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Maynard Keynes, as tribute to his favorite hero of the Enlightenment, Isaac Newton, bought a trunk of the physicist’s unpublished papers, only to discover that Newton cared more for alchemy and numerology than for science.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.”