A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
Zachary Mason's brilliant and beguiling debut novel reimagines Homer's classic story of the hero Odysseus and his long journey home after the fall of Troy. With hypnotic prose, terrific imagination, and dazzling literary skill, Mason creates alternative episodes, fragments, and revisions of Homer's original that, taken together, open up this classic Greek myth to endless reverberating interpretations. The Lost Books of the Odyssey is punctuated with great wit, beauty, and playfulness; it is a daring literary page-turner that marks the emergence of an extraordinary new talent.
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A SAD REVELATION
Odysseus comes back to Ithaca in a little boat on a clear day. The familiarity of the east face of the island seems absurd—bemused, he runs a tricky rip current he has not thought about in fifteen years and lands by the mouth of a creek where he swam as a boy. All his impatience leaves him and he sits under an oak he remembers whose branches overhang the water, good for diving. Twenty years have gone by, he reflects, what are a few more minutes. An hour passes in silence and it occurs to him that he is tired and might as well go home, so he picks up his sword and walks toward his house, sure that whatever obstacles await will be minor compared to what he has been through.
The house looks much as it did when he left. He notices that the sheep byre’s gate has been mended. A rivulet of smoke rises from the chimney. He steals lightly in, hand on sword, thinking how ridiculous it would be to come so far and lose everything in a moment of carelessness.
Within, Penelope is at her loom and an old man drowses by the fire. Odysseus stands in the doorway for a while before Penelope notices him and shrieks, dropping her shuttle and before she draws another breath running and embracing him, kissing him and wetting his cheeks with her tears. Welcome home, she says into his chest.
The man by the fire stands up looking possessive and pitifully concerned and in an intuitive flash Odysseus knows that this is her husband. The idea is absurd—the man is soft, grey and heavy, no hero and never was one, would not have lasted an hour in the blinding glare before the walls of Troy. He looks at Penelope to confirm his guess and notices how she has aged—her hips wider, her hair more grey than not, the skin around her eyes traced with fine wrinkles. Without the eyes of home-coming there is only an echo of her beauty. She steps back from him and traces a deep scar on his shoulder and her wonder and the old man’s fear become a mirror—he realizes that with his blackened skin, tangled beard and body lean and hard from years of war he looks like a reaver, a revenant, a wolf of the sea.
Willfully composed, Penelope puts her hand on his shoulder and says that he is most welcome in his hall. Then her face collapses into tears and she says she did not think he was coming back, had been told he was dead these last eight years, had given up a long time ago, had waited as long as she could, longer than anyone thought was right.
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 and 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 that 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.
THE OTHER ASSASSIN
In the Imperial Court of Agamemnon, the serene, the lofty, the disingenuous, the elect of every corner of the empire, there were three viziers, ten consuls, twenty generals, thirty admirals, fifty hierophants, a hundred assassins, eight hundred administrators of the second degree, two thousand administrators of the third and clerks, soldiers, courtesans, scholars, painters, musicians, beggars, larcenists, arsonists, stranglers, sycophants and hangers- on of no particular description beyond all number, all poised to do the bright, the serene, the etc. emperor's will. It so happened that in the twentieth year of his reign Agamemnon's noble brow clouded at the thought of a certain Odysseus, whom he felt was much too much renowned for cleverness, when both cleverness and renown he preferred to reserve for the throne. While it was true that this Odysseus had made certain contributions to a recent campaign, involving the feigned offering of a horse which had facilitated stealthy entry into an enemy city, this did not justify the infringement on the royal prerogatives, and in any case, the war had long since been brought to a satisfactory conclusion, so Agamemnon called for the clerk of Suicides, Temple Offerings, Investitures, Bankruptcy and Humane and Just Liquidation, and signed Odysseus's death warrant.
The clerk of Suicides etc. bowed and with due formality passed the document to the General who Holds Death in His Right Hand, who annotated it, stamped it, and passed it to the Viceroy of Domestic Matters Involving Mortality and so on through the many twists and turns of the bureaucracy, through the hands of spymasters, career criminals, blind assassins, mendacious clerics and finally to the lower ranks of advisors who had been promoted to responsibility for their dedication and competence (rare qualities given their low wages and the contempt with which they were treated by their well-connected or nobly born superiors), one of whom noted it was a death order of high priority and without reading it assigned it to that master of battle and frequent servant of the throne, Odysseus.
A messenger came to Ithaca and gave Odysseus his orders. Odysseus read them, his face closed, and thanked the messenger, commenting that the intended victim was in for a surprise, and that he was morally certain no problems would arise on his end.
On the eight succeeding days Odysseus sent the following messages to the court as protocol required:
“I am within a day's sail of his island.”
“I walk among people who know him and his habits.”
“I am within ten miles of his house.”
“I am at his gate.”
“The full moon is reflected in the silver mirror over his bed. The silence is perfect but for his breathing.”
