Zachary Mason’s reimagining of The Odyssey in 44 vignettes is a fleet-footed and agile act of creation, much like wily Odysseus himself in Homer’s original epic. The premise of The Lost Books of the Odyssey hinges on this literary conceit: 44 variations of Homer’s The Odyssey have been found at an excavation site, written on “pre-Ptolemaic papyrus”. The result is this purported “lost books” of the Odyssey, translated and compiled into one book.
This mock-scholarly preface to the Lost Books already prefigures the sense of play that will imbue the narrative, but it’s a muted kind of play. If anything, Mason’s fragments subtly reveal what I found most affecting about Homer’s tale of Odysseus: the bleakness and loneliness that constantly shrouds this perpetual wanderer slash trickster. “I hope this translation reflects the haunted light of Homer’s older islands”, writes the unnamed writer of the preface, and the light that is cast on these fragments is indeed haunted by the unending play of memories.
Mason is a computer scientist specialising in artificial intelligence, as is revealed in his short biography. His prose revels in the linguistic puzzle, as evident in the chapter ‘The Stranger’, where one missed word or inattention during a sentence can result in the reader having to go back to the start of the chapter to follow the intricately-woven riddle. But each one of these episodes is not necessarily a stand-alone chapter, although some are. Most of these episodes talk back to each other, much in the sense that a roomful of people with different accounts of one story talk to each other.
The subtlest variance increases the uncertainty; do we relive our memories or recreate them as we write and speak? Every act of narration requires an invitation of trust from its audience, but perhaps the stories that compel the most are the ones that blatantly refuse this trust. Cunning Odysseus, in the chapter ‘Guest Friend’, tells Alcinous, the king of Phaecia, a story that creates their own story as it takes place: “Archers lie in wait for the pair with orders to kill their king’s companion – if he was the teller, he would not die in his own story and would thereby be revealed.”
That Mason owes a significant debt to Jorge Luis Borges has already been commented upon by other reviewers. The enduring themes of personhood, narration, memory, and self-knowledge of metafiction are reflected through characters we already know from Homer’s original, but who in Mason’s retelling become shadows of characters, changing shape and becoming elusive depending on how much light the narrative chooses to shed. What is familiar is rendered unfamiliar and wholly undiscoverable, and it makes sense that it is Odysseus himself who appears to slip out of our grasp within each new story.
Mason’s prose is deliberately precise, measured, and taut – the result is that all excess sentiment and emotion is pared down to its core. The lingering sense of displacement felt by Odysseus and the other characters is effectively passed on to the reader, who turns each page and feels more at sea and yet unable to bring the journey to an end.
While the narrative acrobatics are a pleasure, excessive focus on structural play can render a book nothing more than just another clever language puzzle. The reliability of words and its meaning is a central question to the various narratives woven together here, but sometimes a resonant and particularly arresting image – Penelope’s green eyes in the dark of a wood, for example – is mere foreground for wordplay, which can be jarring and tiresome. It’s as if Mason never wants you to forget that he’s nimble with words; like he’s always trying to remind you, “See what I just did with that sentence?” This is particularly the case when Mason writes from Odysseus’ perspective or narrates his tales. For that reason, the fragments that focus on the other characters – a chapter, ‘Blindness’, from the point of view of the Cyclops, for example – are a welcome respite.
For this reason, The Lost Books is not the kind of book you can lose yourself in for hours, but the kind that you dip in and out of at intervals to recoup orientation after the sense of displacement and uncertainty brought upon by the labyrinthine narratives. Formerly-known characters are portrayed as though reflected through funhouse mirrors that distort and disguise their intentions, actions, words, and actions.
We know all about unstable narrators, but Mason’s bigger question is about the stability of meaning itself. It’s less a postmodern gimmick and more of a sustained inquiry into the nature of memory and how it proves elusive despite our best attempts to get it down, whether on the page or through speech. Mason is fascinated with the use of objects and space as talismans; objects that act as a guide when memories prove elusive or slippery – cloth, books, people-made-of-clay – and places that mark events and secure them in history, even if the mind may forget – islands, caves, Ithaca itself, the interior of a ship.
Most compelling of all is Odysseus’ relationship to Athena; how it appears to be a mutual agreement yet one of almost childlike need on Odysseus’ part. Perhaps there is always a need to make ordinary humans out of gods and create gods out of humans. The appeal of mythology is that it does just that. Athena flits in and out of the pages of The Lost Books just as she does in Odysseus’ life; in Mason’s version, she is like a distant and seemingly-absent yet always-present mother figure.
The lines of James Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead”, Stephen Daedalus’ invocation to the mythic father-artificer, Daedalus – resonates throughout Mason’s framing of Athena and Odysseus’ relationship, particularly in the fragment titled ‘Athena’s Weave’: “Odysseus picked up the ordinary and unfateful piece of cloth and recognised the fabric shown to him by Athena, the improviser, the deceiver.” That fabric appeared in Odysseus’ dream, “given to him” as the narrative tells us, by Athena. That the dream functioned as a guide to help Odysseus’ make a decision after his return to Ithaca makes this episode a particularly moving one, heightened as it is by Mason’s clean, unvarnished prose.
Athena appears to be temperamentally and emotionally matched to Odysseus. Perhaps each person’s god of choice is the god who mirrors their essential qualities and traits. Mason’s Odysseus, despite the bleakness and loneliness that accompanies his perpetual wandering, is never alone, it seems. “Like him, the goddess had a light heart”, the final fragment tells us. Whether or not Odysseus is cognisant of the fact, there is always an ephemeral presence bearing witness to his life, even if his own memories fail – even if he’s reinvented his own stories so many times he has no idea what’s true. Mason’s The Lost Books delights with its agile and light-footed assurance of its use of language, but the it’s in the fragments where the narrative accommodates a certain startling emotional revelation that the book starts to take on a deeper resonance.
In Mason’s hands, the journey is always unpredictable; obstacles come from your own making and from the cunning of others; people are not what they say they are, and no one remembers what really happened. Even mercurial gods can be welcome companions during the passage from one selfhood to another; in the end, there is some comfort in knowing that Athena is, from a distance, always watching.