Something wired very hard into the human psyche lights up at the notion of discovering hidden things, putting the pieces together and finally accessing occult knowledge – wisdom or treasure or whatever seems to be missing from human experience – things which, when uncovered, could possibly explain our present situation and hopefully unlock the power to choose our future with certainty. Zachary Mason touches, tickles, and strikes these wires in The Lost Books of the Odyssey and, in the end, creates nothing short of a synaptic fireworks display.
Winner of the 2007 Starcherone Fiction Prize, The Lost Books of the Odyssey is at once a mind-bending literary fractal system and an enthralling collection of tales. Both the tales and the work as a whole can be read on many levels, inter- and intratextually, their individual structures mirroring the pervasive cyclical, self-consuming rhythm of the overall work. The tales are often labyrinthine, beginning in medias res and soon folding back into themselves. The passage entitled “Endless City” demonstrates this most clearly, opening with Odysseus being suspected once again of deception and even treason:
Ignoring his lies, the captain of the guard marched Odysseus through the night and brought him before Agamemnon’s throne. Agamemnon wearily lifted his head and in his face Odysseus saw festering pride and dull pugnacity, the spoils of a decade’s martial failure. The king wavered, and in a harsh croak said, “I brought you here by stratagem, and now I question whether I was wise to do so. You are known for cunning but not for loyalty.”
To which Odysseus replies (for the first or the eighth time, depending on how the tales are read), “Be patient and I will tell you the story,” and by the end becomes caught in a vicious circle of his own telling. The Lost Books functions in the same way: the tales, fragments, retellings, recollections, and alternative versions often contradict and consume one another, offering revised accounts and intriguing possibilities. One sketch shows Homer on a ship as a passenger or crew member lying in a hammock à la Darwin on The Beagle. As he looks up at the ship’s rigging and recounts the details of a story he has been composing, he falls asleep and dreams the essence of what would become The Odyssey. Meanwhile, another account entitled “The Iliad of Odysseus” suggests the authorship of Odysseus himself, embellishing here, twisting or omitting there, crafting a name and a legacy for himself.
Before I started reading The Lost Books, I figured I’d better refresh my familiarity with The Odyssey if I wanted to understand the references and allusions on which a book of this nature was sure to live and breathe. I was wrong. While even a rudimentary knowledge of The Odyssey will be helpful for catching the nuance Mason has crafted into The Lost Books, it is by no means a necessary prerequisite for understanding, and even less for enjoyment. The Lost Books is composed of one thrilling tale after another and seasoned with shorter fragments that are well-wrought prose poetry.
One of the most powerful pieces is among the handful focusing on Achilles, who in “Victory Lament” says, “I had not meant to do more than provoke [Agamemnon] into seeking out the greatest champions to kill me—that way I would know once and for all if I had any equal in the world.” But, finding none, Achilles took the key Odysseus gave him, unlocked the “iron gates of heaven” and “trudged upward for some indeterminate duration” until he reached Heaven.
Here, finally, was true power to oppose me but to my lasting sorrow I had forgotten what failure was and my blade flickered through the hearts of my antagonists until I came before the Emperor of Heaven who continued to disdain me even as I cut through his excellent jade neck. He came crashing down from his high throne, mountain ranges wearing away on the distant Earth as he fell and fell and fell. Now I have taken his throne and read his book and the now docile devas flit about my shoulders, waiting, perhaps forever, for me to impart my wisdom, which is that I have learned nothing, know nothing, wish I had never picked up a sword, left my hut, been born.
This is only a glimpse of the powerful tales, fragments, and revisions that comprise The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Zachary Mason has written a book that could pass for an ur-text of The Odyssey, opening imaginative new dimensions in one of the foundational works of Western literature, a bold undertaking at which he succeeds brilliantly. At the same time, it stands on its own as a richly imagined and emotionally powerful work that functions well and consistently on many levels, placing Mason in league with the likes of Borges, Coover, and Nabokov. Open The Lost Books of the Odyssey anywhere and begin reading – you will soon find yourself at the place you started, wishing for more and grateful to read on.