Reviewed by Andrew Kushnir firstname.lastname@example.org
An Unconventional Epic: Reviewing Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey
Any list of the Ancient Greek works that have firmly influenced modern culture would be entirely incomplete without Homer’s Odyssey. The twenty-four part epic, a recounting of the Greek hero Odysseus’ return to his homeland of Ithaca following the Trojan War, is hailed as a masterpiece of ancient literature. However, it is important to note that Homer, in all likelihood, was not the original creator of the Odyssey. While the poet may have compiled the most complete and famous transcription of the tale, it is all but certain that earlier versions of the Odyssey had already been shared orally for many years, with each bard modifying the shared source material as they saw fit. It is entirely in this tradition that Zachary Mason enters with his debut novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Billed as a new translation of a lost manuscript recovered from ancient ruins, The Lost Books in fact reads as a collection of forty-four vignettes, each focusing on a specific theme, character, or setting from Homer’s original work. Mason draws deeply not only from surface elements of the Odyssey, but also from its literary structure, creating a work that is a fascinating reinterpretation of ancient myth for the reader already acquainted with the classics. Read by itself, however, Mason’s novel falls somewhat short; substantial background knowledge of the Odyssey is required for The Lost Books to rise above its nature as a collection of vague fragments and thus deliver its full message.
For an ancient work, the Odyssey is remarkably complex in terms of chronology and narrative structure. Rather than immediately focusing on the epic’s protagonist, Homer begins his work by following the actions of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son. Indeed, it is not until the fifth book of the original poem that Homer finally introduces us to the hero himself, trapped on Calypso’s island. Upon his arrival at Phaeacia, the reader learns that Odysseus is in fact already more than halfway through his own story. Many of the most well-known scenes from the Odyssey, from Odysseus’s battle with the Cyclops to his escape from Circe’s island, have already occurred, communicated to the reader in the ancient equivalent of a flashback as Odysseus recounts his exploits to the Phaeacian king and queen.
It is this very chronological and narrative fluidity that fascinates Mason throughout The Lost Books. In the novel’s preface, Mason writes, “the Homeric material was formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck,” illustrating the limitless malleability of the ancient work (ix). His desire to engage not just with the Odyssey’s plot but also its structure is evident beginning in his first chapter, a retelling of the canonical end of the epic; in a vision of his homecoming, Odysseus finds Penelope not faithfully pining for his return, but having married and settled down with another man. Besides immediately changing the traditional order of the Odyssey, with Odysseus’s long-awaited nostos the subject of the very first chapter, Mason also examines Ancient Greek gender norms. Penelope, rather than being depicted as the ideal Greek heroine, loyal unto death, is instead portrayed far more realistically as a woman who, after waiting “longer than anyone thought was right,” had finally decided to move forward with her life (4). In this chapter, Mason provides his first instance of the Odyssey “reshuffled,” inverting the epic’s ordering while retaining and subverting the theme of marriage loyalty that pervades the ancient text.
Mason’s desire to emulate the structural complexity and themes of Homer’s work is perhaps the most faithful Mason remains to the Odyssey, as the vast majority of plotlines in The Lost Books are almost if not entirely original. Some chapters, like a deeper examination of the faithful swineherd Eumaeus, simply add context to moments from Homer’s work, while others, such as an interpretation of Odysseus as a literal pawn on a chessboard, are wildly fantastical. No two chapters of The Lost Books should be read as featuring the same characters, or even occurring in the same narrative universe; Odysseus may appear in his familiar ancient self in one vignette, then be portrayed as a sanatorium-bound modern war veteran in the next.
This internal inconsistency, however, allows Mason to ignore plot constraints as he focuses on themes or characters that interest him, a tactic especially noticeable in his treatment of Odysseus. In the original Odyssey, Odysseus’ defining trait is his intelligence; he’s a wily trickster who regularly thinks, lies, and swindles his way out of difficult situations. Noting Homer’s tendency to have Odysseus create multiple backstories for himself to deceive others, Mason essentially reinterprets the hero as an unreliable narrator, with many chapters of The Lost Books deriving from Odysseus knowingly modifying the events of his own story. In Chapter 18, a disguised Odysseus crafts songs embellishing his wartime and expeditionary exploits in a desire to gain unearned kleos, while in Chapter 14 Mason implies that Odysseus himself fabricated the Odyssey, writing, “[Odysseus] started inventing histories for himself…this had the intended effect of clouding perception…and the unexpected effect that one of his lies became, with minor variations, the Odyssey of Homer,” (71). Indeed, the events of the Odyssey are not even universally attributed to Odysseus; in Chapter 26, it is the Cyclops, lonely after being blinded by “Nobody,” who invents a backstory for his unknown assailant. Mason’s treatment of Odysseus is not only a refreshing and intriguing update on the time-honored character, but a brilliant way to incorporate the hero himself into The Lost Books’ ever-present narrative fluidity. Like the nature of Greek oral poetry itself, Odysseus is an ever-shifting character, constantly changing in order to match the theme of each vignette.
