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Well, hell.

I am going to do a thing with this book that I have never done before: I am going to write two reviews of it. In this post, one following the other. Because I have two entirely separate opinions, both of which I stand by completely, and which are not in any way compatible with one another. Maybe if you think of the two reviews as separate, as being by different people, you will understand how difficult it is for me to think about this book, and how difficult it is for me to decide whether to recommend it. Not a long time ago, I said that everything I could articulate about Kathi Appelt's Keeper felt like a fundamental misrepresentation. This book has the opposite problem: there are too many things I can say about it, so that I don't know which of those things should have more weight.

Review #1:

Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey has the words 'A Novel' on the front cover, and I don't think that that's quite truth in advertising, because it is not, stylistically speaking, a novel. It's what the title says, a collection of purported lost books of the Odyssey, complete with scholarly footnotes and discussion of which pieces might have been written at about what time period.

When I looked the book over, I thought, well, that's ambitious, especially for an author's debut piece. But this is a book that lives entirely up to its ambitions. It is, and I do not say this lightly, the exact equivalent of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, but with the Odyssey. Story-permutation follows story-permutation with the complex formal beauty of a sestina, but no variation feels forced. There's wonder here, there's horror, there's melancholy, Odysseus come home long ago and always coming home, Ithaca as the heaven he'll never reach and as the trap he won't escape and as everything in between. The language and the characters have the same clear ring that Calvino's have, where no matter what the emotions evoked by the story are you finish it with a wondering smile because it is just so precisely correct. The erudition is stunning but never obtrusive.

I spent a very long time trying to find a representative quotation, because the only way to explain the precise direction in which this is ridiculously brilliant is to quote it, and this is one of those books that is so good that I could just start typing and I might not be able to stop. Finally I decided to open it at random. )

Review #2:

Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey has performed such a basic, fundamental misreading of the text it is based on, Greek epic in general, and the way Greek culture worked in one particular direction that I spent vast quantities of the time I was reading his book wanting to kick him. You see, in this book, no woman, whether mortal or goddess, including Penelope, ever has any agency unless she is evil.

Okay, I exaggerate. There were two paragraphs where one version of Circe had, and three sentences where one version of Cassandra did, and one version of Penelope where we might be able to argue about it, although I would be difficult to convince. Apart from that, no.

The marriage of Odysseus and Penelope is, in the original, a marriage of people who are equally capable and equally clever, and who love one another very deeply. It is one of the great portrayals of a marriage in literature. Odysseus goes to war, saves the Argives, tricks his way out of snare after snare, never gives up on the long journey home; Penelope runs the country, raises their son, tricks her way out of suitor after suitor, never gives up on the wait that appears hopeless.

It is fair, when performing postmodern shifts and changes on a text, for some of these things not to be true in every version-- moving things around to see what would happen is part of the point. But, though there are bits of this book where Odysseus is beaten, where he temporarily gives up, where he is blindingly stupid and anything but heroic, in the deep fundamental ways Odysseus gets to remain himself throughout this book. Because that is part of the point, too. If he were anyone else, the changes wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

I saw no sign anywhere of the woman he married. There are many, many versions of her, some doing one thing, some another, some dead and some alive and some married elsewhere and some faithful and one, notably, a lycanthrope, but the one thing she never is in this entire book is his equal who loves him and he her. And the book is like this about every woman in it, the female characters are either scheming and conniving and dripping with blood (much of Circe, werewolf-Penelope) or they are pawns and chattel and tools and sex toys, or they are pawns who turn into vicious killers, because apparently no female power can be both kind and wise. Allow me to quote, at random, a passage in which a woman appears, so you can see what I mean. )

Summa: and as I said, every word of this is true. Do I recommend this to anybody? Which way do I jump, in the final analysis?

I have no idea. I can't manage to prioritize either one of those reviews. Pick for yourself. This is all I can manage.


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March 2017

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