The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel

by Zachary Mason

Paperback, 2010






Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2010), Edition: Reprint, 238 pages


A brilliant and beguiling reimagining of Homer's classic story about the hero Odysseus and his long journey home after the fall of Troy.

Media reviews

Yet in The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason has achieved something remarkable. He's written a first novel that is not just vibrantly original but also an insightful commentary on Homer's epic and its lasting hold on our imagination.
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"Mr. Mason's clean and engaging prose ensures that his variations on the Odyssey never feel like sterile experiments."
In “The Lost Books of the Odyssey” Mr. Mason — who is identified on the book jacket as a computer scientist specializing in artificial intelligence, as well as a finalist for the 2009 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, given to writers under 35 — has written a series of jazzy, post-modernist variations on “The Odyssey,” and in doing so he’s created an ingeniously Borgesian novel that’s witty, playful, moving and tirelessly inventive.
This is, to my surprise, a wonderful book. I had expected it to be rather preening, and probably thin. But it is intelligent, absorbing, wonderfully written, and perhaps the most revelatory and brilliant prose encounter with Homer since James Joyce.

User reviews

LibraryThing member wandering_star
The Lost Books Of The Odyssey consists of 44 short pieces, ranging in length from half a page to a dozen pages. They are all variants in some way of the stories of the Iliad and Odyssey - some of them change only one thing (Odysseus returns home to find Penelope married, or dead), others have no relation to the original other than the name of a character or two. One draws from the Persephone myth - Helen has been kidnapped by Death and the Greeks must fight an army that grows each time they lose one of their number. In another, Odysseus realises that Helen's secret is that each man sees in her their ideal of beauty - except for Menelaus, who wants her because others desire her, and who in his turn is desired by Penelope - and manages a crafty switch so that he himself ends up with Helen.

Quite a lot of them play with the origin of the Odyssey - in one, Odysseus is a coward who takes advantage of the war to escape his princely role, becomes a travelling bard and tells stories to glorify his role; in another, the blinded cyclops takes a sort of revenge on Odysseus by inventing all the difficulties of his homeward voyage, although he can't quite bring himself to kill off his creation. One even suggests that the Iliad is a manual for a complicated form of chess, with all the battle stories essentially tactical tips.

There are also several stories about forgetfulness, whether due to witchcraft or old age. I think my favourite story was the very last one, in which an elderly Odysseus retraces his steps back to Troy, finding that all the nymphs and monsters have gone, and that Troy itself is a tourist destination where actors replay key battles and the stalls sell imitation armour.

I love things like this, and there are many clever ideas in this book. Overall though I found it a little underwhelming. Last year I really enjoyed a book called Sum, which featured similarly short variations on a theme, which in Sum's case was the afterlife. But I quite often find myself thinking about some of the stories in Sum, because some of them illustrate quite profound points. While I enjoyed The Lost Books Of The Odyssey, I don't think the stories will stay with me so long.

When he was drunk Achilles would take his knife and try to pierce his hand or, if he was very drunk, his heart, and thereby were the delicate blades of many daggers broken. Odysseus, who had seen more than one such demonstration, rained praise on him for his extraordinary mettle, which made Achilles bridle like a puppy, but privately worried that a man immune to death must soon despise the mortals around him.
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LibraryThing member jasonlf
Imagine Robert Graves' "Homer's Daughter" reduced to 5 pages. Now imagine 43 variants along the same lines with 20 of them written Calvino (including one on returning to Troy to discover it has been turned into a cheap tourist destination), 20 of them written by Borges (including several in which Odysseus is a character is his own or someone else's story), two by Vidal (one in which cyclops was basically decent and after he was tricked by Odysseus who then flees, the cyclops fantasizes stories of his wandering for the next decade, not wanting to kill him in his fantasies but to string out the revenge), and a final one by Lewis Carroll (in which the Iliad and the Odyssey are both manuals for strange forms of chess that have morphed and been corrupted over time).