To a reader already familiar with the Odyssey, The Lost Books is a clever and nuanced exercise in adapting Ancient Greek literature to the modern age. Mason retains all of Homer’s key themes—homecoming, maturation, loyalty—but introduces them into imaginative scenarios, giving rise to a much more expansive interpretation of the Odyssey than might have been otherwise possible. For example, Mason’s depiction of Odysseus as a suffering war veteran in Chapter 40 prompts the reader to consider how the Ancient Greek concept of nostos interacts with the journey modern veterans are saddled with in terms of coping with their mental health. However, Mason’s work does not prove similarly effective to the reader who is not deeply acquainted with Homer’s epic. Certain portions of the Odyssey are certainly public knowledge, with many of its monsters firmly rooted in popular culture. However, in both the Odyssey and The Lost Books, such characters are often mere sidenotes; in the original, Homer allots little more than three stanzas to the famed Scylla and Charybdis, while Mason writes five pages on Scylla and omits Charybdis entirely. The reader whose only conception of the Odyssey is as an ancient tale of heroic action and fantastical adventure will be left sorely disappointed by The Lost Books, which is far more concerned with the Odyssey’s structure than its plot.
As a result, The Lost Books’ impact as a standalone piece of fiction, assuming no prior knowledge of the Odyssey, shares a common trait with the book’s heroic protagonist; inconsistency. Mason clearly targeted this work toward a certain educated class of reader already exposed to Greek mythology, diminishing its appeal as a mass-market “popular” novel. Lacking a cohesive plot or steady depictions of its characters, The Lost Books could easily confuse a reader expecting to find a rousing tale of seafaring heroism within its pages. Instead, The Lost Books, read independently of the Odyssey, is a collection of forty-four abstract fragments with no immediately apparent connecting ties. Even to the reader with an intermediate or advanced knowledge of mythology, the book still requires a great deal of close reading and analysis in order to discern Mason’s intention in writing the piece. While the book has received an overall positive reception, critics have seemed to share this concern with the novel’s complexity, with Adam Mansbach of The New York Times writing, “At times, Mason’s conceits go nowhere, and don’t get there fast enough. The results are chapters missing the sense of purpose and play that animate the book’s best efforts, chapters shrugged off the moment they end.” As such, the book renders itself polarizing; classics-lovers will rejoice at the novel’s multi-leveled engagement with the ancient text, while readers new to Greek mythology could fail to recognize the symbols and devices that motivate The Lost Books’ existence in the first place.
Just like Odysseus himself, The Lost Books is adventurous, bold, and inventive, reshaping Homer’s work into a well-executed update for the 21st century. Mason’s novel proves that the enduring power of the Odyssey comes not from granular plot detail, but from the sad yet beautiful longing for home that radiates from the pages of both books. The Lost Books is not without issue; if not read in conjunction with its predecessor, it would be difficult to appreciate the novel’s intricate treatment of its source material. Nevertheless, Mason on the whole succeeds in crafting a book that manages to be wildly original while still respecting Ancient Greek tradition. The Lost Books draws the reader back to pre-Homeric Greece, when Odysseus was not a firmly canonized hero but an amorphous shadow, as unique and flexible as the imagination of the storyteller. In doing so, Mason’s title demonstrates that Greek myth, as a freely available set of characters, settings, and themes, remains as infinitely modifiable in the twenty-first century as it was in ancient times.
Albritton, Laura. “The Lost Books of the Odyssey.” Harvard Review, 20 June 2013.
Homer, trans. Robert Fagles. The Odyssey. Penguin Books, 1996.
Mansbach, Adam. “Sunday Book Review: Odysseus Remixed.” The New York Times, 12 Feb.
Mason, Zachary. The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Picador, 2010.
Swansburg, John. “Literature’s First Unreliable Narrator: The Unexpected Lessons of The Lost
Books of the Odyssey.” Slate, 18 Feb. 2010. https://slate.com/culture/2010/02/zachary-mason-s-the-lost-books-of-the-odyssey.html