Odysseus suffers—if that’s the word for it—from a perpetual fascination with his own cleverness, and The Odyssey thoroughly documents its hero’s indulgence in this fascination: Odysseus constantly dares, playing with whomever he meets; not gambolling, but gambling, and often with others’ lives at stake.
Zachary Mason demonstrates his own affinity for cleverness by playing with Odysseus’ life in The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel. He even greets us with the sort of unnecessary deception that Odysseus might use: by way of the Preface, Mason’s narrator states that he is the translator of the text that follows, which is derived from “a pre-Ptolemaic papyrus.” This fictional author within a fictional author becomes Mr. Mason’s frame for his forty-four stories, all from, or relating back to, Odysseus’ life as depicted in the Illiad, the Odyssey, and even the Aeneid. “The Other Assassin” posits a world in which, through some quirk of the baroque bureaucracy of Agamemnon’s court, an order to assassinate Odysseus is given to Odysseus to carry out. “Sanatorium” presents the story of Mr. O, plagued by images from a long and terrible war: “Later he was told that these were images from famous songs … [n]evertheless, he was sure he had been in the war.” Attending to Mr. O are Dr. Sylvia and Dr. Karidis. In another story, Odysseus returns home, “trembling with wrath,” to find Penelope, waiting for him, but as a mocking shade.
Mason’s inventiveness has already earned him comparisons to Borges and Calvino from reviewers at The New York Times, and while there are some compelling ideas at the foundation of Mason’s stories, the writing itself often lacks subtlety. There’s something of Borges in the plot of “The Stranger,” wherein a Trojan enters Odysseus’ tent and convinces him that he, too, is Odysseus, trapped through some mischief of the gods in the body of a Trojan; but in response to the stranger’s introduction-by-way-of-riddle, Odysseus replies: “You must be none other than that famous Odysseus, king of Ithaca, which is to say myself, for all these things happened to me, though I have never spoken of any of them. Did some god spy on me and whisper my secrets in your ear? Speak quickly, stranger.” The stranger-Odysseus must now convince the narrator-Odysseus that he, too, is Odysseus; leading to this exchange:
“What was I thinking during the rain before last winter’s great sally on Troy?”
“I was watching the young men dress for battle and thinking of my own son Telemachus, who is nearly old enough for arms.”
I lowered my sword. The stranger looked miserable. Absently, he pulled out the water jar I kept under my bed and drank.
“What now?” he asked. “I see that my life is occupied. I made no plan for this. I cannot imagine a plan. In effect, I am exiled from my life. I wish I had not come.”
Self-pity wearies me. “Here is what now, I have my life and you have yours, though it is new to you. I will continue to fight for Agamemnon, the fool, whose vanity has filled a thousand men’s mouths with dust. You do what you want. You do not have my rights and are not bound by my oaths. Go and fight for Troy if you please—you know our counsels, could break our lines and bring the war to a quick conclusion,” I said, hope rising within me.
The scene is evocative, but feels overwrought as well. The writing reminds one less of Borges than of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Like all good fantasy, the world and the figures that Mason presents are immediately recognizable in our own world, history, and literature; and, like Herbert before him, his world is rife with intrigues grounded in its own rich history. Yet if one finds the plot compelling, it is only so in spite of the writing, which sabotages itself by exaggerating the qualities of voice that belong to the ideas it is trying to evoke. Mason attempts to paint a complete picture by painting broadly. In explaining too loudly, the writing undermines itself by explaining too much.
Mason adopts a single tone throughout the course of the book, regardless of the narration’s origin. When Odysseus narrates “Killing Scylla,” a story that appears later in the book, he explains: “I brought the boat forward, my spear poised for the coup de grace, ready to gloat over her death agony. Her huge yellow body floated belly-up on oily waves, her heads bobbing around her, her fanged mouths slack and black eyes sightless.” Similarly, as Polyphemus reflects on his sightless state in “Blindness,” he confides that, “[i]n retrospect, it is obvious that ‘Nobody’ was a nom de guerre, the alias of an anonymous raider. The choice of sobriquet suggests a man infatuated with his own cleverness. […] His mind, I thought, must be like a city of a thousand twists and turns, founded on deceit, with never an open line of sight or a straight passage.” These, in turn, do not feel like the words of Polyphemus; not because of some odd prejudice precluding belief that a cyclops would voice them, but because they could as easily be the words of Mason’s Odysseus as well, attempting to deceive a new host.
Part of Mason’s cunning, though, is that he recognizes this weakness and uses the fiction of the scholarly translation to help shore it up. A note at the end of “Athena in Death” reads, “[t]his idiosyncratic and oddly personal interjection is the only one of its kind in the Lost Books. Otherwise, the narrator does not offer direct commentary in those stories told in the third person.” It is therefore the belief of Mason’s fictional translator that the forty-four vignettes originate from the same hand. Ah: so that explains the monotone of the stories.
Annotations such as this run throughout the text, refreshing the memories of readers who haven’t touched Homer’s works in years, and bolstering the veneer of scholarly translation introduced in the Preface. But as the note above also demonstrates, they are sometimes called upon to serve another function, allowing Mason to support or explain his own narratives. A note in “The Stranger” details the significance of a brief instance of lycanthropy and serves as an anchor for occasional references made throughout. Another, at the start of “Death and the King,” invents a new historical origin for Pallas Athena in order to contextualize the version of the rape of Helen that Mason is about to explore. Overall, the notes are a clever (if unoriginal) application of the critical apparatus, but in their role as exposition, Mason tacitly admits to a lack of faith–either in his readers’ ability to recognize themes and variations, or in his own abilities to present them in a recognizable way.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey is an altogether adequate collection of clever vignettes, but with each story stemming from the same source and rendered by the same writer, the conceit seems to flatten out over the course of the text. Perhaps Mason is at a disadvantage in that his prose cannot achieve the power of the original works in verse; perhaps the best that can be hoped for in his variations is to emulate Edith Hamilton in delivering the substance of a myth without the poesy that made it memorable. It could be Mason’s own frustration that is expressed at the end of “Victory Lament”: in his search for a challenger, Achilles cuts down all who stand before him, from Agamemnon’s court to the peak of Olympus; barely has Achilles “cut through [Zeus’] excellent jade neck” before he falls into despair: “I have learned nothing, know nothing, wish I had never picked up a sword, left my hut, been born.”
Achilles’ lament is that of a young man bitterly frustrated by the ease with which his prodigious gifts have helped him accomplish great feats. Never having struggled, he languishes in achievements, lacking the satisfaction of having been challenged to do more than simply exercise his strength to reach a goal, and conscious of what he has failed to achieve by relying solely on his talent. With The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason has created an environment to showcase his extraordinary talent for cleverness; but he also demonstrates that relying on talent makes for a hollow achievement.
Jonathan Wooding lives and works in Boston, MA. He has edited Hawk & Whippoorwill: Poems of Man & Nature, and he occasionally contributes to www.thesoundtracktolife.com, a blog of music, technology, and other oddments.