Unlike the Odyssey translations by poets Robert Fitzgerald and Richmond Lattimore, Zachary Mason's newly published version of The Odyssey takes a post-modernist approach--casual, playful, earthy, and even scatological. Using the traditional story of the Odyssey as his starting point, Mason gives his own take on various episodes from that epic, jumping around in time and place, changing major aspects of the story, adding new episodes, and providing unique points of view. Odysseus is not an epic hero here. Rather, he is an often arrogant man who loves killing, often acts cruelly, and even makes mistakes, a real man whom Athena abandons for part of the narrative.
In Mason's version of this epic, the story lines change. Odysseus himself vies for the hand of Helen and has some success in winning her. After the death of Achilles, Odysseus creates a golem of Achilles out of clay so that Achilles can keep fighting. He tells the tale of Polyphemus, the giant, from Polyphemus's point of view, that of a peaceful farmer who offers hospitality to the men whom he finds occupying his cave when he returns home, and the payment they give him. Mason gives several different accounts of Odysseus's return home (choose your favorite)-in one, Penelope is a "shade," a ghostly presence whom he cannot touch. In another, she has given up waiting for him and found another husband. At other times, she is described as still bedeviled by the suitors. In yet another, Odysseus returns to find his entire city abandoned.
Even Homer himself appears in this novel, lying in a hammock and dreaming of discovering a great book. Odysseus, on the other hand, actually finds a copy of the Iliad, written by the gods before the Trojan War, in Agamemnon's cabin on the ship. Gods and goddesses flit in and out, take the appearance of humans, play tricks, and have love affairs. Tightrope walkers, Alexander the Great, and even the doctors and nurses of a sanatorium appear and disappear.
Though some reviewers say that knowledge of the "real" Odyssey is not a prerequisite to the enjoyment of this book, all the humor depends on that knowledge. The ironies, absurdities, twists and turns, and shifts in point of view need the context of the original epic to have any meaning for the reader. Lovers of postmodern fiction, with its abandonment of boundaries and its open, free-for-all attitudes will find much to love in this novel, which looks at the Odyssey through a new lens. Mary Whipple