Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2010, 228 pages, hardcover, $24
zachary mason’s the Lost Books of the Odyssey—forty-four short stories set in the interstices of the poem—is hardly the first attempt to rework Homer’s epic. The Odyssey quickly became the template for The Aeneid, and Tennyson, Joyce, and the Coen brothers have all tried their famous hands at the tale. Like his forebears, Mason repurposes in the style of his time: dashes of postmodernism, barely the length of a commercial break.
The idea of missing chapters has a scholarly basis: classicists argue that Homer had a whole bag of Odyssean tropes from which he mixed and matched while orating, relying on the familiarity of the episode of the Cyclops or the Isle of Circe to buy him time while he plotted his next move. The Odyssey as we know it, then, is not the complete narrative, merely the riffs that were written down.
Into this murkiness wades Mason. He is a capacious mimic, working successfully, if rather emptily, with numerous styles and forms. There is standard what-if-ism (what if Odysseus had actually married Nausicaa and started life anew with the Phaeacians?); historical deconstructionism (Odysseus the character was an invention of Odysseus the bard, who concocted the tales to eclipse his cowardice in battle); revisionism (Achilles and Patroclus were gay); Borgesian nonsense (Agamemnon demands that Odysseus bring him all the knowledge of the world in one word); and so on. But most of these have the false glow of the writing exercise. One can imagine the prompt: Describe what goes through Odysseus’s mind as he floats by the sirens. Now use first person!
Occasionally this cleverness recedes and new currents surface from beneath old characters. Achilles, in particular, benefits from Mason’s handling: here he is portrayed less as a hubristic half-god than a reckless innocent unaware of his own strength. In “The Myrmidon Golem,” the best chapter of the book, Achilles is a statue brought to life, and grows to love Patroclus just in time to watch his cousin perish. “Some understanding of death must have seeped into his thick clay skull,” Mason writes of Achilles’s legendary revenge, “because without warning he snatched up a spear, ran a half mile toward the thick of the fighting and threw himself in headlong.” There has perhaps never been as potent a symbol of Achilles than that of a violent statue, and Mason accomplishes the impressive feat of presenting a bloody battle and making us care for the man doing the killing.
This complexity is hinted at formally throughout the book but rarely accomplished thematically. Mason has moments of insight—he writes at one point of “men who come to war reluctantly only to discover they have the souls of jackals”—but these are subsumed beneath their conceits. Odysseus, of course, was the master of conceit, but he told his tales out of necessity—not, as in The Lost Books of the Odyssey, sheerly for the dazzle of them.