The Lost Books of the Odyssey
Starcherone Books: 228 pp., $16 paper
One Man’s Odyssey Through “The Odyssey”
Crown: 286 pp., $24.95
“In fact,” writes Zachary Mason, as if anyone could doubt him, “there have been innumerable Trojan wars.” And how could he be wrong? What era has been free of stupid wars that threaten not to end, or of the stupid, stubborn kings who start them? (So much staked for handsome Helen? Come on, there must have been oil under Troy!) Little comfort to the Trojans, or to those outside the Green Zone, but wars do end eventually. Heroes and villains, should they survive, sail home. Some make it. Some don’t. And some, even once home, never quite return. “And if you find her poor,” quipped Constantine Cavafy, cruelly, “Ithaca has not defrauded you.”
Wars. Journeys. Monsters. Storms. An angry god. A visit with the dead. A faithful or unfaithful spouse. A destination that recedes, apparently infinitely, the closer you get. “The Odyssey” provides fodder for a story or two, some high-minded metaphoric play, a nest of cliches if things go awry. “Inevitably,” Mason continues, “each particular war is a distortion of its antecedent, an image in a warped hall of mirrors.” So Virgil reads Homer, pilfers what he can and lets Aeneas, a Trojan, found Rome. Ovid picks up Homer’s pen and hands it to Penelope. (The first of his Heroides is a letter from Odysseus/Ulysses’ wife to her tardy mate: “You were careful, I’m sure, to always think first of me.”) Lucian sends Ulysses to the moon. Dante grants him a glimpse of purgatory, then drops him in hell.
Eventually, Homer -- and Odysseus -- would become something like a beginning, the myth at the origin of the West’s many myths. “I am become a name,” Tennyson wrote of the questing hero, whose archetype he helped cement. James Joyce, from what I understand, also got involved.
Joyce casts a long shadow, but Odysseus’ wanderings did not stop with “Ulysses.” He left a trail of salt and sand across Ezra Pound’s “Cantos.” Louis Aragon abducted Odysseus’ son, tender Telemachus, subjecting him to a novella of Dada high jinks. Unfazed, Odysseus climbed in bed with the poet Cavafy, with Nikos Kazantzakis, with Robert Graves. Derek Walcott reimagined him in the Caribbean. Pop has not neglected him: See the Coen brothers, Sting, “The Simpsons.”
Margaret Atwood bid the old man adieu and turned her attention to Penelope. Along with her “Penelopiad,” Canongate Books has compiled a sufficient roster of revived myths -- Atlas and Heracles, Theseus and the Minotaur -- to create a mini-imprint. Then there are the two books here, perhaps unfairly paired: Mason’s cryptic novel, “The Lost Books of the Odyssey,” and Scott Huler’s travelogue, “No-Man’s Lands.”
It’s easy to crib from undergraduate lecture notes and theorize about what Joyce or Pound were up to. We can cite, if forced, reams of bland scholarship on the relationship between modernism and myth, the lust for origins in an era cast adrift. What more convenient figure than lost Odysseus -- hungry for home but not exactly running from Calypso’s warm lap -- to stand in for modernity’s native ambivalence, its simultaneous disdain for and worship of the past?
But 80 years ago, people still learned Greek in high school. Latin too, poor things. No one reads even the Yellow Pages these days. How can we explain this latest spate of myth-lit? I don’t want to sound like a crank -- I’m not sure I miss them -- but in this emoticon age it does seem odd that any of us would bother to dust off the creaky Greeks. Omg, his name was Homer, lol!
I have no ready explanation, except that perhaps we’re not as clever as we think. Maybe there are only so many stars, and so many stories. (But there are a lot of stars!) Weirdly, these stories still work for us: a sounding board off which to bounce ourselves, and find ourselves. We find, in these cases, our hunger to be lost, and our banality
Mason un-grounds the Odyssey, often gorgeously, turning Homer’s twisting tale into a sermon on indeterminacy. He allows this grand myth of homecoming no beginning or end, just banks of fog, endless mirrors, Borgesian labyrinths. Huler, meanwhile, painfully well-meaning (he comments frequently for National Public Radio), mines the text for suburban life lessons. Hurry, Odysseus, it’s time to go!
Let’s start with Mason, who’s more fun. Like his subject, he’s fond of tricks. He hides a Nabokov reference in a spurious “About the Author” paragraph (Mason is not, in fact, “the John Shade Professor of Archaeocryptography and Paleomathematics at Magdalen College, Oxford,” but a computer scientist from Palo Alto) and begins with the 21st century version of the manuscript-discovered-in-a-desk gambit.
This, then, is an ancient text “traditionally attributed to the Homerids, epic poets who claimed to be descended from Homer.” But the book is encrypted, the key to the code lost. Fortunately, a cryptographer, bored with separating “the static-filled walkie-talkie conversations of Islamic radicals . . . from the background radio signal generated by the Aurora Borealis,” broke the code. The translation, he warns, is highly speculative, perhaps illusory.
“The essential insight,” Mason writes in one of the 46 short chapters that follow -- the lost books themselves -- “is that the text is corrupt, or, if not corrupt, then incomplete, or of a calculated obscurity.” So don’t look for certainties. Look to get lost. Mason lets Odysseus compose “The Odyssey.” He gives Achilles a chance to speak, and even Eumaios, the loyal swineherd who helps Odysseus slaughter Penelope’s suitors and maids.
He has Homer dream of refineries. He sends Odysseus to China, to Hades, to psychoanalysis. He makes him a sorcerer and Achilles a golem crafted from river mud and a slave girl’s blood. He lets Odysseus return to Ithaca to find it abandoned, to find Penelope a ghost, or worse, married to a fat old man: " . . . it had never occurred to him that she would just give up.” Odysseus’ journeys never end. Or maybe they never begin. Maybe, instead, the war never ends, and Agamemnon ages in a fortress dug beneath Troy’s sand beaches that expands “dendritically, sending off new shoots in all directions” as avalanches reclaim whole wings. Mason delights in doubles, spirals, conceptual mazes and Mobius strips. He is only occasionally too clever. Mainly, he is a wondrous pleasure to read.
Huler’s “No-Man’s Lands” does not benefit from comparison. It is, to be just, a different breed of book entirely. Huler set out to trace Odysseus’ storm-tossed journey from Troy to Ithaca, to crisscross the Mediterranean, visiting the sites associated with everyone from Calypso to the Cyclops Polyphemus. But he suffers from the most lethal disease of travel writers -- the urge to render the unfamiliar familiar, to masticate the strange and spit it back as pablum. (“Think of the Greeks as a football team . . .”) Like a beagle snorting after chicken nuggets kicked beneath the couch, Huler seeks out tidy lessons to share with the folks at home. Worse, he finds them.
“Peer through the veneer of fantasy,” Huler writes, “and ‘The Odyssey’ is a book about stuff we know: girls and bad guys; jobs and responsibilities; friends, coworkers, and family.” He’s right, of course. Peer at that veneer long enough and you’ll see, well, yourself. But then, why bother looking? Why not save the cash, take the bus to the mall instead?
Sometimes the Odyssey feels old. There are other stories, aren’t there? How did Tennyson’s Ulysses put it? Oh, yes: “Come, my friends, / ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”