Friday, April 15, 2011

The Lost Books of the Odyssey

The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A NovelI found that Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel is a much more serious work of literature than The Penelopiad or No Man's Land.  I also found the book to be both more thought-provoking and more appealing than most of the other books about the Odyssey which I've been reading lately.  Although I loved Walcott's modern epic variation, Omeros, Mason's book is significantly more accessible than Walcott's.  Readers who have read Homer's The Odyssey recently will most fully appreciate the author's humor and adventurous exploration.

Mason begins his novel--a book which is not a retelling but instead an expansion of Homer's original--in medias res.  While Homer himself is known for this technique of starting a story in its middle, Mason takes the technique to its extreme and throws chronology into some alternative mathematical reality.

The book is a series of vignettes, spanning the original epic's stories and themes.  Sometimes the vignettes seem more about play than about truth--that is, they are exploratory, sometimes even contradictory.  Various elements in the vignettes come together in explosive, insightful ways.  Although I stress again that this book is highly accessible, The Lost Books is also a complex read at times.  Stories fold on top of stories, twisting into new meanings as the book progresses.

Rigorous thought about the nature of authorship, the complex and shifting relationships that exist between husbands and wives, the meaning of commercial culture, the collisions that happen between power and beauty, and the deep meaning of time circle through non-traditional takes on stories about the guest-host relationship, the start of the Trojan War, the fate of Penelope, as well as the role of the gods.

In many ways, Mason turns The Odyssey inside out in the same way a Talmud scholar might investigate the Bible: looking for secret meanings which might be held in each word and in space, considering how and why particular stories were collected (or not collected), and imagining why the stories were put in a particular order.  While Mason makes it clear that his book is a novel, this tone of treating a classic work so respectfully and so seriously--and yet so playfully at the same time--makes Mason's novel resonate for me very deeply.

Highly recommended.  Thanks to Picador for sharing a review copy with me of this marvelous book.


  1. Glad to see you enjoyed this one! I fought it but it quickly won and I loved it.

  2. By the way, have you run across much on the werewolf theme and Odysseus? I've only seen mention of his grandfather (on Anticlea's side) Autolycus since his name means lone wolf. But I've never read anything beyond that until Mason's book. Which of course fits in well with what he does...

  3. I just finished reading this a couple of weeks ago, and I'm still kind of ruminating on it. Like Dwight, I kind of fought it at first, but Mason did win me over in the end. I think what did it for me was accepting that it was the "trickster" Odysseus that was speaking to me, and that it wasn't just Mason telling me an alternative version of The Odyssey. Also, the 'lycanthrope' connection really jumped out at me too, and I wondered if the roots for that fable run back to the ancient Greeks. Excellent review! Cheers! Chris


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