If you cannot imagine all of those, then you should just read the book -- about 35 of the 44 inversions/reimaginations/retellings of aspects of the Odyssey are amazing, both in the way they are told and the new worlds they open up. And the effect of the book as a whole is powerful, reinforcing certain themes over and over again (like Odysseus basic character) while varying others (like the cause and resolution of the Trojan War).
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LibraryThing member lucienspringer
It’s a bold author who attempts to re-imagine Homer, and a brave translator who allows the possibility that his source text may be “essentially meaningless.” Zachary Mason purports to be one or the other, or perhaps both at once, claiming in his introduction to The Lost Books of the Odyssey that the work is a decryption of an ancient document comprising fragmentary and contradictory outtakes from the legend of Odysseus, a document so fiendishly encoded and tersely written that the resulting translation may be merely “the product of over-interpretation and of chance.” In fact, this not-quite plausible introduction is the first of almost fifty note-perfect short fictions, literary origin myths in the tradition of Calvino’s Invisible Cities or Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial. The fabular pieces here ring changes on the events and characters of the classical period—Polyphemus recounts his version of his blinding, aged warriors return to a Troy that’s become a tourist trap, an omnipotent Achilles overthrows the gods, and Theseus’s own home becomes a labyrinth. In one tale, the hero is aghast to find after all his journeying that his wife has given him up for a new husband, but “then, mercifully, revelation comes. He realizes that this is not Penelope. . . . 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.” With one foot firmly planted in antiquity and one in the postmodern world, the book is an odd but well-balanced hybrid, the kind of work that’s usually thrown off as a lark by an established writer toying with new forms, like Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus or DeLillo’s Valparaiso. All the more impressive that a debut author could create such a compelling curio.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cynara
The Lost Books of the Odyssey (and thank god for touchstones, because I'd never spell "odyssey" correctly without them) is proving to be a great change of pace from my recent binge of genre fic and professional reading. I like it for these reasons:

1. There's something appealing about the tiny, unconnected chapters. By the way, I think the subtitle "A Novel" is misleading, but I guess it sells better than "The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Collection of Tiny, Unconnected Literary Speculations and Riffs". I thought it might be frustrating, but it's turning out to be exactly the opposite.
I believe one of the terms for this style is "microfiction." I sit down on the bus or on my 30-min lunch break, I read one, or two, or three, think about them (and they are thought-provoking, some of them), and go back to my drudge refreshed.

2. I love the Odyssey and Odysseus. I read Fagles' wonderful translation in first-year undergrad, and was surprised by what a ripping good yarn it was, and how poignant much of it still is, despite the thousands of years since its creation. So, you see, when Mason plays with an idea like "Penelope is dead when Odysseus arrives home" or "Penelope was actually running the show with all those suitors" or "Odysseus is even more of a manipulative jerk that we'd previously thought" or "what does the story look like from the perspective of the cyclops", I actually care before I start reading.

3. It's very well written. Mason's simple and poetic prose (simple except for a rich vocabulary) has a light and unlabored echo of Homer's style. Like Homer, he's more likely to describe action at length than decorative detail or inward states. He slips into first person at times, which reminds me of the many times in the original poem that Odysseus retells his own story.

I think I'll be recommending this book, and perhaps using it in a class some day.
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LibraryThing member spiphany
I loved the idea of this book. The Odyssey is in so many ways an ideal candidate for a post-modern narrative that plays with (fictional) lost texts, with new endings and alternative versions of well-known stories. Who better suited than crafty Odysseus, who in the course of his journey offers his hosts various stories about his past – all of them departing to a greater or lesser degree from the absolute truth, of course. Whose fate after his return home the Odyssey itself leaves open, hinting only in a prophecy that the weary traveler’s wanderings are not yet over. And the mythological tradition, too, is itself so rich in alternative versions of many of the events of the Trojan War, starting with the question of whether Helen ever reached Troy or whether, indeed, she never existed at all. The fiction upon which this text is based is thus completely plausible – the textual history of the Homeric epics is full of variation, with lines included in some manuscripts that are missing from others, built upon an oral tradition which was, by its nature, subject to change.

Mason picks up some of these themes, but a lot he does not. More importantly: the feel of the stories is not authentic. He writes from a contemporary perspective through and through, there is no illusion that the texts could have been written by an ancient author. Stylistically the stories fail to convince at this level. Nor does the world view they present.

Arguably none of this is necessary. Mason is playing a game with the content, using it as space for playful philosophical reflection. He does this well.

