Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey (Starcherone Books, March 2008)
Out of an unlikely mix of literary prank, Oulipian-like sportsmanship, and a frankly nerdy obsession with Homer and combinatorial mathematics has come—out of left field, so to speak—the perfect annotation to our contemporary moment of never-ending war. Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey, winner of Starcherone’s penultimate fiction prize, purports to be an ancient text, recently decoded by the author along with a moonlighting NSA cryptographer, which gives variants on Homer’s epic of the Trojan War. (You can pick it up for the preface alone, a devilishly clever history of the text’s “discovery” and interpretation.)
The resulting forty-six tales of that supposed translation effort are a series of mesmerizing portraits—most often of Odysseus but also of Achilles, Cyclops, Agamemnon, and others—that retell the classic adventures in bizarre twists more Borgesian or Kafkaesque than Homeric: Odysseus wakes to find himself a Trojan; Achilles is a golem of Odysseus’ design; the trials of Odysseus are a vengeful story of wish-fulfillment told to himself by the Cyclops in an attempt to sate his rage at blindness. The mythmaking feat doesn’t come off as overly clever because of the essentially inevitable feeling produced by these stories’ rare but fundamental topologies. And one of the book’s more subtle accomplishments is that the tales manage to appear “classical” in the sense that these profoundly original stories come off so naturally that they do seem more discovered than made.
One can’t help trying to guess at Mason’s method, as the text seems to hide underneath its surface some intricate scaffolding à la Harry Mathews, but no matter what fantastic constraints or generative devices Mason used to grow his incredible chapters, it is the writing’s beauty and refinement that makes it transcend any origins it might have had as exercise or game. Mason writes a poetry of recursion, taking up again and again the tale of the self remaking, remarking, and revealing the self remaking, remarking, and revealing the self (remaking, remarking, and revealing the self...), handling all the while the metaphysical inversions with enviable unruffled grace. Homer’s palpable portrayal of interminable suffering as well as the source material’s freight of war—its glories and iniquities—are taken up again and again by Mason with ennobling insight and empathy.
Part of the pleasure of reading The Lost Books is watching its author wring more and more and more from the original—and yet, like a magic trick, realizing that the world isn’t enlarged or reduced by this miracle. The accomplishment has something to do with adding infinite perspectives to an unchanging object, evidently a very entertaining trick when done properly; Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style are close kin. Underneath the seemingly inexhaustible perspectives, the copulating mirrors, and the labyrinth architecture—of which there’s admirably much—there is too a melancholic underpinning to these revelations. The gods’ winner’s blues, the existential angst of the ancients, and the mundane provenance of legends are all told with a rich and wistful world-weariness. A contemporary and relevant work mysteriously born from ancient myth, The Lost Books of the Odyssey is a fantastic original.