So I have to tell you about this book:
The Lost Books of the Odyssey manages a pretty impossible mix; somehow, it’s both mathematically precise and completely wacky. Like, you start reading it and, especially if you know its reputation (a combinatorial exploration/explosion of the classic myth, written by a computer scientist, etc.) you expect this cold, hard Borgesian puzzle-box. And the book does, in face, tickle your brain in that way, and with no word wasted in the process… but then it also surprises you with warmth, and real sadness, and a terrific storyteller’s voice all throughout. It’s one of my absolute favorites of the past few years.
Zachary Mason is therefore predictably fascinating over on BLDGBLOG, especially with an interviewer as wide-ranging as Geoff Manaugh. I could blockquote the whole thing, but this bit in particular really grabbed me:
Mason: It sounds like you’re reacting to my preoccupation with what I might call the primes of the story. There are aspects of the Odyssey that seem essential, and these are few in number, just a handful of images. There’s a man lost at sea, an interminable war a long way behind him, and a home that’s infinitely desirable and infinitely far away. There’s the man-eating ogre in his cave; there are the Sirens with their irresistible song; there’s the certain misery of Scylla and Charybdis.
I feel like these images are responsible for the enduring power of the story, and its survival, more than the particular details of, say, dialogue among the suitors, or what have you. I wanted to work directly with these primes, to present them in as powerful and stripped-down a way as possible, and to explore how they could interact, and how they could combine to make new forms. I suppose this kind of minimalist, reductive aesthetic does has a mathematical flavor.
There are at least two things to love there:
First, “the primes of the story.” What a great, evocative phrase—I’m going to appropriate it. Sure sure, they go by other names: themes, archetypes, whatever. But primes! Who wouldn’t want their story to have primes? Who wouldn’t want to build something from them?
Second, the focus on durable imagery. When I think back to the books I’ve read over the past few years, I don’t really remember a lot of plot details—what happened when and to who. Instead, I remember images. From Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, it’s a boarding-school student walking across Antarctica, burning like a star. From Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl, it’s an agent of agribusiness combing far-off farmer’s markets. From Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, it’s a helicopter swooping in low, trying to land in the fog. (Lots more from that book, actually—Matterhorn was jam-packed with images.)
So increasingly, this is how I judge a book: does it leave me with at least one truly durable image? Is there one moment I can see again in sharp detail two months or two years later? If so, I call that success. As Zachary Mason says: in the long run, as stories get told and re-told in different languages and different formats, it’s probably the images that keep a story alive. It’s probably the images that last.