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.