From the Publisher
“[A] dazzling debut . . . Stunning and hypnotic . . . Mr. Mason . . . has written a series of jazzy, post-modernist variations on the Odyssey, and in doing so he's created an ingeniously Borgesian novel that's witty, playful, moving and tirelessly inventive . . . This is a book that not only addresses the themes of Homer's classic--the dangers of pride, the protean nature of identity, the tryst between fate and free will--but also poses new questions to the reader about art and originality and the nature of storytelling.” Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Zachary Mason has achieved something remarkable. He's written a first novel that is not just vibrantly original but also an insightful commentary on Homer's epic and its lasting hold on our imagination.” John Swansburg, Slate.com
“Mason has a big heart beneath all his narrative trickery, and he uses it to bring a contemporary sensitivity to the myths.” Jeremy McCarter, Newsweek
“Jubilant in execution. Perverse and irreverent.” Katherine A. Powers, The Boston Globe
“Mason's prose is finely wrought....His imagination soars and his language delights.” Adam Mansbach, The New York Times Book Review
“Clever, compelling, and often poignant...Mason's puckishly archaic diction, a wiseacre's revision of Richmond Lattimore with swing and jazz, is such a pleasure.” Jesse Berrett, San Francisco Chronicle
“Marvelous...The stories' wonderful variety reflects the cunning, resourceful character of Odysseus himself.” Timothy Farrington, The Wall Street Journal
“An absolute delight.” Alan Cheuse, NPR's All Things Considered
“[The Lost Books of the Odyssey] is, to my surprise, a wonderful book. I had expected it to be rather preening, and probably thin. But it is intelligent, absorbing, wonderfully written, and perhaps the most revelatory and brilliant prose encounter with Homer since James Joyce.” Simon Goldhill, The Times Literary Supplement
“A subtle, inventive, and moving meditation on the nature of story and what Louis MacNeice calls ‘the drunkenness of things being various.' ” John Banville, Booker Prize–winning author of The Sea
“Spellbinding. In his versions of these ancient myths, Mason twists and jinks, renegotiating the journey to Ithaca with all the guile and trickery of Odysseus himself. Rarely is it so reassuring to be in the hands of such an unreliable narrator.” Simon Armitage, author of The Odyssey: A Dramatic Retelling of Homer's Epic
“A stirring revelation: Zachary Mason's astounding glosses of the Odyssey plunge us into an unforeseeable and hypnotic dimension of fiction. Of the three possible interpretations of the work that he proposes--Homeric stories anciently reproduced by recombining their components, a Theosophist dream of abstract mathematics, and pure illusion (that is, it was all made up by him)--the result is one and the same. This enthralling book is his doing, whether as translator, conjuror, or author. I vote for number three.” Harry Mathews, author of My Life in CIA
“Mason's delightful, inventive collection takes the raw materials of Homer--wily Odysseus, faithful Penelope, wrathful Poseidon--and then recombines, warps and twists elements of his well-worn tale.” Philadelphia City Paper
“Mason's fantastic first novel, a deft reimagining of Homer's Odyssey, begins with the story as we know it before altering the perspective or fate of the characters in subsequent short story–like chapters . . . This original work consistently surprises and delights.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“These imaginary lost books of The Odyssey enhance Homer's epic tale with alternative scenarios and viewpoints. A finalist this year for the New York Public Library's Young Lions Award, Mason employs clear, crisp prose and a clever sense of humor to propel the action briskly . . . A paean to the power of storytelling.” Library Journal
“Though none of these brilliantly conceived revisions fits neatly into Homer's classic poem, each resonates with something of the artistic vigor of the ancient original . . . A daring and successful experiment in fictional technique.” Booklist
“[A] literary adventure in which everything--the hero, the author, even the reader--is up for grabs . . . The epic as kaleidoscope.” Kirkus Reviews
“Reading Zachary Mason's forthcoming The Lost Books of the Odyssey, I've been in danger of missing my subway stop . . . Funny, spooky, action-packed, philosophical--the mood keeps shifting, and you keep wanting to read just one more.” Barnes and Noble Review
…dazzling…In The Lost Books of the Odyssey Mr. Mason…has written a series of jazzy, post-modernist variations on The Odyssey, and in doing so he's created an ingeniously Borgesian novel that's witty, playful, moving and tirelessly inventive. This is a book that not only addresses the themes of Homer's classicthe dangers of pride, the protean nature of identity, the tryst between fate and free willbut also poses new questions to the reader about art and originality and the nature of storytelling…Mr. Mason has found a supple, lyrical voice in these pages that captures the spirit of the original Odyssey and at the same time feels freshly contemporary.
