Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

Odysseus comes back to Ithaca in a little boat on a clear day.  The familiarity of the east face of the island seems absurd--bemused, he runs a tricky rip current he has not thought about in fifty years and lands by the mouth of a creek where he swam as a boy.  All his impatience leaves him and he sits under an oak he remembers whose branches overhang the water, good for diving.  Twenty years have gone by, he reflects, what are a few more minutes.  An hour passes in silence and it occurs to him that he is tired and might as well go home, so he picks up his sword and walks toward his house, sure that whatever obstacles await will be minor compared to what he has been through.

Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey should be awesome.  Presenting itself as a new translation of recently discovered variations on The Odyssey, it comprises 44 fragments reimagining the story of Odysseus.  This is enticing because there's always been something fragmentary about Odysseus himself, almost as if his predilection for trickery and disguise has made it impossible for us to get a total picture of him.  Is he this Odysseus?  How about this one?  Or this one?

But then again, there's a rule that I'm thinking of naming after myself: If you're going to crib from one of the world's greatest works of literature, you better have a damn good idea of what you're doing.  The Lost Books of the Odyssey doesn't work because it doesn't seem to me to have a real will or capacity to respond to The Odyssey, instead using it as a mere template to engage in some slack flash-fiction experimentation.

There are some intriguing passages: One I particularly liked involved Odysseus' determination to kill Scylla, the many-headed monster that lies on the other side of the whirlpool Charybdis.  Baiting her with a bull carcass secretly hooked to his ship, he pulls her toward her death, at which point she looks up and says:

"You are the fate that has been haunting me since I was born.  I huddled in my high cave for fear of you, starving and wretched, venturing out only to snatch a little food when I could.  I thought of hiding in a deep cavern or on a high mountain but I was too afraid to leave home.  Mine has been a miserable life and now it is ending and I wish I had never heard the name Odysseus."

I like that because it takes an idea that The Odyssey toys with--that Odysseus, whose very name means "Man of Pain," is destructive, and brings suffering not only to himself but those around him--and builds on it through a familiar story.  A similarly successful passage is written from the perspective of the cyclops Polyphemus.  But too often The Lost Books of the Odyssey lacks the balance between inventiveness and faithfulness that this requires.  Instead, it teeters between the extremes of banality and irrelevance.  At the first extreme, there's the idea that Odysseus himself wrote The Odyssey.  At the second, there's a fragment imagining Odysseus in a Hell that takes the form of a high wire with an abyss below and the inverted world above.  That's a trippy image, I suppose, but what's it got to do with Odysseus?

And it's the intriguing conceit of the "translation" that falls flattest of all, since the fragments don't sound in any sense like an ancient epic.  (The first person bits really give it away.)  An attempt to make it seem like something really ancient might have made it more interesting, but it also would have made it a different book.  Of course, it's not fair to indict Mason for failing to live up to the strange grandeur of the Odyssey or The Iliad, which it takes from equally.  But it's hard to read and not wish you were just reading those works instead.

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