Reviews of Lost Books of the Odyssey, the (2008)
Review by spiphany (2013-06-23)
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.