The New York Times
Mason's episodes are scattershot, as unearthed fragments tend to be, and yet there is a pleasingly programmatic undercurrent to the variations he plays, as if he has devised an algorithm to chart the infinite arrangements of his narrative elements, then selected a few to render. His approach embraces all of Greek mythology, and the nuance and ingenuity of his riffs and remixes confirm his command of the material…Even when he falters, though, Mason's imagination soars and his language delights. He is a writer much like his protagonist: prone to crash landings, but resourceful and eloquent enough to find his way home.
The New York Times Book Review
Mason's fantastic first novel, a deft reimagining of Homer's Odyssey, begins with the story as we know it before altering the perspective or fate of the characters in subsequent short story–like chapters. Legendary moments of myth are played differently throughout, as when Odysseus forgoes the Trojan horse, or when the Cyclops—here a gentle farmer—is blinded by Odysseus while he burgles the Cyclops's cave. Mason's other life—as a computer scientist—informs some chapters, such as “The Long Way Back” in which Daedalus's labyrinth ensnares Theseus in a much different way. Part of what makes this so enjoyable is the firm grasp Mason has on the source material; the footnotes double as humorous asides while reminding readers who aren't familiar with the original that, for instance, Eumaios is “the swineherd who sheltered Odysseus when he first returned to Ithaca and later helped him kill the suitors.” This original work consistently surprises and delights. (Feb.)
In his 70th year, not content to live out his golden years with the long-suffering Penelope, his son Telemachus, or his grandchildren, Odysseus sets sail to revisit the lands of his past triumphs—Calypso's cave, Circe's island, a now-thriving Troy—only to wonder if his memories have deceived him. Was there a point to the destruction, the deaths, and the loneliness engendered by 20 years of wandering? Like the lost Gospels of the Bible, these imaginary lost books of The Odyssey enhance Homer's epic tale with alternative scenarios and viewpoints. A finalist this year for the New York Public Library's Young Lions Award, Mason employs clear, crisp prose and a clever sense of humor (at one point he has Odysseus in analysis), to propel the action briskly. VERDICT This will appeal to many types of readers: students studying the original Homer, lovers of ancient history and mythology, those interested in the depiction of the power struggle between men and gods, and readers looking for echoes of Joseph Campbell's work. In the end, however, Lost Books is not so much an engrossing story as a paean to the power of storytelling. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/09.]—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Ft. Myers, FL
School Library Journal
Adult/High School—The opening chapter of Mason's imaginative first novel begins with Odysseus, having spent several years after his battles in the Trojan War struggling to find his way home, finally getting to the shoreline of his island kingdom of Ithaca. Instead of finding his wife patiently waiting for his return, he discovers that Penelope has married a fat old man she knew to be impersonating Odysseus. The author follows this humorous twist with a series of Calvino-esque, interlocking short stories and vignettes—some shorter than a page—that sculpt and explode Homer's original plot. Mason's near-deadpan writing style and wild imagination make this a very funny work as readers see events like the blinding of the Cyclops through the eyes of poor Polyphemus, mythical cities transformed into tourist traps, and heroes who are at best clueless and at worst blatantly cruel. This could easily be the territory of campy satire, but Mason moves well beyond that. He destroys and rebuilds Odysseus from the outside in, forcing readers to think about this mythic character in a modern and often-psychological way. While the book is certainly a more entertaining ride for readers who really know Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, it includes some helpful footnotes that are informative and poke fun at the original myths and our constant reinterpretations of them. Although he can at times be too clever for his own good, Mason's novel displays a high level of fun and thought.—Matthew L. Moffett, Pohick Regional Library, Burke, VA
