Hello, hello, hello. In this installment of Q&A—which is also being published on the Georgia Straight's website—I talk with California-based computer scientist Zachary Mason. His debut novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, is a skilful and endlessly imaginative unraveling of Homer’s epic poem, inserting apocryphal chapters and outright falsehoods into the story of Odysseus’s 10-year journey home from the Trojan War.
We discussed the compiling of his Lost Books, why so many writers are drawn to Odysseus’s story, and why he sent a custom-built Trojan horse to the New York Times Book Review—complete with a copy of his novel hidden in its belly.
There’s a tendency to see works of classic literature as these singular, untouchable monuments that came out of the writer’s head fully formed, when in fact that’s hardly ever true. At what point did you, as a reader, first realize that the Odyssey didn’t necessarily happen the way Homer said it did?
Zachary Mason: The Homeric poems were an oral tradition. No matter how diligent their reciters, the poems would necessarily have changed with each performance. Perhaps the poems weren’t even that great to begin with, but each generation of bards changed it a little, trying new things, keeping what worked, and wearing away all the problems. Perhaps Homer is less a person than a succession of persons, or their collective aesthetic.
Some scholars think that the Odyssey is a pastiche, that the monsters and witches of the archipelago through which Odysseus returns don’t quite fit with the rest of Homer, and are most likely sailor’s stories and fairy tales stitched into a newer narrative. So maybe even something as venerable as the Odyssey is a confluence of other, older stories.
And then Odysseus is such a fluent and joyful liar. I would think he would find it difficult not to concoct an elaborate, stirring, and possibly poisonous confabulation whenever someone so much as asks him if he’s had lunch. And the Odyssey is told by many narrators, sometimes by Odysseus himself; it feels like just a nudge is required for the narrative to come apart into self-serving or doubtful or overtly contradictory fragments.
Your book is composed of 44 apocryphal fragments, or alternate episodes, taken from the Trojan War and its aftermath. Which was the first piece you wrote? Once you started, was it easier or more difficult to continue than you’d thought it would be? And how did you know when the book was complete?
ZM: I think the first piece was “Ocean’s Disc,” or it might have been an early (and quite different) version of “The Stranger.” It took a long time to come together, and the process has become a little vague. I suppose I had assumed it would be infinitely difficult, but it turned out to be only finitely difficult, so it was easier than expected.
It feels like the chapters talk to each other in various ways, implying certain patterns. Eventually those patterns felt complete, and I didn’t feel like expanding the book anymore (in fact, the book used to be longer—early versions had as many as 55 chapters, the first edition had 46, or 48 if you count the framing stories, and the second [Farrar, Straus and Giroux] edition has just 44). I have at times considered just editing and re-editing the Lost Books for the rest of my life, on the theory that one book worth preserving is a good result for a lifetime, but now that I’ve rushed into print after just six years of work I suppose it’s on to the next thing.
The pieces are almost startlingly imaginative. Did you mostly take your cues from actual references and ideas in the poems, or was a lot of it pulled from thin air?
ZM: In many cases I felt like my stories were implicit in the material of the original story. Consider the poor cyclops, for instance, blinded by a stranger of whom he knows nearly nothing, mired in darkness, and, on account of his great and habitual brutality, friendless. What does he have to do but sit and think, and where will his thoughts turn but to the man who blinded him, and what will he wish that man but the most prolonged anguish imaginable, decade after decade of exile and loss…
The Odyssey has inspired countless other works of art over the decades and millennia, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou? Why do you think so many artists are drawn to this story? What appeals to you about it?
ZM: One thing is that it is widely perceived as being of central importance, and has been since the golden age of Athens, which has helped ensure that it continues to be of central importance.
Another is that Greek mythology is so well known, and there are so many stories, and all densely interconnected, so that every element of the mythology is surrounded by a halo of stories. This is a rich weave to work with; it also seems to license the addition of more threads.
The book was originally published with indie press Starcherone Books in 2007, where you got some attention for sending a copy to the New York Times Book Review inside a custom-built Trojan horse—but they didn’t review it. Three years later, the book is re-released on Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and this time it gets a glowing review from no less than Michiko Kakutani, the Times’s chief critic. I understand it also did well in some writing contests along the way. Can you tell me about this book’s rather unusual route to success?
ZM: There were three Trojan horses, built by a professional prop designer, and, separately, two envelopes with the first two stanzas of the Iliad written in gold calligraphy, each containing another envelope with the first two stanzas of the Odyssey in Chinese calligraphy, and, within those, the book. My theory was that the major review venues would, by default, ignore small press books, but that if I made the presentation compelling enough they would give the book five minutes, and, I hoped, be drawn in.
From the five packages I got one hit: the L.A. Times, to which I had sent one of the envelopes, reviewed the book favorably. This led to nothing in particular. Then I started entering contests for novels published in 2008, one of which was the New York Public Library Young Lions contest for fiction by writers aged 35 and under. I hadn’t thought it was a big deal, but then I made the final and started getting contacted by agents, and within, I think, a week, FSG had taken the book.
In Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph K. stood accused and needed an advocate, though he stood very little chance of getting one, and even if he did, they would almost certainly be unable to get him acquitted—for that he would need a great advocate, but those were not to be obtained. In fact it was impossible even to find someone who had met one, but one still heard of them, sometimes, and wondered. Hearing that FSG had taken the book was like picking up the phone and finding a great advocate on the line, explaining that I was acquitted, of course, that it had all been a mistake, and that any inconvenience was regretted.
What’s next for you? Is there a strait-laced novel, or another similarly ambitious project, in the works?
ZM: I’m working on a handful of things. The book that will be done next bears about the same relationship to Ovid’s Metamorphoses that the Lost Books does to the Odyssey. I had foresworn the rewriting of ancient books, but apparently too soon.
There are two other books I’m working on, one a more-or-less traditionally structured novel tentatively entitled Void Star, and a book even less conventional than the Lost Books, a sort of imagined literature of artificial intelligences (that is, the stories the AIs tell each other). It’s a little like Calvino’s Cosmicomics, and a little like Lem’s Cyberiad, but not very much like either.
And stay tuned for more Q&As, just as soon as I can find and exploit some other authors’ personal email addresses. Hooray!