“I am standing over his bed holding a razor flecked with his blood. Before the cut he looked into my face and swore to slay the man who ordered his death. I think that as a whispering shade he will do no harm.”
Excerpted from The Lost Books of The Odyssey by Zachary Mason.
Copyright © 2007, 2010 by Zachary Mason.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Table of Contents
1 A Sad Revelation,
2 The Other Assassin,
3 The Stranger,
4 Guest Friend,
5 Agamemnon and the Word,
6 Penelope's Elegy,
8 Achilles and Death,
9 One Kindness,
11 A Night in the Woods,
15 The Myrmidon Golem,
16 Three Iliums,
18 The Iliad of Odysseus,
19 Killing Scylla,
20 Death and the King,
21 Helen's Image,
22 Bright Land,
23 Islands on the Way,
24 Odysseus in Hell,
25 The Book of Winter,
27 No Man's Wife,
30 Victory Lament,
31 Athena in Death,
32 Stone Garden,
33 Cassandra's Rule,
34 Principia Pelagica,
36 A Mote in Oceanic Darkness,
37 Athena's Weave,
38 The Long Way Back,
39 Ocean's Disc,
42 Record of a Game,
43 Alexander's Odyssey,
44 Last Islands,
Reading Group Guide
Bringing an ingenious new approach to the ancient tale of Odysseus, debut novelist Zachary Mason has crafted a mesmerizing work with The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Weaving together precisely drawn vignettes, fragments, and myths, Mason presents a reinvention of Homer's original that offers rich, sometimes contradictory aspects of the timeless characters who have fascinated humanity's imagination for centuries. In these pages, Achilles succumbs to a snake bite on the heel, a Cyclops can be a quiet farmer, and Odysseus reads about his own fate by discovering copies of The Odyssey and The Iliad among Agamemnon's possessions. The goddess Athena shares the stage with Penelope in the hero's heart and mind, and as his voyage takes him not only to Ithaca but also to the wisdom of his past, we too revel in this divine voyage.
The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading of Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Whether you embark on this journey on your own or with your book club, we hope this guide will enrich your experience.
1. The novel's preface, delivered in the voice of a classics scholar, states that the forty-four variations "omit stock epic formulae in favor of honing a single trope or image down to an extreme of clarity." How would you define that single trope? Which of the novel's recurring images do you consider to be the most haunting?
2. The opening segment captures the power of the gods to inflict harm and to obscure reality. How do the characters respond to a world in which everyday life might be a mere illusion? Should we feel confident in reality?
3. How would you characterize the bond between Athena and Odysseus? What power do they wield over each other? What is unique about Zachary Mason's approach to the relationships between gods and mortals?
4. Discuss the many versions of Telemachus presented in The Lost Books of the Odyssey. What facets of father-son relationships are presented?
5. What accounts for the endurance of tales related to the Trojan War? Why might the author have included a passage devoted to Alexander, and a medieval chapter ("Record of a Game")? How does Mason's approach compare to recent films inspired by Homer's epics?
6. Consider the Odyssean aspects of reading this novel. How did you experience the multiple "guides" who led your journey? Which narrators did you prefer? What is the effect of the footnotes, and the premise that these chapters are translated from "pre-Ptolemaic papyrus excavated from the desiccated rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus"?
7. What do Penelope and Helen each reveal about the nature of marriage? How devoted would you have been to your husband if you had been dealt the fate of these women?
8. What images of Homer himself are presented within the text? How might he have reacted to Mason's inventions?
9. How does Agamemnon's rule as king compare to that of contemporary political and military leaders?
10. What truths about aging and wisdom are presented in the novel? How does the author balance a modern approach with the ancient mind-set of Troy's defeat and its aftermath?
11. The author applied his expertise as a computer scientist to the broad structure of the novel. What other twenty-first-century techniques are evident? What was lost and gained by cultures whose storytelling mostly consisted of lyric poetry in an oral tradition?
12. Discuss the many versions of warriors who are presented in the novel, including Achilles's appearance as a golem killing machine. How did ancient societies define "hero"? Does the Homeric impetus for wara manifestation of meddling on the part of deitiesappear, in some way, in modern discourse on war?
13. Which aspects of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were you most familiar with before reading this novel? Which reinventions by Mason amused you the most?
14. In the world of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, how does life for the female characters (gods and mortals alike) compare to that of men? What double standards exist? What surprisingly progressive ideals are in place?
15. What connections between the stories are evident? What threads are woven into the characters' recurring struggles?
16. For centuries, Troy was considered to be a locale invented for ancient legends, but nineteenth-century excavations in Turkey confirmed the likely site of the walled city. Does the truth about the Trojan War matter? Is it all right to exchange accuracy for drama, delivering a rousing war story that makes its heroes immortal?
Reading Group Guide written by Amy Root / Amy Root's Wordshop, Inc.