iliad). Here, Polyphemus meditates on his blindness like a philosopher, Telemachus is albino and called “Pale,” Achilles is fascinated by other men’s wounds, a clay golem is fashioned of that same warrior after his death, and Odysseus declines Athena’s marriage proposal with a laugh. In one of the more contrived stories, Mason entertains the Odyssey as “a fantastic parody” of an Achaean treatise on chess in which Odysseus is “inching across the crumbling board toward his home square.”
Truly, one of Homer’s epithets for Odysseus—polytropos, literally “of many turns”—can be pinned to Mason’s retellings. That adjective also modifies the long literary afterlife of the Odyssey itself, which has become, among other iterations, Ulysses in James Joyce’s hands, Omeros in Derek Walcott’s, and even O Brother, Where Art Thou? in the Coen brothers’. Mason’s version ranks as one of the most mercurial and brooding.
Taking apart and refashioning a classic is a hubristic way to start one’s writing career, but, at his best, Mason, by day a computer scientist in Silicon Valley, shows an imagination similar to those of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. (The lost book Mason’s Polyphemus tells reads as a close echo of Borges’ “The House of Asterion,” told by another humanized monster, the Minotaur.) At his worst, Mason seems like a prideful imitation of the Argentine master, absorbed and lost in the labyrinth of his own making.
In the preface of his book, Mason briefly nods to Homer’s original, then says,
Echoes of other Odysseys survive in Hellenistic friezes, on Cycladic funerary urns, and in a pre-Ptolemaic papyrus excavated from the desiccated rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus; this last contains forty-four concise variations on Odysseus’ story. I hope that this translation reflects the haunted light of Homer’s older islands, where the familiar characters are arranged in new tableaux, but soon become restless, mercurial, forget their names, move on.
He’s pretending he is not making anything new, but translating books from Oxyrhynchus, a site where many valuable papyri have been found, including the plays of Menander, fragments of Sappho and Alcaeus, and the Gospel of Thomas.
While Mason’s premise might be alluring and clever, it contains the central problem of his novel: an infatuation with conceit. This kind of conceit is not elegant or quiet—as Odysseus, architect of that sly wooden horse, would have it—but frequently obvious and distracting. To its credit, Farrar, Straus & Giroux excised some of the more pronounced manifestations of that conceit—a mock-scholarly introduction, a historical appendix, two of the lost books, and several footnotes—when they edited the manuscript as it first appeared, in 2008, soon after it won the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. One of the removed footnotes involves pesky figures such as “n” and “n+1” that try to chart a chapter’s organization.
Some remaining footnotes appear haughty. Does a reader really need to be reminded that Hermes is “Lord of snakes and god of ghosts” and “the psychopompos, the god who conducted newly dead souls to the underworld”? Or that Paris is “Helen’s husband and kidnapper, the instigator of the Trojan War”?
As these are familiar characters, is Mason suggesting our memory is weak? Is this small insult to our intelligence part of his grander plan to explore the mechanics of memory? Or is this Mason’s way of telling us something we already know (and remember solidly) so that we might sooner believe his new fictions? Whatever he intends, Mason keeps us guessing. Even in the footnotes, we remain—like the lost books as a whole and like Mason’s aching Odysseus—suspended in medias res, in a twilight inhabited by both men and gods. Or, as Mason aptly describes it, in the “grey middle ground between dream and waking.”
The forty-four tales themselves finish quickly. Characters come and go, as do near epiphanies and settings: a cottage, a garden, a house surrounded by frost-furred wolves, Circe’s bed, a “disc of ocean,” clouds. The thread keeping all these shifting shapes and places together is loss, which runs through Homer’s Odyssey as well. Many of the stories in Mason’s retelling are preoccupied with homecoming and Odysseus’ memory of Penelope. Mason reimagines the Sirens’ singing to Odysseus as the singing of that hero’s very Song of Songs: Its crescendo contains his past and future, shown in flashes, and then nearly discloses the ultimate riddle of his wanderings. When Odysseus uncovers a copy of the Odyssey, the book gives him little clarity as to who he is beyond the letters of his name. His identity, which would be revealed in the Odyssey, is as much a mystery to him as the famous long, white scar on his leg. He wishes to “cease to be Odysseus” and so burns out his every memory by confusing them (that is, he reasons, what Homer’s Odysseus would do; it is also what Mason does) and then, “with relief,” burns the book to ash.
Who is this Odysseus? It seems that this polytropic man is, at least in part, a second self for Mason, a man who produces lies, fiction. In a way Mason is also like Penelope, who in Homer’s text is pictured often at the threshold of dreams, or working at her loom with the same threads as yesterday but tying and untying them, putting them in new arrangements. Distinctions between characters dissolve as well, even as many of the images Mason crafts—a castle carved down into sand, the milk-white head of killed Scylla floating on the sea—are exquisitely concrete.
Mason makes Polyphemus similar to Poseidon by having the Cyclops state he, not his father, is the true architect of Odysseus’ trouble. Mason also makes Polyphemus similar to Odysseus: He stresses that each of the two has his own prison and his own island and is a storyteller.
The portraits Mason renders of these characters are not as much of them as they are of loss—and of the strange state of remembering some things while forgetting others that makes loss even exist. It is perhaps noteworthy that Mason chose not to reread the Odyssey while writing his book; he worked only from what he remembered. In a way, Mason resembles the contemporary German artist Gerhard Richter, who often works by transferring a photograph onto a canvas with the help of a light projector and then paints that photograph’s image while blurring, smudging, or streaking it softly with a towel or brush. The features that made the photograph unique are softened and blurred into something nearly abstract. And still, as in the Lost Books of the Odyssey, the result is strangely, memorably beautiful.
Katherine Eastland is an assistant editor at the Weekly Standard and an illustrator. Her art can be viewed at keastland.com.