Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Starcherone Books
A few years ago in the midst of my Mandarin studies, I began to explore Tang poetry. I discovered that a mere 20 characters could contain whole stories, elaborate scenes, emotion, action, place, and history: movement embedded in the lack of prepositions, allusions compressed into a word. Tang poetry is in a way ungrammatical, which allows the reader as Chinese literature scholar Wai-Lim Yip says “a unique freedom to consort with the objects and events of the real-life world.” Yip describes the poems of Wang Wei: “The poet does not step in, but, rather, he allows the scenery to speak and act itself out. It is as if the poet has become the objects themselves” (72). Tang poetry also has a sense of timelessness; without a western sense of grammar or perspective, all objects on the page occur simultaneously. The art is both compressed and expansive.
In the winner of the 2007 Starcherone Fiction Prize, Zachary Mason’s gorgeous debut The Lost Books of the Odyssey, I found a similar sense of the compressed and expansive, of timelessness. In 46 chapters, each a story both self-contained and intimately linked to the others, Mason switches between points-of-view and narrators, unpacks and expands moments of the original, and re-imagines stories with a clarity that consumes the reader.
The book could be opened at random, a finger dragged along the page and any line chosen would exemplify the beauty of Mason’s writing; it is, appropriately, its own best example as we see from the chapter ‘One Kindness’:
Within, three women sat around a snapping fire. The shadows on the wall behind them were the blurred silhouettes of sweet maiden, stout matron and bent crone, but as the firelight flickered the shadows took other forms—a long armed ogre with grasping hands, a bird of prey with unfurled wings, a net with glass floats (their iridescence gleaming on the rough rock walls), or, sometimes, nothing at all. (35)
Mason evinces freedom with the entirety of language, archaic and modern are at his fingertips. In one line is maiden, matron, and crone—not only does each word telegraph strong and distinct connotations, but the order relays a transformation of sound that reflects the sliding through stages represented by the words’ meanings. Further on we can admire the visceral textures of the line that mentions net, glass, gleaming, and rock.
And yet The Lost Books of the Odyssey yields up even more, because what Mason has crafted is not only a gem of the cleanest, most precise lines but also a work that expands into meta-fiction—of riddles, stories within stories, stories that create infinite loops, and stories blossoming out of cracks and silences. Incidents are revisited, rewritten, the same story told again and again in a way reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. After awhile, one’s memory of the original Odyssey and Mason’s version begin to bleed together, and one loses the sense of what was original knowledge and what is new. This is a book that can be appreciated on many levels: as compelling story, as heartbreaking prose, and as intelligent and playful commentary on the act of storytelling itself.
Shawna Yang Ryan is the author of Locke 1928, a 2007 Finalist for the Northern California Book Award. Locke 1928 will be republished in 2009 by Penguin Press.