Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"The Lost Books of the Odyssey" by Zachary Mason

Summary: A fractured retelling/reinvention of stories related to the Greek epic hero Odysseus.

Musings: I spend nearly a semester every year teaching the entire Odyssey to my freshmen students.  Although I resisted the long text at first, it's been growing on me, and I find more in it every year.  My students are also wary at first (our Fagles' translation is 483 pages in poem form), but I'm thrilled with their ability to find new things in the text.  When I heard about Mason's book, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, I was excited to see what he could offer on the canonical poem.

First of all, the book is called "a novel," which is rather misleading.  Instead, it's more of a collection of short stories; each "chapter" is completely unrelated to the others, and a number of events (Achilles' death, Odysseus' return to Ithaca) are covered multiple times.  Furthermore, the title, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, is also deceptive, since a majority of the chapters concern events that are not a part of the Odyssey (primarily the Trojan War and its heroes).

After reading it, I find it nearly impossible to describe what the stories are like.  The best analogy I can think of comes courtesy of my husband, who upon hearing my exasperated attempted description of the book, explained the book thus (I've embellished only slightly): It's like going to a contemporary art museum on the Muppets, but when you get there, all the exhibits are of Muppets having orgies. And you just don't see how any of this can have meaning, but all the other snooty and pretentious art patrons sneer at you for being so pedestrian and unable to "get it."

So, yes.  Many of the stories are completely random and circuitous.  Other events are repeated ad nauseam.  The stories seem to be "deep" without having any real meaning.  For example, Mason seems to have a bizarre fixation on Agamemnon, who is portrayed as a singularly imbecilic leader.  Agamemnon's mostly a whiny and bitter bore in the Odyssey with nothing to do but spew hatred over his wife's betrayal, but in Lost Books he seems to represent the very worst of ineptitude in leadership.  But for no apparent reason.  Mason also dwells on Odysseus' return to Ithaca and his life as an old man after the war.  I think there are some interesting issues to be raised around what happens to a great hero once all the journeying is done, but no new light was shed for me.

The Odyssey really is a perfect text for revision; so much occurs in the poem, but so much is left unexplored: missing days and years, strange people and islands, side characters with no insight into their motivation. However, Mason does not break new ground in this regards.  Odysseus is still the focus to the story, and overlooked characters are still overlooked.  This is particularly true for the women characters, who in Mason's book are mostly vapid or conniving; in pretty much all of the stories in which she appears, Athena is madly in love with Odysseus.  In a New York Times article ("A Calculus of Writing, Applied to a Classic" by Larry Rohter, 2/9/10) on him, Mason describes the book as "a very rational and masculine book," which pretty much makes me want to vomit.

I did find a few stories interesting.  In one chapter, Odysseus goes to recruit Achilles for the Trojan War only to find that Achilles is dead; he then builds a golem (a "an artificial human being in Hebrew folklore endowed with life" according to Merriam-Webster) which fights in the war instead.  For some reason, that stuck around with me.  A super short chapter on Hermes' exasperation at Odysseus' despair on Calypso's island was great.  Otherwise I find the "novel" mostly unintelligible and exceedingly self-important.

If you think obliqueness and repetitiveness inherently equal genius prose, then The Lost Books of the Odyssey is for you.  As for me, my students' creative revisions to the Odyssey are far more interesting and enlightening.

***This book qualifies for the TwentyTen Reading Challenge ("Who Are You Again?" category).

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