The Lost Books of the Odyssey
by Zachary Mason
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 240 pp., $24
Like all great ancient epics, Homer’s Odyssey begins in medias res, but it is less frequently noted that it ends that way, too. When Odysseus gets home to Ithaca, he seems to have finished his journeying. He hasn’t. This we know from a clue in Book 11, when Odysseus, visiting the Underworld, meets the prophet Tiresias. The soothsayer warns Odysseus of the dire consequences that await him if his men kill Helios’ cattle and of the hardships he will face at home in Ithaca. Home isn’t the end for Odysseus, as Tiresias relates: “Once you have killed those suitors in your halls— / by stealth or in open fight with slashing bronze— / go forth once more, you must.” What follows is the strange prophecy that Odysseus will enter a realm so remote that its inhabitants will mistake his oar for a winnowing fan. Planting this oar in the earth as an offering, Tiresias says, Odysseus will finally placate the sea god Poseidon and attain peace.
So the prophecy ends. Odysseus moves on, and the reader may even come to forget this curious prediction. After all, the last part of what Tiresias describes—the part about the oar—never takes place within the Odyssey. The prophecy, then, extends Odysseus’ story beyond the scope of Homer’s poem. Tiresias’ prediction requires others after Homer to tell Odysseus’ fate.
Zachary Mason is one such teller, and one for whom we should be grateful. This debut novel is a lithe and sensationally imagined response to the invitation implicit in Tiresias’ words. Mason, a California computer scientist in his thirties, does far more than simply imagine a sequel to Odysseus’ adventures after Ithaca: In this collection of 44 episodes, he has supplemented the canonical Homer with something like the Gnostic Gospels of Homer, “lost books” that challenge, expand, and often undermine what we thought we knew of an already wily Odysseus.
Mason’s tales contradict and revise both the traditional Homer and often each other. And though they whimsically unmoor anything like a received tradition, they are evidence of something traditionally Homeric: The irrepressible pleasure both raconteur and audience experience in the art of good storytelling, even if the storyteller bends the truth. Mason’s Odysseus is no less protean than his Homeric forebear, and that’s precisely what is attractive. Evidence of Mason’s ability to rewrite Homer is on glittering display in a story like “Killing Scylla,” where he imagines the carcasses of Helios’ slaughtered cattle as the ruse by which Odysseus lures Scylla from her lair. (The epic events are grimmer: The cattle are killed and Odysseus’ men are punished at sea.) Mason’s sketch of Scylla, a creature both repugnant and pathetic, is rendered in the limpid prose characteristic of this novel:
. . . the breeze held and pulled her necks taut as lyre strings. I shivered at her wet, almost musical shrieking as her corpulent body was slowly pulled out of her cavern and into the sunlight, her claws scrabbling for purchase on the guano-slimed stone of her aerie till she reached the edge, clung for a moment, overbalanced and plummeted toward the sea where she landed with the sound of a siege-stone hitting a wall and disappeared under a mountain of foam.
Just before he kills Scylla, Odysseus notices that the monster’s seventh head is that of a young woman “with milk-white skin and sodden filthy hair.” Her final haunting words transform the story’s timbre, and what up to that point had been a chapter reliant on suspense and the hero’s cunning resolves on a quiet note. The monster suddenly seems human, vulnerable, and the image complicates the heroic thrust of the tale.
Such modulations of tone, between adventure-story and poignant detail, inflect the entire novel. The “lost books” often center upon loss itself, one of the original thematic vertebrae of the Odyssey. But in Mason’s hands loss is heightened to a more existential level. Instead of losing his men, or Penelope, Odysseus is conscious at times of losing himself altogether. In “The Book of Winter,” a man finds himself snowbound in a cabin, uncertain who he is and why he is there. He discovers a book behind the firewood that turns out to be the story of Odysseus. Upon reading and rereading, he realizes that the story is, in fact, his story. He has literally become the No One he had called himself as a disguise. No longer Odysseus, he burns the book, “every sin erased,” ready to start a new life. The story offers one of the various scenes in which Mason’s Odysseus stands outside his own identity, painfully aware of its mutability. This postmodern Odysseus comprehends the idea of “Odysseus.”
