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02.17.10

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Phaedra

Photograph by Yan Li
HIT A HOMER: Zach Mason's 'The Lost Books of the Odyssey' is a playful twist on Homer's epic.

Time Traveler

Author Zach Mason bends time and space in surreal variations 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 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 240 pages; $24 hardback), is both.

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.

In one episode, after defeating the Trojans and wandering the seas for years in an effort to get home, a shipwrecked Odysseus finds himself in a time slip: his rescuer is Agamemnon, who is on his way to Troy to fight the war that has not yet begun. Locked below decks on Agamemnon's ship and imprisoned in the labyrinth of time, Odysseus discovers a book called The Iliad. As he begins to read the story of the famous war—featuring himself—he notices that the author gets many of the details wrong.

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 characters 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.

Before Odysseus lands on Calypso's island and becomes her lover, Mason has him overhear the three blind Fates discussing his destiny. Should they make Calypso a "horror" to punish him? Hiding outside their grisly cave, Odysseus perfectly imitates one of their voices and interjects, "No, let her be beautiful and kind as summer." Thinking that one of the other hags has made this suggestion, the Fates assent, but comment, "Do not forget ... he is, for all that he is bound to us, allowed just once to direct his fate. ... Let us hope he does not meddle enough to get himself home." Odysseus has just wasted his one chance to change his destiny, but at least Calypso will be a beauty.

Reading Mason's book is a journey through the imagination via lush, eloquent prose that will reignite a love of mythology within its readers, or—if they weren'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 Tuesday, Feb. 23, at 7:30pm at Kepler's, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. Free. 650.324.4321.


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