Zachary Mason

Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey (Starcherone Books) would seemingly qualify as a "novel" only if we define the form in the barest possible terms: a lengthy composition in prose. Purporting to be a decoded translation of a series of "extra" episodes of The Odyssey (decoded because, according to the translator, who provides an introduction to the book that has now been made of them, they have existed as an encrypted manuscript the means of decrypting which has only recently been discovered), it bears no resemblance to the sort of unified narrative most readers expect to find in a novel. There is no plot other than the preexisting plot of the Odyssey, on which the "lost books" perform multiple variations. Similarly, while Odysseus is presumably the protagonist (if it isn't the "translator"), many different versions of Odysseus, assuming many different roles, are presented in the 46 episodes comprising The Lost Books. The stories are told from many different points of view, both first-person and third-person--one of the most affecting of the tales is told by the Cyclops, lamenting his blindness at the hands of Odysseus (for whom he expresses great hatred)--and while one might read the tales simply as a collection of stories, this would rob them of the coherence they ultimately attain as a set of imaginative supplements to the Odyssey narrative. Taken together, they form a kind of anti-Odyssey, an implicit commentary on the Homeric version of the story achieved by highlighting its elisions and sounding out its interstices.

Such a strategy does require some familiarity on the reader's part with the Odyssey itself, since the effects created by this sort of rewriting and rearranging to an extent do depend on our recognition that an episode from Homer's text has been recast--Odysseus returns to Ithaca to find his people "all astonishment and delight" and Penelope dead, Achilles abandons the Green encampment to do good works in the world, perhaps to spend "a year in contemplation in the shadow of a tree"--or a character or episode has been enhanced or freshly emphasized. While it is certainly possible that the reader only minimally acquainted with both The Iliad and The Odyssey would still find Mason's alternative versions diverting enough, the humor and the wit embodied in Mason's counter-narratives, as well as the cleverness of their construction, will surely strike the Odyssey-literate with more force and efficacy than those who know Homer's epic only in its barest outlines, if at all. By no means is The Lost Books of the Odyssey a book to be enjoyed only by classicists, but it helps to be a reader with an interest in literature, and The Odyssey's role in its history, that overshadows whatever interest most readers of novels profess to have in encountering "real life" in fiction.

Despite these potential obstacles to a broad audience for a book like The Lost Books of the Odyssey, it is, in my opinion, nevertheless a work of "experimental" fiction that many readers would find enjoyable if they were to give it a chance. Not only are many of the invented episodes entertaining in their own right, but gradually one comes to anticipate what new twist on the Odysseus story Mason will offer, in a way that is almost analogous to the pleasurable anticipation readers feel when looking forward to the next turn of plot in a conventional narrative. Equally rewarding is the opportunity to reflect further on the Homeric themes of war, honor, leadership, and sacrifice, which, if anything, are accentuated even more intensely (if at times ironically) through the liberties taken with the story of the Trojan War (e.g., the chapter narrated by Odysseus that begins, "I have often wondered whether all men are cowards like I am") and through the parallels that might be drawn between this re-told Odyssey and our own ongoing, ill-conceived war. The Borgesian frame provided by the translator's introduction and an appendix relating the history of the lost books contributes an additional tongue-in-cheek element that completes the novel's masquerade as a feat of "scholarship."

For me, the most successful works of experimental fiction always "entertain," even when they reject or subvert the usual devices conventionally considered the source of fiction's ability to entertain--the devices that create "compelling characters," dramatic narratives, "vivid" settings, etc. (Gilbert Sorrentino's novels provide a good example of this ability to entertain while dispensing with the standard accoutrements of entertainment.) In experimental fiction of the postmodern kind, this is frequently accomplished through comedy and satire. In the case of The Lost Books of the Odyssey it is achieved through what might simply be called ingenuity, along with a certain amount of chutzpah.


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