The Lost Books of the Odyssey Zachary Mason. Farrar Straus Giroux. 240 pp, $24.00
When it comes to the elusive concept of authorship, there’s no shortage of reference points. From Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence to Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence,” the definition of authorship is both a polarizing and fascinating topic. In his debut novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason takes this debate a step further by conjuring a set of interpretations to a story whose authorship has sparked many academic studies: Homer’s Odyssey.
Mason isn’t strictly concerned with academic debate (though he does certainly have fun with the idea of authorship), which means that in Lost Books he adroitly works his conceit to its fullest extent. In his preface, Mason explains how 44 variations of The Odyssey have been survived “in Hellenistic friezes, on Cycladic funerary urns, and in pre-Ptolemaic papyrus.” With this postmodern wink to a fictional account of history, Mason is able to dive into his pastiche collection of “lost” tales. Because the book isn’t meant to add up to a narrative whole—not in any traditional sense, at least—Mason is free to concentrate on tying the book together thematically. The result is a focused meditation that’s not only about storytelling itself but also the necessary function it plays in our existence.
As to that function, there’s an interesting question at the heart of Lost Books: Which is more important, the lives we lead, or the stories that are told about us in our wake? One particular chapter, “The Iliad of Odysseus,” presents a rather humble—even cowardly—depiction of Odysseus. He’s shown as having no talent for combat, and his strength in archery only highlights his “effeminacy,” since a true warrior battles hand-to-hand. What Odysseus truly loves and has passion for is storytelling—according to him, he was meant to be a bard. But that only makes his father and his men mock him further: “We are here to live the stories, not compose them!” With no other option, when Agamemnon comes calling he is forced to go to war.
Odysseus spends his time miserable, desperate to stay alive and longing to find an escape. As the war is about to reach its bloody end—for both sides, with no deceptive gift horse involved—Odysseus decides to abandon his cruel fate. Disguised, he sets out to a land where he won’t be recognized and earns his way as a bard. Soon he begins singing stories about the war, including himself (the cleverest Greek) in the tales. Other bards begin to sing his tales, and his legend grows until he is responsible for ending the war. Though this couldn’t be further from the truth, Odysseus is unaffected. After all, he rationalizes, “What good is the truth when those who were there are dead or scattered?”
In the final evaluation, Odysseus would argue, the way we live our lives is less crucial than the way our lives are remembered. After all, human existence is but a blink of the universe’s eye; legacies are forever.
Yet Mason goes deeper than suggesting that a sharp tongue and a gift for weaving fiction can compensate for an inconsequential existence. True to Greek tragedy, Lost Books contains underpinnings of inescapable fatalism. In “Fugitive,” Agamemnon discovers a book called the Iliad. This book claims that the tale of the Trojan war was written by the gods—before it even occurred. The book’s introduction reads: “These divine books are the archetypes of that war rather than its history.”
Despite having this knowledge of the tragic war to come, Agamemnon charges to Troy. Maybe the decision to let fate go unchallenged is inherent to who he is (after all, Agamemnon means “most resolute”). Or maybe there’s a deeper truth that the old king has come to terms with, that though humans thrash against fate in their pleas to claim free will, it’s to little avail. As this version of the Iliad claims, even armed with the knowledge of future events, humans can do little to change the gods’ predetermined outcome.
In its demonstration of fatalism, “Fugitive” suggests that we humans will never understand the forces that order our pasts, presents, or futures. Perhaps, then, Odysseus has it right. If there’s no hope in controlling your own destiny, the only method for shaping existence is through stories—through willful fabrication. And perhaps Mason has taken cue from this lesson; his prose is less a translation of these alleged lost texts and more of an interpretation. Mason is weaving stories, rewriting the past at every turn, placing his role as the storyteller at the forefront. Lost Books is full of contradictions and dubious accounts, making Mason the only authority, the only one mold the destiny of a life gone by.
The only shortcoming of Mason’s intelligent and sly novel comes as the mystique wears off. Lost Books becomes repetitive in its telling and retelling of the same story and its continuous stack of contradictions. Once Mason’s hand is revealed, he fails to offer many surprises.
Yet Lost Books is still a well-crafted debut novel that ingeniously mixes academic inquiry with deeply felt considerations on storytelling, which may be the only way to cheat death.
Michael Moreci is a writer living in Chicago. His debut graphic novel, Quarantine, is forthcoming from Insomnia publications. His shorter comic work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in FutureQuake, Something Wicked, Accent UK’s Victoriana anthology, and Insomnia’s Layer Zero: Survival anthology. His freelance journalism has been published in The Huffington Post, Stop Smiling, North Shore magazine, In These Times, New City, and Earth Island Journal. Contact him at michael.moreci (at) gmail.com.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- The Childhood Storytelling Voice: Scary, No Scary by Zachary Schomburg It was only on my second reading of Zachary Schomburg's wonderfully strange Scary, No Scary that I realized that the distinct voice of his poems, whose provenance had been eluding me even as it felt deeply familiar, was that childhood storytelling voice. It's more the voice of a grade-schooler than...
- A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit I would call A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit’s new book, atypical, except that I’m not quite sure what constitutes “normal” for this writer. Solnit is the author of eight previous books, and they are quite a mixed bunch. Two of them, Wanderlust and River of Shadows, could...
- The Lost Men by Kelly Tyler-Lewis I. One of my favorite episodes from Thucydides is when the Athenians decide to whether to invade Syracuse. With Athens already stretched by the demands of the war with Sparta, their leader Pericles reminds them how difficult a task such an expedition will be—the cost, the number of ships, the...
- Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón I. It’s perhaps fitting that Daniel Alarcón’s new novel Lost City Radio features a blurb from Colm Tóibín comparing the novel to George Orwell’s and Aldous Huxley’s works. Although Tóibín is almost assuredly comparing the imaginative scope of the novel to Orwell and Huxley, he has perhaps unwittingly also made...
- On the Natural History of Destruction by W.G. Sebald I. When published in English in 2003, W.G. Sebald’s collection of lectures, On the Natural History of Destruction, touched off a storm of critical response. One might wonder why these lectures didn’t drum up so much conversation–in English–when they were first delivered in 1997, but that is a question for...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Michael Moreci
Read more articles about books from Farrar Straus Giroux