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02.24.10

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Phaedra
Photograph by Yan Li

Time Traveler

Zach Mason takes a surreal variation on the Odysseus tale

By Valerie Ross


We've all heard, in part or in whole, the tale of Homer's Odyssey—how Odysseus, the clever, long-suffering hero of the Trojan War, takes 10 years to get home to his faithful wife, Penelope, having a seemingly endless series of life-threatening and erotic adventures along the way. It's an epic feast of Freudian symbolism, a middle-aged fantasy of resilient ingenuity and potency, a tale of identity lost and regained.

Now the Odyssey has come to us in another form, disguised as cleverly and strategically as Odysseus himself when cloaked by the goddess Athena's concealing mists. Only neither Odysseus nor Athena were writers or poets, and Zachary Mason, author of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, is both. He appears March 1 at Book Passage.

The Lost Books takes the form of a series of carefully crafted vignettes that rework the well-worn paths of the Odyssey with a deftly innovative lyrical style and a compelling philosophical, even metaphysical, slant.

Framed by the pretense of "translating" recently discovered fragments of "pre-Ptolemaic papyrus excavated from the desiccated rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus" and containing dozens of variations on the Odysseus story, Mason's narrative is at times playful in its revisions and at others darkly chilling.

Time and its variable, ironic nature is a central theme in Mason's work; almost every one of the vignettes bends or refracts time in order to imagine alternative destinies for the mythical heroes whose archetypal quests form the foundation of Western culture. Besides Odysseus, Mason reworks scenes from legends about Theseus, Agamemnon, Achilles and Alexander the Great, all of which shatter any previous fixed notions we might have had about these figures.

Some of the most interesting terrain subjected to Mason's radical revisions are the women of the Odyssey. Odysseus' wife, Penelope, takes many different forms throughout the vignettes, most memorably that of a shape-shifting wild woodland creature. Odysseus' witchy lover Circe turns out to be the leader of the Bacchae. He is also propositioned by the goddess Athena, and, unbeknownst to him, hapless Ariadne, after her abandonment by Theseus, takes on a new identity as the seductress Calypso.

Reading Mason's book is a journey through the imagination via lush, eloquent prose that will re-ignite a love of mythology within its readers, or, if it wasn't there before, inspire entirely fresh insights into the ways that myths shape and inform the way we tell the stories of our lives.

Zachary Mason reads from The Lost Books of the Odyssey on Monday, March 1, at Book Passage. 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 7pm. Free. 415.927.0960.


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