Pocket Review: The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

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.

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