Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey

The first chapter of The Lost Books of the Odyssey finds the ever-wily Odysseus—perpetual castaway and hero of Homer’s epic poem—arriving home in Ithaca after 20 years at sea, and going mad as soon as his foot hits the shore. In the second, a rival king signs his death warrant, which gets passed down through several layers of bureaucracy before being assigned to none other than Odysseus himself. In the third, he meets an enemy Trojan who claims to be his exact double and is soon usurped by him.

From there, Odysseus builds an inverted palace in a sand dune, tightrope-walks through hell, suffers multiple bouts of amnesia, murders Helen of Troy, marries Helen of Troy, gets courted by the goddess Athena, gets abandoned by same, and is dealt all kinds of other good and ill fortune. More than once, he finds an elaborately bound book called the Odyssey, in which he reads his own life story.

These are just some of the scenarios dreamed up in Zachary Mason’s debut novel, an audacious and spectacular reimagining that treats Homer’s classic less as an object to be worshipped than as a recipe to be tinkered with, its ingredients begging to be mixed together in new and unexpected combinations. Mason sets himself up as a humble curator who is merely gathering these 44 variations—which he insists are found items, “excavated from the desiccated rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus”—into one place.

Though apocryphal, each of the fragments is exhilarating in its own way. Mason’s prose has a light but resonant touch to it; he can imply multitudes in a few short pages. More importantly, his imagination seems limitless, and his love of twisted logic and metatextuality recalls both Jorge Luis Borges and the tangled second half of Don Quixote.

Mason’s novel also makes a compelling case for literature’s fundamental elasticity. It argues that as they get passed down and translated and shipped across oceans, texts change—usually in big, unpredictable ways.

Switch perspectives for a second, and suddenly the murderous Cyclops becomes a simple farmer, victim of a brutal home invasion.

Or take a few steps back, and the Trojan War starts to look a lot like a chess match; the Iliad, in turn, becomes nothing but a trumped-up transcription. And the Odyssey? A “long and bitter endgame played out on a board nearly stripped of pieces”.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pp, $28.95, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, March 18, 2010)

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