Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 18 2010 9:28 AM

Literature's First Unreliable Narrator

The unexpected lessons of The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

There are less hubristic ways to start a career as a novelist than by retelling the story of The Odyssey. For one thing, the original was pretty good. For another, the story has been retold before—by the likes of Alfred Lord Tennyson, James Joyce, and Fritz Lang, to name a few. Yet in The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason has achieved something remarkable. He's written a first novel that is not just vibrantly original but also an insightful commentary on Homer's epic and its lasting hold on our imagination.

"The Lost Books of the Odyssey".
John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor. 

 

A short preface lays out the book's conceit: What follows is a translation of 44 variations on The Odyssey, discovered on an ancient papyrus excavated from "the desiccated rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus" (a real-life archaeological trove). Mason presents these variations as Homeric apochrypha—versions of the Odysseus story that circulated in the time before Homer but were left out of the epic as we came to know it. In the opening fragment, for example, Odysseus returns home to Ithaca to find that Penelope has taken a new husband, an old man who, in the hero's estimation, "would not have lasted an hour in the blinding glare before the walls of Troy."

One of the pleasures of Mason's novel lies simply in imagining these scenarios; they're entertaining in the way a counterfactual history is entertaining. What if the Confederates had won at Gettysburg? What if Achilles had abandoned the Greek cause at Troy? Yet Mason is up to more here than merely suggesting alternate endings to familiar stories. He spins his tales with Borgesian economy—few of them last for more than five or six pages—and they take up Borgesian themes, some more successfully than others. In one surprisingly effective chapter, Odysseus matches wits with a doppelgänger, a Trojan who has suddenly been invested with the hero's psyche and legendary guile. Another chapter succumbs to archness, imagining that the Iliad began as the record of a chess match, rather than as a song describing an ancient war.

But Mason's enterprise never devolves into a mere high-concept exercise. He's too interested in portraying his characters in three dimensions for that. Penelope, Agamemnon, Menelaus, the many versions of Odysseus—they're each imbued with a psychological subtlety that defies the brevity of the fragments. Just as important, the book is propelled by a sense of underlying purpose. Mason hasn't set out to give The Odyssey a postmodern spin so much as to explore the postmodern tropes already present in the poem. With its out-of-order chronology (the story famously starts in the middle) and narrative within a narrative (the poem's central section is a series of adventures recounted by Odysseus himself), The Odyssey is at least as complex as anything you'll find in Borges.

Mason takes special delight in reminding his reader that the hero of The Odyssey, in addition to being a warrior and a wanderer, is a gifted storyteller, and one who rarely feels constrained by the truth. Throughout Homer's epic, Odysseus concocts stories to suit his needs, and throughout The Lost Books, Mason challenges the hero's version of events. What if his storm-tossed journey home was the result not of taunting Poseidon but of spurning the advances of Athena? What if he tarried longer with the Phaeacians—and their lovely princess, Nausicaa—than he lets on in The Odyssey? Should we believe his accounts of narrowly escaping the wrath of one-eyed and six-headed monsters (events to which he's our only witness)? Or is Odysseus literature's first unreliable narrator?

This question is taken up in one of Mason's longest and best chapters, narrated by Odysseus, though an Odysseus who bears little resemblance to the one we know from Homer. This one is cunning, but by his own admission cowardly and unskilled in the art of war. When Agamemnon arrives at Ithaca to summon him to fight at Troy, he feigns madness.   Dragged off to war anyway, he deserts and takes up work as a bard, singing for his supper in a city near Troy.   Though he starts out performing the classics, he soon takes to inventing his own material. "It occurred to me that I had in my hands the means of making myself an epic hero," he explains. "What good is the truth when those who were there are dead or scattered?" Talented at his adopted craft, he wins fame for his singing, and for the hero of his songs: wily, brave Odysseus.