A very strange literary adventure in which everything-the hero, the author, even the reader-is up for grabs. The Odyssey remains a bedrock of the narrative tradition, but it has also served as the springboard for such visionary and determinedly modern works as James Joyce's Ulysses and the Coen brothers' film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. This debut novel extends that legacy, as computer scientist Mason gives the Homeric epic a postmodern spin. Most of these "lost books" are short, a few of them no longer than a paragraph. Some are written in the first person, perhaps in the voice of Odysseus himself, others in the third person, often by a writer other than Homer. They adhere to a chronological underpinning that sustains some sort of narrative momentum, yet take the license to leap centuries at the novelist's will. One book describes a dream of Homer's as he "lies in his hammock." Another purports to be from the Middle Ages and suggests that The Iliad was actually a chess manual before its elevation into the literary pantheon. Yet another is plainly more modern, written in the voice of an amnesiac, perhaps imprisoned, who discovers a possible key to his identity in a copy of The Odyssey: "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." Elsewhere, the narrative refers to Odysseus as "Nobody" and "Mr. O." He may even be the creator of the myth as well as the subject ("My account of Odysseus's heroics changed according to my mood"). The result is more existential than heroic, permeated by themes of identity, consciousness, myth and memory, within stories told "so many times that I no longerremembered the actual events so much as their retellings and the retellings' retelling."The epic as kaleidoscope, more playful than profound.
By the third page of Zachary Mason's stunning debut novel, which purports to recuperate lost versions of the Odyssey, we already know that we're sailing in unfamiliar terrain. Odysseus has arrived back in Ithaca, but he's met a Penelope who has already married someone else. The prince looks around sadly.
Then mercifully, revelation comes. He realizes that this is not Penelope. This is not his hall. This is not Ithaca-what he sees before him is a vengeful illusion, the deception of some malevolent god. The real Ithaca is elsewhere, somewhere on the sea-roads, hidden. Giddy, Odysseus turns and flees the tormenting shadows.
Wait! Would the real Ithaca please stand up? Nope, says Mason. In his book, the "real Ithaca" is always somewhere else. It keeps shifting. So do all the characters around it. Mason proposes a swirling, recursive mosaic of the Odyssey, based on the idea that the tale we think of as a set serious of established episodes was created in variants, many of which were never united by Homer. And the author - or rather, a mischievous voice which appears now and then in pseudo-scholarly notes claims to unite a few of the disappeared fragments. The "rediscovered" tales he proposes are wildly inventive: In one, a soldier named Odysseus escapes after the Trojan war to become a wandering bard, That ex-soldier travels island to island composing poems about a soldier called Odysseus. In another, Paris is also a name for the king of the dead, and Menelaus's attack on Troy is really an attack on the kingdom of death. In another, Odysseus goes down to the underworld to find Penelope, but she no longer recognizes him,and sees only a person named "No Man." Using familiar elements as recombinant puzzle parts, Mason, like some fabulist Penelope, enters and then re-weaves the old tales.
Like Penelope, Mason also crafts an unfinishable tapestry. This, Mason seems to argue, is the point: Because the tale lives on in our culture, it remains receptive to our re-making. Therefore, Mason remakes and remakes. In fragments with titles like "The Stranger" or "Guest Friend," Mason renders the familiar strange, giving the stories space to live anew. Decentering the familiar tales has the paradoxical effect of making them feel close, relevant, breathing. Classics often suffer the double blow of seeming at once dusty and also imbibed to the point of cliché. But in an era when people like to repeat that the story is dead, books are dead, even history itself is dead, it is wonderful to discover a book in which a story is so pulsingly alive.