One of Mason’s other accomplishments is to give us a set of Odysseus figures who inhabit both the Homeric world of monsters and gods as well as the rich psychological atmosphere of a contemporary novel. In one episode, Odysseus returns to Ithaca to find that Penelope, “hardly aged and oddly quiet,” refuses to greet him. When he touches her, he discovers that she is dead, her image a wraith of the living Penelope. The dead image, we can surmise, is Odysseus’ own construction, preserved from the past and imposed upon an implacably changed present. In such a story, Penelope’s presence doesn’t demonstrate her own enduring spirit; it represents Odysseus’ psychological need to conjure her after his many losses.
In a different episode called “Epiphany,” Odysseus must face the possibility of a romantic relationship with his divine sponsor Athena:
I was aboard ship checking every cable, line and sail, to ensure that all was seaworthy after a decade aground on the beach. She was there with me, suddenly, and as always in her presence I saw the world in sharper relief. . . . She had on a plain white dress and, disconcertingly, wore her hair down—she looked almost girlish. I had seen her brighter but never so warm. I was ashamed to find myself desiring her and violently quashed the impulse. I remember her every word and every intonation. I will not repeat what she said, though it will always echo in my daydreams. The broad sense of it was that she was offering me everything. Which is to say, herself. And as the husband of an Olympian, one of the greatest in strength and honor (as she quite correctly reminded me), I would be given immortality. We would have all eternity together. All would fear us and love us and no one could ever touch us.
The title “Epiphany,” which can refer both to Athena’s divine appearance and to Odysseus’ consequent revelation, holds both characters together—even as Odysseus’ epiphany dictates why he must separate from her. His thoughts exemplify Mason’s elegant swirl of modern and ancient. They trace psychological contours available to contemporary fiction, but they also pinpoint the stark divide between mortal and divine fundamental to ancient epic:
I need hardly add that I could not accept her. What would I do, be her Ganymede, fetching wine and beaming while she spoke with her equals, her pretty boy with scars, wrinkles and sun-black skin? Or, worse, I could master her, be a proper husband and make her my helpmeet and bed-mate, have her wait on me while I spoke with Father Zeus on kingly matters. The idea is absurd. Even if it could be otherwise, she is beautiful and quick and her mind is like a lightning flash but she is a god, and therefore remote, and I cannot imagine her as anything else.
Still other episodes show us Odysseus indirectly, refracting him through different characters. In “Alexander’s Odyssey,” Alexander the Great stands at the Indian border, salivating for further conquest, but his troops refuse to advance. In the story’s final moments, Alexander, whom ancient sources report styled himself an avatar of Achilles, realizes that, in losing command of his troops, he is transforming from one epic hero to the other. “I have set out,” he muses, “to be Achilles and ended up no more than Odysseus of endless contrivance.”
For all its endless contrivance, we should be aware that Mason’s revisionism constitutes a tradition in its own right. In the fifth century B.C. Herodotus was already querying the Homeric version of the Helen story, going so far as to suggest that she hid out in Egypt during the Trojan War. And Greek lyric poets before Herodotus had wittily debunked Homeric orthodoxies. Homer has always invited tinkerers.
All the same, to locate Zachary Mason in this vast faculty of revisionists is not to diminish his literary panache and intellectual verve. Nor is it to suggest that his novel comes swathed in cheap irony. The range of the novel evokes the inventiveness of Odysseus himself. The constant ruptures of content—Odysseus is different from episode to episode—never obscure Mason’s formal consistency. That consistency inheres in his ability to spin a good yarn, chapter after chapter.
For all we know, Odysseus is still wandering inland with that oar. Will we recognize him?
Bryant Kirkland is a writer in New York.