Dwight's Reviews > The Lost Books of The Odyssey

The Lost Books of The Odyssey by Zachary Mason
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Dec 04, 2012

Read in June, 2010

The review for the FS&G edition...see below for the original Starcherone edition...

The Lost Books of the Odyssey purports to be just as the name implies—books or fragments that did not make it into the final version of The Odyssey. A chapter may have one item changed and the reader sees the cascading effect emanating from that change. Or the chapter may be told from the perspective of a different character in the epic, with or without changes. Or it may be a complete re-imagining of what “really” took place and how the epic we now read came into being. The scope isn’t limited to The Odyssey since many scenes from The Iliad and other mythic tales are included, but they usually come back to how the alternate version impacts Odysseus.

I resisted the book at first. My wife asked, when I was starting the second chapter, what I was reading. “Einstein’s Dreams meets Homer,” was the easiest way for me to describe it (although I could have just as easily said Borges or Gaiman). Which it is, but at the same time it is so much more. Following what was common and contradictory between the different scenarios intrigued me and I, like Mr. Riddle, was won over by the sheer cleverness of the scenarios. My favorite chapter was The Iliad of Odysseus, a re-imagining of the Trojan War if Odysseus was a reluctant leader and warrior, yearning rather to be a bard. He gets his wish after taking matters into his own hands regarding Helen and sets the deciding conflict into motion. After performing as a bard for ten years around the Mediterranean, shaping the stories that became The Odyssey (becoming Homer in a sense), he returns home to Ithaca and enjoys hearing other bards sing of his alleged exploits. While these stories mock what really occurred, Odysseus rationalizes “What good is the truth when those who were there are dead or scattered?”, completely undermining the concept of kleos.

Zachary Mason, a computer scientist and mathematician here in Silicon Valley, has created alternate worlds where “Every event is the cause of myriad effects”. While written in prose, the economy of language and descriptive vocabulary can make the chapters feel like poetry at times. You can read this as deeply or lightly as you like, either way will provide much enjoyment.

Comments on the original Starcherone edition...

I originally included Yasuko Taoka’s paper “A Liar’s Yarn: Storytelling in The Lost Books of the Odyssey” as an update to my post on the book. Now that I have a copy of the first edition from Starcherone Books I realize both the paper and the first edition of the book deserve their own post. Taoka’s paper, adapted from a speech she made, provides a lot of material on the differences between the two editions, focusing on the parts of the first edition that adds to the overall structure and meaning of the book.

The second edition of the book, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, made some major changes from the first edition. Taoko’s second footnote covers the bulk of the modifications:

Changes include the addition of two chapters (“No Man’s Wife” and “Epigraph”), the deletion of the Introduction, Appendix, and three chapters (“After Coming Home,” Fox,” and “Endless City”), and the transposition of three chapters (“Sad Revelation,” “Fireworks,” and “Record of a Game”). In general the second edition creates more continuity between chapters, and eliminates the mathematical superstructure borrowed from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

Also included at the end of the book’s first edition, along with the typesetting information, is the Author Biography:

Zachary Mason was educated at Trinity College, the University of Michigan, and the Sorbonne. He is currently the John Shade Professor of Archaeocryptography and Paleomathmematics at Magdalen College, Osford. He divides his time between Oxford and the Greek island Ogygia. He lives with his cats, Talleyrand and Penthesilia.

If the Nabokov reference doesn’t bring a smile to your face, this book isn’t for you. In the paper Taoka spends a lot of time explaining how the final chapter, “Endless City,” works, both from the organizational standpoint (encapsulating previous chapters while continuing the narrative) and the looping, Mobius-strip like framework. It’s a helpful explanation that shows how the chapter should be read.

Taoka also touches on the imagery in the book that graphically depicts what Mason does narratively in the book. The introduction goes into detail on how the lost books were translated using a combination of keys—Taoka ties the names used in titles to chapters of Calvino’s Invisible Cities as decoding keys (see footnote 12). There is so much wonderful stuff going on in these books that it’s helpful to have a guide. I highly recommend the paper and the original edition of the book, especially for anyone that enjoyed the FS&G edition.

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