In fact, Mason's retellings frequently bypass mere mortal ideas of life and death. In the writerly web he spins, there have always been many Odysseys, extant legends strewn around the world like so many Goldberg variations. Mason's "recovered" Odysseys are allegories, retellings, dream sequences, and apocryphal voyages. As if designed by Italo Calvino and MC Escher, they're full of trick tunnels, funhouse distortions. This is at once enchanting and liberating. Too often we live in a world of passive re-telling, making and accepting copies of things whose sources we don't know, repeating stories which are blithely unaware that they are copies. In contrast, Mason's brand of conscious remaking enlightens and nourishes the active storyteller within each of us.
Mason is hardly alone, of course. Retelling is our longest tradition, and in recent years many other writers have taken on the project of remaking Odysseus. Derek Walcott's epic poem Omeros weaves the Greek pantheon into a humble West Indian Island, depicting Zeus playing with his West African Orisha counterpart Oshun. Christopher Logue's All Day Permanent Red re-writes battle scenes from the Iliad in stark contemporary language. Mason's Odysseys are less literal than Walcott's, more fabulist than Logue's. They are particularly inviting, full of lacunae our imaginations can enter.
Indeed, one of the chief pleasures Mason provides comes in the form of the questions The Lost Books provokes: How would we like to retell the Odyssey? What do we gain by doing it? What does it mean to any of us to retell? Which Odysseys do we want? How does the Odyssey follow us even when we are not aware of it? Here is a question one of Mason's mysterious characters, a reader who discovers himself to be an Odysseus, asks of the book he finds in a lonely cabin: "I wonder what the book was meant to tell me?" This is a question all readers ask: what does it mean to encounter a story? What does it mean to interact with literary (or in fact any) inheritance?
Mason would argue that we readers are necessarily also makers, reconciling the world of books that come down through time to the world we discover ourselves in. l. His book dramatizes this essential intellectual project. In a beautiful story called "Athena in Death" Odysseus asks Athena "to be young again, or at least not old, and to spend eternity making his way from a war indefinitely far in the past to an island indefinitely far in the future." Mason adds that "he (Odysseus) did not want to know he was a ghost." The Lost Books of the Odyssey allows us to recognize how surely that questing Odysseus has gotten his wish.
But what of us, we readers, who wake up in the mortal world asking what the book was meant to tell us? What does the tale offer? According to Mason, it bestows contradictory multitudes on us. If Mason becomes a Penelope, weaving and unweaving the tale, this implies not only that Penelope could have been a Homer, but that the tale is always waiting to be remade by any reader. Odysseus told the Cyclops his name was "No Man" and indeed, perhaps the author of the Odyssesy's lost books is not Mason, or Homer, or Penelope, or even Odysseus. Perhaps it is not even No Man, but any and also all of us.
Read an Excerpt
A SAD REVELATION
Odysseus comes back to Ithaca in a little boat on a clear day. The familiarity of the east face of the island seems absurd—bemused, he runs a tricky rip current he has not thought about in fifteen years and lands by the mouth of a creek where he swam as a boy. All his impatience leaves him and he sits under an oak he remembers whose branches overhang the water, good for diving. Twenty years have gone by, he reflects, what are a few more minutes. An hour passes in silence and it occurs to him that he is tired and might as well go home, so he picks up his sword and walks toward his house, sure that whatever obstacles await will be minor compared to what he has been through.
The house looks much as it did when he left. He notices that the sheep byre’s gate has been mended. A rivulet of smoke rises from the chimney. He steals lightly in, hand on sword, thinking how ridiculous it would be to come so far and lose everything in a moment of carelessness.
Within, Penelope is at her loom and an old man drowses by the fire. Odysseus stands in the doorway for a while before Penelope notices him and shrieks, dropping her shuttle and before she draws another breath running and embracing him, kissing him and wetting his cheeks with her tears. Welcome home, she says into his chest.
