Everyone knows the stories, The Iliad and The Odyssey, the wrath of Achilles and the wandering of Odysseus. Here, Zachary Mason reinvents, inverts, reimagines, and takes apart the stories and characters we’ve known since before we could read. And, somehow, he manages to do it with great wit and elegance and ease. The first Lost Book, I think, sets the rest of the collection’s direction.
–He had spent the days of his exile imagining different homecoming scenarios but it had never occurred to him that she would just give up. The town deserted, his house overrun by violent suitors, Penelope dying, or dead or burned, but not this. “Such a long trip,” he thinks, “and so many places I could have stayed along the way.” Then, mercifully, revelation comes. He realizes this is not Penelope. This is not his hall. This is not Ithaca–what he sees before him is a vengeful illusion, the deception of some malevolent god. The real Ithaca is elsewhere, somewhere on the sea-roads, hidden. Giddy, Odysseus turns and flees the tormenting shadows.–
It is the giddiness that’s most evident in this novel of reshaping old myths, of rewriting the rewritten ones. He takes great delight in turning the myths around, subjecting them to their own flawed logic, to their own fatalism, recasting the characters in different lights. It is at turns funny, surprising, engrossing, and full of interesting comments on what it is to have a story, to tell a story, and what legacy means, what fate is or is believed to be or pretends to be.
–Among the Phaeacians it is believed that each man lives out his life as a character in a story told by someone else.–
I think that bit of logic holds throughout. Odysseus is shown as a coward, a cunning hero, a liar, a malicious manipulator, a pillager, a madman, and also as a reluctant man shoved into a great war, lauded for things he barely did, revered for who he is imagined to be. Too, Achilles is shown as a drunk, a buffoon, a violent psychopath, a marauder, a hero, and a man whose fate has been shoved upon him, but, mostly, he is a child trapped inside the body of a god.
But I think it’s the theme throughout to humanise these people, to show how the gods forced a life upon them, even in the stories where the gods are completely absent, hardly even believed in.
–Inevitably, each particular war is a distortion of its antecedent, an image in a warped hall of mirrors.–
–In the lassitude after love Odyssey asks Circe, “What is the way to the land of the dead?”
Circe answers, “You are muffled in folds of heavy fabric. You close your eyes against the rough cloth and though you struggle to free yourself you can barely move. With much thrashing and writhing, you manage to throw off a layer, but find that not only is there another one beyond it, but that the weight bearing you down has scarcely decreased. With dauntless spirit you continue to struggle. By infinitesimal degrees, the load becomes lighter and your confinement less. At last, you push away a piece of course, heavy cloth and, relieved, feel that it was the last one. As it falls away, you realize you have been fighting through years. You open your eyes.”–
–Odysseusm finding that his reputation for trickery preceded him, started inventing histories for himself and disseminating them wherever he went. This had the intended effect of clouding perception and distorting expectation, making it easier for him to work as he was wont, and the unexpected effect that one of his lies became, with minor variation, the Odyssey of Homer.– [one of the variations on the character Odysseus: one which is often reiterated]
–Now I have taken his throne and read his book and the now-docile devas flit about my shoulders, waiting, perhaps forever, for me to impart my wisdom, which is that I have learned nothing, know nothing, wish I had never picked up a sword, left my hut, been born.– [a variation on Achilles]
–He said, Goddess, who are you, to find me and bear me up when I am lost in the waste? In the sudden stillness she said: Water flowing through pipes, pouring into unlit reservoirs there to eddy in silence. Runes of ephemeral fire. A book of many pages written in inks that vanish and reappear. A twilight forest haunted by beasts, watchful and inquisitive. Steadfast of heroes. An onion, an ocean, a palimpsest, a staccato machine of oiled iron gears. These are among the metaphors with which I describe myself, like a hand trying to grasp itself by reaching into a mirror.–
I’m very impressed with this book, for how quickly paced it is, how easy it is to read, how enjoyable it is, and how funny and unwavering it is in its dissection of who and what we are, because to cut up and rewrite myths is to cut up and rewrite who we are, as a culture, as a history, as a people.