Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey

This weekend’s Left of Cool column was on Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

I shrink instinctively from, yet am intrigued by Mason’s research: he claims he is “interested in scientifically [...] understanding thought with computational precision” (from here) and his thesis appears to have to do with computational linguistics and metaphor (the introduction to the video below elaborates a little on this).

The Lost Books of the Odyssey blew me away. Since I read it I’ve been looking for everything by Mason I can find – David Hebblethwaite pointed me to his story (a retelling of the Narcissus and Echo myth) in the inaugural issue of Night and Day and Guernica published “The Machine Edda” some years ago. Apparently Mason is now working on a version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Too often books that are this clever (and I wonder how computer scientists feel about the term ‘postmodern’?) get characterised as rather cold and heartless, and those of us who love them find ourselves making excuses, showing how human the characters are, how moved we were. And there are certainly moments in The Lost Books of the Odyssey where I was moved. But what is more important is this- the implication that the exhilaration that comes with brilliance isn’t unfeeling and detached, a product of our uncommitted times; or if it is, that it’s also old and primal and something that humans have been doing (and loving) for centuries.

 

A version of the column below.

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 “Odysseus, finding that his reputation for trickery preceded him, started inventing histories for himself and disseminating them wherever he went. This had the intended effect of clouding perception and distorting expectation, making it easier for him to work as he was wont, and the unexpected effect that one of his lies became, with minor variations, the Odyssey of Homer.”

Nothing about Homer’s Odyssey is straightforward. The poem tells of Odysseus’ voyage home to Ithaca after the Trojan war, yet it does not start at the beginning of his journey. Homer opens the story after Odysseus has spent several years on the island of Calypso. We only learn what has happened so far when he escapes to the court of the Phaeacians and narrates the story of his own adventures. It is Odysseus’ account of his own journey that takes up most of the poem.

Meanwhile, his son Telemachus searches for news of his father. In doing so he hears of other Greek heroes who had fought at Troy. As a result the Odyssey is a story made of stories – stories told by Odysseus, stories told to Telemachus.

It is entirely fitting then that Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey should be a meditation on how stories work. The premise of Mason’s work is that Homer’s Odyssey is the only surviving account of a much more widely written story. “Nearly three millennia ago a particular ordering of these images crystallized into the Odyssey as we know it, but before that the Homeric material was formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck.” The Lost Books of the Odyssey claims to be a recently discovered set of forty-four variations on the story.

What Mason presents us with, then, is a series of remixes and “what if?”s. It’s a brilliant conceit for this particular epic, and Mason unrestrained in what he does with it. One story, which takes place in a sanatorium, reads almost as science fiction. One has Achilles fighting Asian gods (“white-tusked demons” and “mad-eyed devas”). Another has him as a golem, and there’s an entire chapter about the history of a chess-like game in which Mason may be comparing Kshatriya war tactics to Sanskrit grammar.

Many of the stories take stories themselves for their subject, thus creating a kind of meta-meta-narrative. In some, as in the fragment above, Odysseus himself is the storyteller, knowingly or unknowingly manipulating his own story. One piece deals with a Phaeacian belief that we are all characters in somebody else’s tale. In another Odysseus exists almost outside the narrative—he has read the Iliad, and while the story of the fall of Troy repeats itself over and over, only he and Helen remember its past cycles. A piece entitled “The Book of Winter” plays brilliantly on Odysseus’ ruse of renaming himself “nobody” to escape Poseidon’s wrath; here, to escape the sea god once and for all he obliterates himself completely. The narrator of this section has no name and no memories—occasionally he reads an account of his own life and remembers who he is for a brief moment.

Most of these stories have footnotes which add to the conceit. At one point Mason’s compiler offers a scientific explanation for stories of Cyclopes; at another he comments on the probable age of a fragment. It’s easy to forget that the whole thing is a fiction; this account of how a story might develop over time is utterly plausible. Sometimes it feels as if Mason is tapping into our vast, shared reservoir of Story – and making of this reservoir is a tangible, knowable thing.

There’s beauty here, and heartbreak. An account of Medusa, who craves company but finds only an increasing collection of statues. Achilles, who has defeated the gods in his search for a worthy opponent and now sits on their throne wishing he had never been born. Yet what you really take away from The Lost Books of the Odyssey is the exhilaration that comes from something really clever. Odysseus would know the value of that feeling.

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Mason reads from some of his stories in the video below:

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