22 February 2010

Homer, Continued

We've got an exclusive here on the blog today! But don't get too excited, it's just a book review. I was planning to cover Zachary Mason's THE LOST BOOKS OF THE ODYSSEY for the A.V. Club, but I screwed up and they can't use it -- something I figured out when I was 95 percent done writing the review. Now that I've finished self-flagellating over this I decided to finish it and put it up here. House rules over there are a little different from ye olde blogue, but it's a continuum.

I haven't even edited it since that last draft, so any errors below are mine (and sorry). For funsies, I took off the customary letter grade so if you want you can guess how I graded this book -- or if you've read it, play critic yourself.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey
Zachary Mason

In purporting to add to Homeric legend, Zachary Mason’s poetic and transporting debut goes where many writers, from James Joyce to the Coen brothers, have gone before. The particular charm of “The Lost Books Of The Odyssey” is to uncannily evoke characters in nudging open the door to other visions from those pages.

The 44 chapters that form Mason’s collection are by turns straightforward and discursive, playful and tragic, respectful of or discarding their source; most describe an episode along Odysseus’ classic route, a few with him even narrating, but others examine its events from the vantage point of earlier legends and some from the afterlife. (Fear not, there are footnotes.) Routes not taken spring forth in the lost books, and Odysseuses who may have lived: “Sanatorium” finds him a madman in a temple, unable to remember where he came from after being evacuated from the front; in “Bacchae” and “Islands On The Way,” he succumbs to temptresses en route and forgets his legendarily patient queen. A few of Homer’s minor characters speak out, from the lyrical puzzle of “Phoenician” in the voice of the swineherd Eumaios, who helped slaughter Penelope’s suitors, to “Stone Garden”’s striking image of a lonely Medusa tending her flowers alone. Two pieces envision a particularly gruesome alternate fate for Helen than that written into other authors’ accounts of the fall of Troy.

And other authors are constantly on Mason’s mind: While some of its images are as striking as those in Homer’s work, “The Lost Books Of The Odyssey” is in conception naturally derivative of its inspiration, even if it didn’t also invoke Shakespeare, Dickinson and a host of others. “The Book Of Winter” owes the biggest debt to Borges, whose playfulness and erudition are honored here, in its evocation of a stranger who is gifted a mysterious book, while “Record Of A Game” shuttles the epic poem around using a metaphor Nabokov would have loved.

Mason builds this multiplicity of voices into the book’s preface, citing (fictionally) the lost books as original pieces of Greek legend discarded as a legion of bards repeated and added to the old songs. In “The Iliad of Odysseus,” the Ithacan king even becomes one of those bards, leaving the Trojan battlefield in disguise and writing a song of his heroics to disguise the fact that his flight forced the Greeks into a war of attrition from which Agamemnon barely escaped. Even a few less distinguished chapters in Mason’s arsenal articulate themselves through the voices used -- of the Furies being eavesdropped on, or the implacable third-person view of ruined Troy. As “The Lost Books Of The Odyssey” coils back into itself through the superb chapter “Last Islands,” it leaves in its wake the impression of a homage, but also a continuation of Homer’s work.


Wade Garrett said...

What are the house rules, and why couldn't you review it?

Ellen said...

It couldn't run because it had been previously published in the US in English.

As for the house rules, I couldn't name them all but we have a style guide for standards and formatting and whatnot, plus we get notes as issues come up.