March 09, 2010
In synopsis, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a lapidary first work of fiction by Silicon Valley computer scientist Zachary Mason, sounds like an overly clever postmodern literary jest. This elegant collection of very short stories consists of 44 purported pre-Homeric variations on the legends of the Trojan War and the pragmatic Odysseus’s homeward wanderings, as recounted in the arch manner of a more recent blind poet, Jorge Luis Borges.
Borges (1899-1986), composer of metaphysical conundrums about infinite libraries, has become a Siren for bookish young men of the computer age.
I first read Borges several decades ago. Overwhelmed, I immediately began to write a short story in the style of that sightless librarian. I resolved to fictionalize the true but oddly Borgesian story of how the economist John Maynard Keynes, as tribute to his favorite hero of the Enlightenment, Isaac Newton, bought a trunk of the physicist’s unpublished papers, only to discover that Newton cared more for alchemy and numerology than for science. In Keynes’s words, “Newton was not the first of the Age of Reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians …”
Then, however, I found a girlfriend, and the world was spared my ersatz Borges story.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey might have turned out almost as dire. Mason presents a pseudo-translation of a “papyrus excavated from the desiccated rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus,” as he explains with Borges’s deadpan combination of intimidating scholarship (Oxyrhynchus is an actual archaeological site in Egypt) and adjectival extremism (not “dry,” but “desiccated”).
John Updike listed Borges’s fixations as “Dreams, labyrinths, mirrors, multiplications approaching infinity, … Zeno’s second paradox, Nietzsche’s eternal return, the hidden individual destiny, the hard fate of … warriors, [and] the manipulations of chance.”
Predictably, most of these devices show up in Mason’s M.C. Escher-like reworkings of Homer: What if there were two Odysseuses? What if Odysseus was not a heroic fighter but a cowardly bard who concocted The Iliad and The Odyssey to cover up his desertion? What if:
“… the epics attributed to Homer were in fact written by the gods before the Trojan war”these divine books are the archetypes of that war rather than its history. In fact, there have been innumerable Trojan wars, each representing a fresh attempt at bringing the terror of battle into line with the lucidity of the authorial intent. Inevitably, each particular war is a distortion of its antecedent, an image in a warped hall of mirrors.”
The essential problem with spoofing Borges, however, is that nobody can match the Argentine’s own relentless self-parody. The second time I read Borges, I found him hilarious. The third time … well, I”d already gotten the joke.
Updike gently chided, “Few major writers granted long life have proved so loyal to their initial obsessions and demonstrated so little fear of repeating themselves.” Updike’s more outspoken predecessor, Vladimir Nabokov (who was born the same year as Borges), lampooned Borges in his Ada as Osberg, Nabokov’s own ultimately disappointing pseudo-doppelganger, “writer of pretentious fairy-tales and mystico-allegoric anecdotes…”
On a personal level, the criticism is unfair”Nabokov and Updike were supremely gifted with sight, while Borges went progressively blind, cutting him off both from nature and books. Still, it’s telling that Nabokov is more daunting to the would-be impressionist than Borges. Parodying Borges seems to demand decoding and diligence more than genius. Nabokov is analog, Borges digital. Not surprisingly, as measured by Google citations, Borges is now more than twice as popular.
Fortunately, Mason has been outgrowing the nerdier sort of literary gamesmanship, while retaining Borges’s “austere and dreamlike” prose style. The original limited press run of Mason’s Lost Books in 2007 included a fake scholarly foreword in the manner of John Ray, Jr., Ph.D. introducing Humbert Humbert’s memoirs in Lolita. It’s now gone. And Mason dropped one long story because it was so cybernetically recursive that his math Ph.D. friends couldn”t make sense of it.
By now, Mason’s Lost Books is what he rightly calls “forty-four concise variations on Odysseus’s story that omit stock epic formulae in favor of honing a single trope or image down to an extreme of clarity.” Mason’s sunlit Mediterranean is far from Borges’s claustrophobic cloisters.
In addition, in Odysseus, that most capable of men, Mason has a hero through whom his quiet but strong emotions”nostalgia, regret, and resignation, chiefly”feel wholly earned. In one touching story beyond Borges’s range, a Kathryn Bigelow-like goddess Athena proposes marriage to her favorite mortal at the end of the Trojan War:
“I need hardly add that I could not accept her. … She is beautiful and quick and her mind is like a lightning flash but she is a god … Not long after that things went bad. I do not think she persecuted me”that would be beneath her”but I have felt her absence …”
Moreover, by placing his story before the dawn of Western literature, Mason escapes the tendency, seen from Ulysses through both Borges and Nabokov and taken to new extremes in the heavily footnoted novels of the late David Foster Wallace, toward monstrous erudition.
Should the printed page try to imitate Wikipedia? In an age when any fact can be looked up online, the only limit on pedantry is the exhaustion of author or reader. Mason’s book responds to our profusion of information by returning to classical simplicity.