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Escheresque

May 1, 2010

This is my favorite quote from The Lost Books of the Odyssey:

I could have lived among light and ambrosia, bright forever-young things coming and going on each other’s arms and the wine and the night inexhaustible. But that world was flat to me, and for all that my father is great among them I wanted no part of it.

It is the opening sentence of a chapter in the latter half of the book. I took to it immediately as it purveyed a certain appealing asceticism, an embrace of the simplicity of sobriety and a rejection of its opposite’s falseness. That world was flat to me. That world had as much a claim on reality as the 12th-century cartography, our interlocutor seems to say, though I may be over-reading. That sentiment was why I first liked the passage. It became my favorite when I discovered who spoke it. It was a relatively familiar character but not who I expected.

Confounded expectations are the currency of Zachary Mason’s book, an album of vignettes that situates itself somewhere between short fiction and novel. Most of the vignettes treat the story of Odysseus, from his boyhood to his death; a few retell other Greek myths. All of them amend and reform their originals to transfer them into a parallel existence, where a drop of rain long ago fell on a different square of dust and the multiplying consequences have tilted the earth’s orbit. The stories reside in the resultant reality, at once foreign and familiar.

In a class on Joyce’s Ulysses two years ago, my teacher said that asking a good question was better than knowing a good answer. Joyce does that in his retelling and Mason does in his as well, though he asks a different type of question. He brings different facets of our most ancient myth into the light and records the beams refract. The questioning’s most significant effect is to revivify the heroes, to release them from their archetypal shackles. What if Odysseus wanted to be a bard? What if an adder bit Achilles’ heel before the war? What if Agamemnon attempted to assassinate Odysseus? What if Odysseus found a copy of The Iliad in the hold on his way to Troy?

Many of the questions metaphysical like the last. They recall Borges, both in his love of myth and the way he approached time and space as negotiable. On a lower plane, Mason also approaches Homer’s tales as negotiable and, in a way, that mutability of narrative could be seen as reminiscent of a time when stories were kept upstairs instead of in books. Thankfully, Mason’s stories have been collated and bound but they do their best to escape those strictures.

I highly recommend the book, which is why I didn’t actually name the quote’s speaker. The chapter is titled “Blindness.”

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