The man by the fire stands up looking possessive and pitifully concerned and in an intuitive flash Odysseus knows that this is her husband. The idea is absurd—the man is soft, grey and heavy, no hero and never was one, would not have lasted an hour in the blinding glare before the walls of Troy. He looks at Penelope to confirm his guess and notices how she has aged—her hips wider, her hair more grey than not, the skin around her eyes traced with fine wrinkles. Without the eyes of home-coming there is only an echo of her beauty. She steps back from him and traces a deep scar on his shoulder and her wonder and the old man’s fear become a mirror—he realizes that with his blackened skin, tangled beard and body lean and hard from years of war he looks like a reaver, a revenant, a wolf of the sea.
Willfully composed, Penelope puts her hand on his shoulder and says that he is most welcome in his hall. Then her face collapses into tears and she says she did not think he was coming back, had been told he was dead these last eight years, had given up a long time ago, had waited as long as she could, longer than anyone thought was right.
He had spent the days of his exile imagining different homecoming scenarios but it had never occurred to him that she would just give up. The town deserted, his house overrun by violent suitors, Penelope dying, or dead and burned, but not this. "Such a long trip," he thinks, "and so many places I could have stayed along the way."
Then, mercifully, revelation comes. He realizes that this is not Penelope. This is not his hall. This is not Ithaca—what he sees before him is a vengeful illusion, the deception of some malevolent god. The real Ithaca is elsewhere, somewhere on the sea- roads, hidden. Giddy, Odysseus turns and flees the tormenting shadows.
THE OTHER ASSASSIN
In the Imperial Court of Agamemnon, the serene, the lofty, the disingenuous, the elect of every corner of the empire, there were three viziers, ten consuls, twenty generals, thirty admirals, fifty hierophants, a hundred assassins, eight hundred administrators of the second degree, two thousand administrators of the third and clerks, soldiers, courtesans, scholars, painters, musicians, beggars, larcenists, arsonists, stranglers, sycophants and hangers- on of no particular description beyond all number, all poised to do the bright, the serene, the etc. emperor's will. It so happened that in the twentieth year of his reign Agamemnon's noble brow clouded at the thought of a certain Odysseus, whom he felt was much too much renowned for cleverness, when both cleverness and renown he preferred to reserve for the throne. While it was true that this Odysseus had made certain contributions to a recent campaign, involving the feigned offering of a horse which had facilitated stealthy entry into an enemy city, this did not justify the infringement on the royal prerogatives, and in any case, the war had long since been brought to a satisfactory conclusion, so Agamemnon called for the clerk of Suicides, Temple Offerings, Investitures, Bankruptcy and Humane and Just Liquidation, and signed Odysseus's death warrant.
The clerk of Suicides etc. bowed and with due formality passed the document to the General who Holds Death in His Right Hand, who annotated it, stamped it, and passed it to the Viceroy of Domestic Matters Involving Mortality and so on through the many twists and turns of the bureaucracy, through the hands of spymasters, career criminals, blind assassins, mendacious clerics and finally to the lower ranks of advisors who had been promoted to responsibility for their dedication and competence (rare qualities given their low wages and the contempt with which they were treated by their well-connected or nobly born superiors), one of whom noted it was a death order of high priority and without reading it assigned it to that master of battle and frequent servant of the throne, Odysseus.
A messenger came to Ithaca and gave Odysseus his orders. Odysseus read them, his face closed, and thanked the messenger, commenting that the intended victim was in for a surprise, and that he was morally certain no problems would arise on his end.
On the eight succeeding days Odysseus sent the following messages to the court as protocol required:
“I am within a day's sail of his island.”
“I walk among people who know him and his habits.”
“I am within ten miles of his house.”
“I am at his gate.”
“The full moon is reflected in the silver mirror over his bed. The silence is perfect but for his breathing.”
“I am standing over his bed holding a razor flecked with his blood. Before the cut he looked into my face and swore to slay the man who ordered his death. I think that as a whispering shade he will do no harm.”
Excerpted from The Lost Books of The Odyssey by Zachary Mason.
Copyright © 2007, 2010 by Zachary Mason.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.