James's Reviews > The Lost Books of the Odyssey

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
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's review
Aug 10, 2010

it was amazing
Read from August 10 to 31, 2010

This is highly skilled writing and an enjoyable read. My only complaint, if it is a complaint, is that the experience is a little cold, which is perhaps unavoidable with forty or so sometimes related but independent narratives. This isn't an actual novel. Mason uses the characters and incidents of the Odyssey, Iliad, and the fragmentary Epic Cycle as a springboard for a series of postmodernist larks, e.g. What if Odysseus got home and Penelope had lost hope and married another man? What if the trials of Odysseus were a vengeful fantasy of the blinded Polyphemus? What if the Iliad and Odyssey were not descriptions of an actual war, but ritual prescriptions for an Achaean iteration of the Indo-European strategy game that became chess?
In the last story, my favorite, I think, a superannuated Odysseus and a
handful of companions retrace their youthful journey to Troy. It has become a tourist trap, with costumed pantomime heroes and gawking rubes lining up to buy tickets and trinkets.
This book reminded me very much of John Barth, and, in particular, of course, his own postmodern riff on Homer, "Menelaiad." I had to resist the jaded "Read it." feeling. I was also reminded of a discussion in my Iliad class about the description of the crafting of Achilles' shield. The passage is extremely modern in its self-consciousness and reflection on artifice and, I shudder to say it, textuality. My professor said something to the effect that it was sort of depressing, but, the more you read Homer, the more you realize that everything that has subsequently been attempted in Western literature he had already done first and better.
Mason has my respect, then, for stepping into the ring with the Heavyweight Champion of All Time and acquitting himself honorably. An aristeia, to be certain.

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