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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

Irreal expedition: a review of
Zachary Mason’s Lost Books of the Odyssey

by Garrett Rowlan

One of my favorite stories by Jorge Luis Borges is “The Aleph,” in which a spherical object, hidden in a basement in Buenos Aires, contains all points on the compass. Its notion of space compressed often recurs when I see someone connected to the world via a laptop with Internet or by iPhone, and I thought of Borges again when I read Zachary Mason’s novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Mason, who blurbs his bio at the book’s end as a “John Shade Professor”—John Shade being the poet in Nabokov’s Pale Fire—has fashioned a book consonant with that intriguing, suspect entry. His novel, a collection of seemingly disparate shards, is by turns fantastic, apocryphal, and subversive. It consists of forty-six fragments that, as a totality, display authorial distance, an undermining of realism (even the “realism” of The Odyssey), and the revolt of the means. As such, it suggests certain ideas consonant with Irrealism. Indeed, parts of it were published in The Cafe Irreal.

Like Borges’ story, Mason’s book suggests a compression of space and time. The book’s introduction states that the forty-six books were previously “known only in encrypted form.” (1) Decoding and decompressing the lost books, the anonymous, implied author reveals an erratic linkage. Short pieces, some of a truncated nature, are juxtaposed with longer chronicles, some with anachronistic vocabulary (“kerfuffle,” etc) of a distinctly non-Homeric nature. If Irrealism is about a lessening of the authorial footprint, then Mason’s book goes one step farther: Almost no two footprints are the same.

Mason’s book reacquaints the reader with Homer, and then goes about making The Odyssey a stranger book than one remembers. Its origins are apocryphal. At certain chapters it is a fragment found by an anonymous exile behind a firewood box; it is a fiction invention by Polyphemus after being blinded by a raider known as “Nobody,” a Ulysses pseudonym, thus making the cave-dwelling Cyclops the blind poet of Homeric legend; it is, in a later fragment, posited as a fantastic parody of a chess board, a treatise on tactics; it is also a song sung by Ulysses himself, after he has walked away from battle and learned his living as a traveling bard. The effect of these fragments is not to illuminate Homer; rather, it tends to cast doubt on Ulysses’ heroism, Helen’s treachery, and Penelope’s fidelity; it makes the mythic a myth. “The essential insight is that the text is corrupt,” one narrator states, “or, if not corrupt, then incomplete, or of a calculated obscurity.” (2) The quote might also apply to Mason’s book, which undermines Homer not by fantastic means, after all, much of The Odyssey is pretty fantastic already, but by imagining what Homer’s book leaves unsaid. Several different versions are given of Ulysses’ return to Ithaca, and in a later fragment we see him as an old man in a sanitarium, one of the book’s anachronistic touches, or in another returned to Troy to find the site of his battles made into a kind of Disneyland theme park with concession stands and actors aping famous Greeks and Trojans, history rewritten as farce. One thinks of a conceit of Borges, and indeed Mason’s book is the sort of tome that might be found on some far-flung shelf in the Library of Babel. One thinks too of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead; that is, having a look at the underside of a classic, though Mason’s multi-layered approach goes farther in this regard than Stoppard’s play.

Mason’s wrings Borgesian variations in the incident with the Sirens. Interpretations of this incident vary. In Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s version, from Dialectic of Enlightenment, it represents a parable of the division of labor, the boss indulging in the song while the earplug-wearing rowers row. In the account of Professor Susan Taylor Chechak Ulysses hears a song of himself, and is aware of himself listening to a song of himself, and so on, until he becomes lost in an infinite loop of repetitive self-reference. (3) In Mason’s work, Ulysses hears what a Borges narrator might, the idea that beyond the chaos of experience the world is orderly as the hexagons that form a beehive, beyond which was a subtle pattern, “a code I could never crack.” (4)

At times, Mason’s books slips out of the willfully anachronistic into contemporary allusion. I couldn’t read The Lost Books of the Odyssey without catching what I thought were references to the Iraq war. “The war had been long and terrible,” the narrator begins Chapter 41. (5) Elsewhere, there are other allusions to the war dragging on, and its general pointlessness. Another chapter begins with what seems to be a reference to the Tsunami of 2006. These may be fanciful extrapolations, but it’s to Mason’s credit that the open-ended nature of his book invites such speculation.

Mason’s book rewards the patient reader. It’s a novel that occupies the outer suburbs of that genre. Exposition, plot development, even the scene-and-summary approach of the conventional novel is in little evidence. Reading it, one identifies with the implied author, having to decode a text. Only on a second reading did I perceive an organizational guiding hand, a loose binding of thematic material. And yet that is as it should be, for this book strikes me as one-of-a-kind. Finishing it, I asked myself if Mason’s approach might provide a path for future writers of Irrealism, that is, rather than create an original Irreal work, to suggest an underside to an existing text. The idea is worth exploring; deconstruction as an irreal enterprise. Yet at the moment I can’t think of another suitable candidate. Only Homer has the heft, antiquity, and mystery to support such a project. For these qualities I suspect that The Lost Books of the Odyssey would have been the sort of book Borges would have liked to have written; I know it’s the kind I would have.


(1) Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey (Buffalo, Starcherone Books, 2008), p xiii.

(2) Mason, p. 119

(3) Susan Taylor Chechak, e-mail to Garrett Rowlan, April 8, 2008, following her UCLA Extension Class on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

(4) Mason, p. 72

(5) Mason, p. 179

Garrett Rowlan lives in Los Angeles and works as a substitute teacher. He recently had a poem published in the The Tonopah Review and an essay comparing magic realism and Irrealism published in MRCentral. His essays "Irrealism and the visual arts, "The waking dream: a review of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled," and "Irrealism and ambient music" have appeared previously in irreal (re)views.

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