The first semester of my sophomore year in high school left something to be desired. At my school, progress reports went out half way through each quarter. My lack of effort in all of my classes was pretty evident when my grades showed up at home. Not only was I failing geometry, I was pulling a solid D in English, and a gentleman’s C in one other class. These were all honors courses.
Looking back, I can’t put a finger on where my motivation, or I should say lack of motivation, on the school front originated. What I can pinpoint though, is lost experiences due to my academic negligence. That first month of school, my English class read The Iliad. I wasn’t doing my assigned reading after getting home from school. Instead, I waited for my mile long walk to school in the morning to thumb through The Iliad. Suffice to say, reading an epic poem while making sure not to get run over while crossing street is not the most direct route to good grades and incisive analysis of Homer’s work. I lost interest in the poem and with it, any serious understanding of Greek mythology. This literary Achilles heal of mine made its re-acquintance with me as I read Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey.
While The Iliad tells the story of the war between Athens and Troy after Helen is kidnapped, The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus’ struggle to return home to his wife and family in the years after the war. Mason’s book, filled with purportedly lost books of the latter tale, starts with a preface explaining what is to come.
It seems as if Mason’s work is intentionally disjointed. It was hard, at least from my perspective to find an internal logic to its structure. The different books jump back and forth in time and story, leaving a novice reader of Greek mythology easily lost. There were times where I felt like Odysseus himself, stranded in the middle of this mythological universe filled with different worlds represented by the different chapters.
It is only after you keep going and get further and further into this mythological eco-system do signposts and language in the form of descriptions start to seem familiar and does it become apparent that among these seemingly disparate chapters is there the making of a handful of different tales going at the same time. My personal favorite, which gives nothing away, is the scenario in which Odysseus is an inveterate liar who made the whole odyssey up. The Lost Books of the Odyssey can at times be frustrating as some stories don’t go anywhere, and there are moments where clarity would only be available to those with an academic’s background in Greek mythology. Nevertheless, the moments of clarity, and the books that do hum with Mason’s crafty storytelling are worth, what I promise will not be a 10 year trek on the open seas. Just don’t read it while walking to school, ok?