There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Odysseus was never at a loss for a story—or for a disguise. In the Cyclops’ cave he was Nobody; in Eumaeus’ hut, a Trojan; to Athena on Ithaca, a ruthless fugitive from Crete. Glib, watchful, quick with a lie, Odysseus is the original hoodwinking hero. Zachary Mason has taken that very equivocacy as a guiding principle for his first novel. In The Lost Books of the Odyssey, the man of twists and turns is all of the above and more: a coward, an ingrate, a doppelganger, a patient at a sanitarium, the inventor of Achilles, the lover of Helen, a reader of the Odyssey or its witting or unwitting author. Mason—computer programmer by day, revisionist mythologist by night—“retells” the epic in 44 episodes. Some episodes focus on a glossed-over scene from the 24-book original; some pose counterfactual dimensions. All involve a meticulous narrative refraction matched by the indelible precision of the prose—the language, at times, of myth. The book has been billed alternately as a hobbyist pastiche or a Borgesian mind-fuck; Mason, for his part, invokes Calvino and Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, and at points The Lost Books recalls both Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius (a straight-narrative retelling whose language modernizes over the course of three acts) and Paul Bowles’ Points in Time (a series of disconnected, epigrammatic episodes that attempts a history of Morocco in just north of 100 pages). The real premise, meanwhile, is to engage the relationship between fiction and myth and the central weapon in Odysseus’ arsenal: the knowledge that whoever controls the story controls the war. Narrative threads unravel and recombine; the Labyrinth of Crete has a secret portal in Athens; the Cyclops—in one of the most moving episodes—reveals himself as Homer. (The author allows the reader to connect the dots—that both were blind and that neither trusted Odysseus.) Mason does complicated work with apparent ease, and only in moments of flourish does he fall prey to the accusation Quintilian leveled at Ovid (the basis of Mason’s next novel) and that Athena levels at Odysseus—that he is “too in love with his own cleverness.” In chapter five, Mason describes the anti-fortress Agamemnon constructs outside the walls of Troy—“the negative image of a palace in the white plain”:
Following the wisdom of the court geomancers it was considered impious to exhume any of the collapsed rooms and tunnels, a sin on par with looting a tomb, so when more space was needed the miners struck out into virgin ground. Thus the underground palace evolved dendritically, sending off new shoots in all directions, sometimes opposed by unforeseen aquifers or plumes of hard rock, working around these obstacles with ant-like tenacity.
Such might be the epitaph of Mason’s own effort. The net effect is worthy of its twisty-turny namesake: a Trojan horse with a bellyful of stories. And readers, delightedly, will give themselves over. The episodes, for all their erudition, are inviting—sometimes irresistible—but Mason never lets readers get too comfortable. A brief pit stop, a brittle moment of clarity, and it’s on to the next island, the next story, the next lie.