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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Zachary Mason's "The Lost Books of the Odyssey"

The Lost Books of the Odyssey (Starcherone Books), by Zachary Mason, is a wonderful novel. In a manner similar to Miroslav Pavic in his contemporary classic A Dictionary of the Khazars, Mason's novel posits that a group of bards produced twenty-four vignettes, fragments, and so on that focus on Odysseus and his adventures. Some of these are simply alternatives, others are add-ons, and some are direct contradictions to the 'original' story. According to Mason's "Introduction," the lost books — which, ironically, are "regarded as fraudulent" (xii), by contemporary scholars — were written in such a dense, seemingly impenetrable code that it was impossible to understand them until the arrival of the methods and technology of modern mathematics and computer science.The point of each vignette or fragment "is less to advance a plot than to take one image or theme and, paring away all that is inessential, present it with the greatest possible concision and clarity." In practice, what this means is that eleven different themes appear and reappear, explicitly named in the subtitles of every chapter: Time, Memory, Desire, Revenge, The Gods, The Dead, Departures, Returns, Words, Deception, and Doubles.

For instance, the unforgettable first vignette is entitled "The Other Assassin" and the themes, which appear in italics right below the title, are "Doubles, Revenge." It relates the story of Agamemnon, who after having returned from the Trojan War for about ten years, decides that Odysseus is too clever and orders him assassinated. Due to the labyrinthine bureaucracy in his kingdom, the final person to assign the task noted only that a person of stature was to be killed, and reasoned that the clever and wise Odysseus would be best to do the job. In a chillingly military manner, Odysseus carries out the assassination not of himself, but of Agamemnon.

At this point, those who know The Odyssey may be a little confused. In that book, as soon as Agamemnon sets foot on his home island after the Trojan Wars, he is killed by his wife's lover. After Odysseus regains his home from Penelope's suitors, it is suggested that he lived to a ripe old age. The Lost Books of The Odyssey doesn't only add events that do not appear in the original, it completely distorts and contradicts the original.

In addition, there is no coherence among the books. For instance, at least four different origins for the book The Odyssey, by Homer, are proposed. One is that Odysseus began making up lies about his exploits that would "make it easier for him to work as he was wont" (61), and one of these stories became The Odyssey. A second explanation is that Odysseus, who was disguising himself as a wandering bard after the battle, made up stories about his glory in the battle. He was shocked to learn that people bought the one about the 20-foot horse. The third possibility takes place during a strange place and time where Odysseus, who has forgotten his name, is living alone with food and firewood but little clothes in a shack in a place where it is always winter. He finds The Odyssey behind a firewood bin. Finally, in the appendix we learn that the "origin" of the book was, essentially, working out various thematic combinations and recombinations.

There are many other wonders in this book: the fox who turns out to be the famous beauty Helen; Odysseus suddenly finding out that he has an exact double who makes it back to Ithaca to "reclaim" Penelope before he does and that Penelope accepts the legitimacy of the double, leaving him bereft; a chapter written from the Cyclops' perspective; Oysseus planning and executing a way to pull Scylla out of her cliff top cave to be slain; Homer himself wondering, "If I can't put it into words, is it real?"; and so on.

Mason's style is clean and concise. He uses long and complex sentences sparingly. What follows are a typical few sentences: "Odysseus roamed wild through the low hills of Ithaca. He swam like an otter through the rough surf and riptides, and knew every cave, thicket and droning, butterfly-haunted field. He hunted birds in the wood, laying in wait for hours till the silence seem to fill him (but never a perfect silence — there was always something that was not quite a noise, right at the edge of hearing)." What is of interest here is how Mason doesn't allow this quotation to be simply clichéd epic description: instead the details of the "butterfly-haunted field" and the sound "right at the edge of hearing" turn what could have been pedestrian into an evocative description with texture and semantic reach.

This is a tremendous first novel. It raises profound questions about time, fate, identity, epistemology and metaphysics. Is it perfect? No. I wish that there had been more continuity between the isolated fragments and vignettes. I tried hard, but can find no reason why the vignette that appears last couldn't be placed first. While I don't expect this book to use a standard plot line, it could have interlaced the themes through the books. But this is quibbling. I love this book.

Jefferson Hansen

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a very interesting novel. I'll have to check it out. There seems to be a resurgence in interest in the classics that seem to be producing some pretty interesting works, like this one. Sounds like he's doing with Homer what Stoppard did with Shakespeare.