But for a reader familiar with the likes of Borges, Calvino or Cortazar, it is simply too much standard postmodern fare; the tropes are familiar and there is little that is really new or unexpected. The book lacks the ability to maintain the multi-layeredness, the illusion that it really is a collection of lost manuscripts telling a new version of the Odyssey. Unlike Borges, Mason is not the master of the well-placed footnote, the cranky comment by the fictional editor on some equally fictional academic debate that sustains the belief in the gimmick the book is based on. Instead, the occasional footnotes are more often glosses on names or mythological characters and give the impression that the author is afraid his readers won’t understand the background without an explanation. Where they are meta-fictional in nature, they do not necessarily convince at this level – the author knows his postmodernism, but presumably does not have extensive background in classics: some of the footnotes regarding purported translation choices left me scratching my head because they simply did not make sense in terms of the actual characteristics of Homeric Greek. I, at least, would have appreciated the book more if the author had dispensed with the footnotes and tried less hard to make us believe in the pseudo-manuscript. As a series of playful variations on a theme the book is fun; the framing, however, promises what it cannot fulfill.
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LibraryThing member kmaziarz
More a series of thematically connected stories than a true novel, 'The Lost Books of the Odyssey' purports to be fragmentary sections of the story of Odysseus that were either lost or discarded before Homer codified the story into the epic known today. The author riffs intelligently on the themes and motifs common to the Odyssey, including multiple takes on Odysseus's homecoming; views of his interactions with the witches and monsters along the way (but often from the point of view of the witches and monsters themselves); and character studies of other persons from the tale, including Paris, the Cyclops Polyphemus, Penelope, and Calypso. Fascinating, well-written, and polished, Mason's take on the classic is fresh and compelling.… (more)
LibraryThing member teunduynstee
Lost Books of the Odyssey is a fascinating work. It contains several dozen short stories that all recount part of the classic story of Odysseus. Some parts are retold several times, giving alternative plots or casting doubt on the traditional one. Together these stories make an interesting point about the origin of stories, historical truth and literature. Some of the stories are ingenious and make for a good read, others where not my style.

My main point of criticism on the book would be that presenting the stories as a novel would suggest more of an overall point to it. The introduction tries to present the stories as found together on an excavated papyrus. However, the style of stroy-telling in some of the stories is way too modern even to be a very free translation of Homeric Greek. Some stories contain anachronistic historic references. I feel that the introduction and "translators notes" could have been left out.

All in all, nice read, especially if you know your classics. My personal favorites are the stories that present Odysseus and (in another story) Polyphemos as the true authors of the Odyssey. Also the description of Achilles performing tricks with knives, displaying his invulnerability, deserves special mention.
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LibraryThing member Judith_Starkston
If you like your Homer with a postmodernist twist, Mason’s boundlessly imaginative redo of the Odyssey will charm you. Reading Mason’s 44 “books,” about two to six pages each, reminds me of the experience of turning a prism and launching completely different colors across the room. Sometimes you’re in a bizarrely modern environment, say a sanitarium or a place where books have pages and bindings (i.e. not the ancient world), other times you’re in a variation that skims close to the Homeric narrative but is tipped on its end somehow. You never know which Odysseus (or Achilles or Penelope or Athena) you will meet. He pretends to have papyri and other ancient sources at his fingertips complete with occasional footnotes to guide you through.

Mason plays with the notion of the source of stories, a good postmodernist theme, and one that is also appropriate for an oral tradition. At one point he proposes the conceit that the Iliad was originally a manual for an ancient chess game, its maneuvers transformed over time into tales of battles and what appears to be a more literary endeavor. The Odyssey, in this flight of fancy, a “fantastic parody of a chess book, a treatise on tactics to be used after the game has ended and the board been abandoned by the players, the pieces left finally to their own devices and to entropy.”

I found The Lost Books of the Odyssey entertaining and thought provoking. It takes the idea of reinterpreting the tradition to a whole new level. It’s playful and at times tongue-in-cheek. I don’t entirely get all parts of this book, but I did find epiphanal glimmers sparking regularly. It held me, mentally twisting this way and that my image of Odysseus, the quintessential man of many turns.
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LibraryThing member SimonMSmith
Up there with Borges, except that is has real poignancy and emotional depth (in places)
LibraryThing member adpaton
Pastiche is all the rage and having revived most of the literary greats from the writers of the Gospels to Conan Doyle, it was only a matter of time before the ‘winged words’ of Homer were breached.

To my surprise – and relief – Mason’s ‘Lost Books’ about Odysseus, the ‘man of many tricks’, was a refreshingly different reinvention of the legends most of us grew up with.

