four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-The Lost Books of the OdysseyZachary Mason, a computer scientist, specializes in artificial intelligence. The Lost Books of the Odyssey, his first novel, was short-listed for the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award, given to writers under 35.

The Story: Forty-four brief chapters make up this debut novel, which reimagines the lives, personalities, and appearances of characters from Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. In Mason's version, the Greek hero Odysseus is really a wily PR man, an ancient self-promoter who reinvents his adventures to cast himself in a more favorable light. In one story, Odysseus returns home to Ithaca and discovers that Penelope didn't wait for him after all. Another reveals Polyphemus (aka Cyclops) as a kindly farmer who discovers a ragtag group of soldiers pilfering his property. And when the aging Odysseus returns to Troy, he is shocked to discover a thriving tourist trap overrun with costumed actors.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 228 pages. $24. ISBN: 9780374192150

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Mason has] created an ingeniously Borgesian novel that's witty, playful, moving and tirelessly inventive. ... Mr. Mason has found a supple, lyrical voice in these pages that captures the spirit of the original Odyssey and at the same time feels freshly contemporary." Michiko Kakutani

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"[P]art of the fun is losing track of what is authentic Odyssey, and what [Mason is] making up. ... [W]ondrous, illuminating, and so expertly told it brings you back to the spell of the original." David Walton

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Not every story resonates, but the best make you rethink The Odyssey's place in culture as a whole. ... After reading these variously gloomy, joyous or melancholy extensions of the oral tradition, your own sight is broadened; you'll return to the classics with fresh eyes, wondering what other sagas, who else's stories, they leave out." Jesse Berrett

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Mason's clean and engaging prose ensures that his variations on the Odyssey never feel like sterile experiments. ... As the tales from ‘the lost books' accumulate, the effect is both poignant and unsettling--there is a repetitive fever-dream effect as Odysseus returns home over and over, sometimes greeted by Penelope, sometimes not." Timothy Farrington

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mason's prose is finely wrought, but his chapters sometimes read like intellectual exercises masquerading as stories. It is when the emphasis shifts to exploring character and theme, and The Lost Books of the Odyssey engages more substantively with its source material, that the novel achieves real emotional resonance." Adam Mansbach

Critical Summary

Critics placed Mason in the company of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, and they thoroughly enjoyed Mason's tweaking of The Odyssey, which comes across as an entertaining Choose Your Own Adventure for the adult set. As with most story collections, some chapters succeeded more than others; reviewers described less-favorable vignettes as overworked and too abstract. But Mason can be forgiven these transgressions, given the brilliance displayed in most of his stories. For readers who can recite Homer by heart and for those of us who only have vague recollections from high school lit, this novel breathes new life into a classic.