Fiction: Classical Myths Filtered Through a Modern Prism

METAMORPHICA
By Zachary Mason
282 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.

We are living in an age of great cultural interest in ancient myths, including TV dramas (“Troy: Fall of a City”), literary retellings (Neil Gaiman’s compelling “Norse Mythology”), novels that reinvent myth in a modern context (Kamila Shamsie’s brilliant “Home Fire”) and novels set in the classical past (Madeline Miller’s moving “Circe”). In times of sweeping change, myths provide a way of thinking about big questions like transformation, power, agency and responsibility, and these ancient stories have the great advantage, in a polarized, partisan age, of being ecumenical: They belong to none of us, and to us all.

For Zachary Mason, a computer scientist as well as the author of three works of fiction, ancient myth is an opportunity to explore the emptiness of life and the infinite variety of narrative. His last book, “The Lost Books of the Odyssey,” was a sequence of cleverly Borgesian short stories that imagined variations within the framework of the Homeric poem.

The title of his new work, “Metamorphica,” nods to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” and Ovid bookends the collection. In the first story Ovid begs to trade “anything, everything” for literary immortality. The final piece returns to Ovid, now in exile on the Black Sea, writing a letter to Emperor Augustus to plead for a repeal of his sentence. The letter gets soiled, slashed, mildewed and translated into multiple languages, until the “false and worthless letters are as numerous as the grains of sand in a desert.” None reach within even a thousand miles of Rome, where, in any case, the emperor would probably not open them. The piece is a fable about bad postal service and the difficulties of communicating before email and video chat. But it also offers one of many variations on Mason’s central theme: Where we may expect to find meaning, there is none. The lesson can feel profound or sophomoric, depending on how much patience you have for this kind of thing.

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Mason takes the memorable female characters of classical myth — goddesses, prophets, rape victims, noble heroines, killers of family members, witches, Amazons, adulteresses and athletes — and turns them into ciphers. He reduces the number of rapes; Persephone, Daphne and Thetis, for example, are willing participants in their liaisons. But he also reduces female agency to more or less nothing. Helen is a phantom, alienated from her own story. Daphne is not an emblem of poetic inspiration, but “an ordinarily pretty girl,” replicated throughout eternity as an endless sequence of equally ordinary pretty girls. Eurydice, the beloved of Orpheus, is “less a lover than a trope of literature.” Clytemnestra’s triumphant slaughter of her daughter-killing husband “fades into nothing.” Athena, a terrifying military goddess, becomes a needy girl with a crush on Odysseus.

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