The fundamental differences extend beyond the language [no wine-dark seas or rosy-fingered dawns] to the myths themselves, in which familiar characters and situations are re-examined. Highly recommended and a good read – even if your previous exposure to Homer is limited to only the blockbuster Troy.
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LibraryThing member nosajeel
Imagine Robert Graves' "Homer's Daughter" reduced to 5 pages. Now imagine 43 variants along the same lines with 20 of them written Calvino (including one on returning to Troy to discover it has been turned into a cheap tourist destination), 20 of them written by Borges (including several in which Odysseus is a character is his own or someone else's story), two by Vidal (one in which cyclops was basically decent and after he was tricked by Odysseus who then flees, the cyclops fantasizes stories of his wandering for the next decade, not wanting to kill him in his fantasies but to string out the revenge), and a final one by Lewis Carroll (in which the Iliad and the Odyssey are both manuals for strange forms of chess that have morphed and been corrupted over time).

If you cannot imagine all of those, then you should just read the book -- about 35 of the 44 inversions/reimaginations/retellings of aspects of the Odyssey are amazing, both in the way they are told and the new worlds they open up. And the effect of the book as a whole is powerful, reinforcing certain themes over and over again (like Odysseus basic character) while varying others (like the cause and resolution of the Trojan War).
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LibraryThing member jbvm
Put in the simplest terms, this is 'Fan Fiction' based on Homer, and it is quite remarkable. These little stories/jazz riffs/hallucinations are such intensely rich gems, like fine chocolates, you need to savor them slowly, just one or two at a time.
LibraryThing member gregorybrown
The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason is one of the more fascinating books to come out recently. Subtitled “a novel,” the book is better treated as a series of explorations into the hidden sub-strata of Homer’s original Iliad and Odyssey. Sometimes these are counterfactuals, sometimes these are sketches of other details, and yet others recombine elements in very interesting ways. The cumulative effect strangely highlights how much the elements of Homer’s epics have wormed their way into our modern psyche, illustrates what is still strange about these old works of art.

The most poignant and affecting parts of the book, for me, are the recurrences again and again of the strange link between Odysseus and Athena. They’re of two separate worlds - doomed to forever remain at arm’s length - yet deeply kindred spirits, in ways that only become apparent after reading dozens of Mason’s tales. What seem at first to be formal exercises become feats of empathy and imagination, and the book practically begs to be read in a single sitting.

Very recommended, especially if you’re interested in the originals or Jorge Luis Borges.
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LibraryThing member dtn620
This book isn't a novel, despite what the cover may say. It seems the term novel is a bit of a marketing ploy, a trick which seems particularly apt for a book about Odysseus.

This book is a collection of reimagined stories based around the events of the Odyssey. Odysseus is the only connecting element in each of these stories, but it's still not enough to call this a novel.

The early stories are a little slow and not nearly as entertaining and engaging as the later stories. What is remarkable is the tone of Mason's writing, it is at times very Homeric, and this I consider an accomplishment.

If you are remotely interested in the Homeric cycle or Greek myth then you will find something of interest in this book. If you are not a hellenophile this book could be the ember needed to begin reading the classics.
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LibraryThing member FicusFan
I saw this book on LT, and had to have it. I love historical fiction, and ancient history. I have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey.

This book pretends to be a lost book of the Odyssey by Homer. It is a wonderful idea. The book is a series of short stories, some very short - only a page, that expand upon, or change some part of the Iliad or the Odyssey. Odysseus is in all of them but 2-3 I think. Many of the stories have a twist or a zinger at the end. I think it can definitely be called a post-modern work, although the subject is ancient.

There are a couple that are after the time of the Trojan war, which is considered a mystery by the scholar in the preface.

I loved the writing which was simple but also had some wonderful phrasing. I would have rated it higher, except that the book was a little long. I got tired of it about 3/4 of the way through and was ready for it to be over. Perhaps a better way to read the book is to dip in and out until completed, but I read it straight through.
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LibraryThing member janerawoof
The author has done an excellent job in his take on the Iliad and Odyssey [mostly the Odyssey]. He feels that the Odyssey that has come down to us is not complete and he's discovered 'lost books'. Well, I'd more accurately call them vignettes or sketches; each is from only 1 page to 6 pages long. Each one gives an unusual twist to an episode from the Odyssey. The whole work is analogous to a piece of music: Odysseus is the connecting theme, or link; and each vignette is a variation on one of the adventures. Each piece is either narrated by Odysseus or Odysseus has a leading role. Time span covered is Odysseus growing up, Iliad, Odyssey, and, Odysseus after a period of years. Some vignettes are better than others, but they all show originality and creativity.