In a sense, the chapter is just a clever literary joke—what if Odysseus were the author of The Odyssey? The mystery of Homer's identity—and of how the Homeric poems went from being an oral tradition to fixed, written texts—remains, and will likely always remain, unsolved. Was Homer an oral poet and a writer? Or did he collaborate with a scribe? How much of the poem did he compose, and how much did he inherit? Could he possibly have been a she? These questions clearly fascinate Mason; several of the fragments imagine how the poem first took shape, and more than one finds its way to Chios, the island where Homer is said to have lived. (In one chapter, Mason posits that the Cyclops is the original author of the story, substituting the blinded monster for the blind bard—it's niftier than it sounds.)

But The Lost Books also raises questions about The Odyssey itself, and its unprecedented and still puzzling feat of storytelling. As this fragment serves to remind us, a large swath of the poem is narrated by a lone survivor, at liberty to embellish as he pleases. Odysseus' comrades who aren't lunched on by the Cyclops, the cannibalistic Laestrygonians, or the dreaded Scylla, are eventually swallowed by the deep, divine punishment for eating the trayf Oxen of the Sun. Of these events, Homer gives us only Odysseus' account to the Phaeacians to go on. Why is it again that we believe him?

Mason's fragment prods us to second thoughts. This is a hero, after all, who, upon returning home to Ithaca, goes off on one of literature's wildest lying sprees. To his wife, father, and household staff, Odysseus tells a series of tall tales, ostensibly to test everyone's allegiance. But his stories are far more intricate and embroidered with detail than is necessary for that purpose. He even tries to put one over on Athena, telling the goddess—disguised as a local shepherd boy—that he's a Cretan fugitive.  "You terrible man," Athena replies. "Foxy, ingenious, never tired of twists and tricks—so, not even here, on native soil, would you give up/those wily tales that warm the cockles of your heart!" No less an authority than his Olympian patron thinks the guy is incorrigible.

Mason is hardly the first to pick up on this strangeness. How to understand Odysseus' lies has been at the heart of retellings going back to the 5th century B.C. Sophocles cast him as a hero in Ajax and a villain   in Philoctetes. Virgil, claiming the Trojans as ancestors of Rome, called Ulysses cruel and deceitful. Dante (who didn't know Homer's work directly) followed Virgil's lead, placing him in the deepest reaches of hell, his punishment for the treacheries perpetrated during the Trojan War.

Mason isn't interested in making a moral judgment. In Odysseus, he's found a kindred spirit: a supremely talented storyteller forever dreaming up new material. The effect of reading The Lost Books is to make you realize that it's not just its narrative of homecoming that makes The Odyssey so archetypal. It's also that the poem captures the irrepressible human impulse to tell stories. And, perhaps, to favor a good story over a strictly accurate one.

In Mason's final fragment, Odysseus, grown old and restless, decides to embark on one final journey, though naturally he must first clear it with his faithful wife. In a single sentence—an example of the economy with which these familiar characters are brought to new life throughout the novel—Mason paints a wry portrait of domestic life with the wiliest of Greeks:

I saw her formulate an objection (she would miss me and believed I was more comfortable with her around), conceal it (because she didn't want to be a shrew and thought she'd have a better chance of getting her way indirectly), put on an expression of mild inquiry (to avoid revealing her indirect intentions with a conspicuous blankness) and finally see in my face that I had followed her chain of thought, which made her smile.

She can never get him to take out the garbage either. His wife persuaded, Odysseus leaves port, though unlike Tennyson's Ulysses, who sets out at the end of his life "To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/ Of all the Western stars," Mason's Odysseus heads east, retracing his fateful journey back from Troy. When he arrives finally at that city, he approaches its walls with shield raised. But the man who once conspired to bring Troy to its knees goes unrecognized and is welcomed into its streets. There he observes actors dressed as Hector and Achilles, pantomiming their legendary battle with wooden swords. Just then, a third actor arrives, "his face made up in a leer of cruel cunning." It's Odysseus. The city has forgotten him, but his story—a version of it anyway—survives.

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