Dreams, vignettes, hypotheticals, and poetry lay out alternate versions of Western literature’s founding epic.
From the time I was eight up until a little over a week ago, I truly believed that no one in this world could match my blind infatuation with the oddities, obscenities, and romantic notions of Greek mythology. I will even go so far as to divulge that, at the tender age of ten, after weeping unapologetically in a literature class upon realizing that Persephone would not be able to return to the earthly world because she had eaten six measly pomegranate seeds, I actually begged my mother to buy one of these “mysterious” fruits so I could relish the sensation that enslaved Persephone to Hades, king of the underworld. Of course, in Michigan in the 1980s, pomegranates were ridiculously expensive; I bit into a three-dollar piece of fruit as if it were an apple and, though it tasted like pesticides and cement, I felt a closer connection to my mythology fantasy world.
Enter The Lost Books of the Odyssey and its author, Zachary Mason, in whom I have either found my match or my soul mate.
Lost Books is the story of Odysseus, but is also not the story of Odysseus. In forty-four short chapters, Mason explores several hundred possibilities of how the Odyssey could have been. He manages not only to unearth the most obscure trivia surrounding the mythic lives of every character, but also manufacture new trivia by expounding on lost footnotes and random accounts recorded somewhere in suspended time. Mason defines each character—Patroclus, Helen, Paris, Athena, et. al.—filling out every epic hero with the psychological dimensions we (or maybe just I) have attributed to them since we first heard the myth of Achilles and his accursed heel.
Did the original story of the immortal-but-doomed Achilles delve into the warrior’s fascination with the wounded, the revulsion he felt toward the dead and burned? I don’t recall that nifty tidbit in any of my books. But perhaps we’ve always taken the basic information, the classic elements of melodrama, and filled in our own blanks. “Wounds fascinated Achilles,” Mason writes:
When Patroclus got a scratch Achilles would fuss over him like an old nurse, endlessly bandaging and salving what could as well be left alone. But when a Greek was mortally wounded, even one of his own men, Achilles would not so much as look at him. When the bodies of the fallen were wound in orange sheets and burned on a pyre, Achilles was always elsewhere.
If the Gods did not make Achilles truly human, then Zachary Mason did.
Mason’s tales are versions of recurring dreams. In one chapter, Odysseus could very well have killed and scalped Helen to end the war; in the next, he does not kill her, instead steals away and marries her. All our characters’ faces are undefined, but we recognize them wholly as we would any cast of characters filing through our dreams—faces disappearing just as we move to get a better look, morphing into others, circumstantially. And, just as in dreams, they are all of a weighty importance, seeming always to mean more than what can be explained on the surface. Mason plays with this idea quite a bit. He writes that there is “one image in a warped hall of mirrors.” At another point, Odysseus describes himself as “a hand trying to grasp itself by reaching into a mirror.” Earlier on, Odysseus, actually having read The Odyssey in this chapter, says, “The essential insight is that the text is corrupt, or, if not corrupt, then incomplete, or of a calculated obscurity.”
With these continual narrative hints that something is indeed amiss, Mason makes no apologies for the meandering narratives, understanding the value of contrivance in storytelling, scoffing at the contemporary obsession with deftly “realistic” plotlines, and thumbing his nose with humorous asides and sparse footnotes that attempt to “explain” situations more clearly by adding two or three more tortuous forks to the hazy dream-road. A perfect example is “Record of a Game,” a chapter riddled with possible falsehoods that attempts to explain the origins of chess and its direct descent from The Iliad.
I have to say that for all this analysis, what I most wanted to do was just reproduce some of Mason’s amazingly beautiful lines, but to start excerpting all the pages I dog-eared would quickly exceed fair-use provisions. I cannot begin to express the fluidity of Mason’s language, how each word has been painstakingly chosen to fill its sentence as though no other word were possible. Which brings me to one of my few true criticisms: This book is not a novel. Experimentalists may disagree, but I think of this book as a series of vignettes whose collective impression sustains a novelistic momentum. I might just as easily argue that Lost Books is actually an exquisite book of poetry, meditations on the same theme—but I refuse to consign language this good to the care of poets only. Fiction should be this meticulously beautiful, too.
In the end, I don’t care how we classify The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Good, inspiring, lasting literature needs no more classification. I suppose I’m a bit biased by my attachment to the subject matter, but that just means Zachary Mason could have failed more easily than succeeded in his resurrection of The Odyssey. It is lucky for me that he succeeded.