Some of my favorites:
"Myrmidon Golem": Since Achilles has been killed before the Trojan War, Odysseus creates a Golem-Achilles out of clay--shades of Frankenstein's monster, anyone?
"Blindness": the point of view of the cyclops Odysseus has blinded and the monster's fate.
"Iliad of Odysseus": Odysseus considers himself the author and feels the stories were passed down through the years until Homer claimed authorship.
"Sirens": Odysseus' reaction to hearing the sirens' song.
"Long way back": Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos, in another guise, meets Odysseus.
"Last islands": Years later, Odysseus returns to Troy, which has been rebuilt and has become a tourist trap.

I will never view any Homer in the same light again after reading this novel. The author wrote very imaginatively and very vividly. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member HHS-Staff
Reviewed by Mr. Overeem (Language Arts)
Mason constructed this unique novels from his research into fragmentary, alternative versions of the traditional stories Homer told in THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY. Full of doppelgangers, time warps, parallels to our current condition, horror, and humor, this is an absolute must-read for any fan of Greek mythology and any reader hungry for experimental fiction that doesn't price itself out of the business with metafictional tricks.… (more)
LibraryThing member spacecommuter
I found this in the giveaway bin at work, and I count myself so lucky that it fell into my hands. Written by a working computer scientist in his spare time, these retellings of scenes, moods, and metaphors from the Odyssey are fascinating. Some of them feel a bit like Memento, they way they tell and re-tell the same moment again and again until Odysseus gets it right, or the Matrix, the way Odysseus sometimes exerts his will over his timespace. Others are tales of Odysseus' cunning that would completely fit alongside the originals, like apocrypha unearthed in an archaeological dig.

I do have to warn you: this book will make you want to read The Odyssey and the Illiad again. And while you're at it, pick up Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad and Jeanette Winterson's Weight. And then do what Zachary Mason did and retell your own myths to suit yourself.
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LibraryThing member bpagano
Great book. Like a master jazz musician riffing on a theme. Didn't try to replace or modernize the Odyssey, but filled in gaps and told alternative versions. I felt like I was sitting in front of fire on a little Greek greek island while a master storyteller wove his tales.
LibraryThing member Big_Bang_Gorilla
This collection of vignettes (not "a novel") riffing on episodes from the Iliad and the Odyssey didn't get off to a good start with me owing to its exaggerated blurbs (no, I don't know a single thing more about mathematics, or chronology, or epistemology, than I did when I began it) and the author's preferatory malarkey about finding some scrolls in an African archive . The book does have one considerable strength, though, e.g., the author's ability to construct powerful prose poems using imagery which is often magnificent and always imaginative. I'm not extremely familiar with the material he's drawing on, but it wouldn't surprise me if purists are taken aback by some of his odd interpretations of these tales; this amounts to a sort of "Fractured Fairy Tales" take on the legends.… (more)
LibraryThing member jms001
This book is either hit or miss. If you absolutely love takes on classic literature, this would be a great read. But if you absolutely love classic Greek literature, I'd recommend passing on this one.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey seemed like a promising title. The tile instantly caught my attention, since I'm well aware that only The Iliad and The Odyssey are the only two surviving texts by Homer to this day. The rest of his work…who knows what happened to them? So intrigued I was when I picked up this book.

It's really a series of short stories that cater to the original story of The Odyssey. I'll admit that I did find some of them quite interesting, especially the tales that centered around the secondary characters from the original: Circe, Calypso, Polyphemos, Achilles (well, he was central in the Iliad I suppose), and so on. I also enjoyed the last story with Odysseus reflecting on his life and his tales, and even him wondering if it was all true, or something he just exaggerated in his late life. But frankly, this is only about 25% that I enjoyed. The rest, I think I could survive without having read them.

Like I said, if you're a purist and love classic literature, then stick with the originals. But if you like fresh, contemporary takes on classic work, then perhaps give this one a try. You might end up liking it.
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