Many scholars believe that the ancient mythological texts are immutable, sacred, and should not be adapted or modified. For computer scientist and novelist Zachary Mason, whose 2010 debut, The Lost Books of the Odyssey,put him on the literary map, mythology is a tool that can be translated across generations—one that, even if we have classicist tendencies to reject change, we can’t help but deploy in our daily lives. For Mason, mythology is dynamic, alive, present. His latest novel takes Ovid’s seminal text, Metamorphoses, and gives it a much-needed update, a new swerve.
Metamorphica offers readers contemporary gods in an archaic world. Mason’s collection features a wide cast of familiar characters, including Orpheus, Minos, Atalanta, Zeus, Athena, Ovid himself, and so many more. Contrary to mythological tradition, Mason’s characters have both ownership of their own stories and deep psychological backstories that give them credence and authenticity.
“My feeling about a lot of mythology is that it’s sort of schematic and alludes to a literature that I want there to be, but it’s not quite that literature itself,” Mason says. “It’s like this denuded echo of the thing I’m looking for.” In fact, Ovid’s Metamorphoses is so heavy with history that, nowadays, the details of the stories of Ovid’s gods are forgotten while the cultural force of the Metamorphoses remains. Mason wanted to reclaim Ovid’s stories not only by infusing contemporary ideas and mores into the stories, but also through an entirely new way of organizing the cluster of stories: Mason sees these myths as parts of an expansive constellation.
To take an interest in the Metamorphoses, “you have to cut it all kinds of slack and address it as this artifact of this vastly different time and place,” Mason continues. But “if you’re looking to find a backstory, there’s usually an embarrassment of riches.”
Drawing from this infinite narrative word bank, Mason has effectively created real characters out of mythological figures. Instead of focusing on their powers and potential influence on their environment and interactions, Mason develops characters whose minds readers have direct access to. The author wants us to understand motives, not witness 15-page-long battle scenes. For example, in Minos’ story, readers stumble through a self-reflexive storyline that follows Minos, the king of Crete, as he writes a book. Bringing in a style that borrows from the post-structuralists—one that would surely not be present in Ovid’s original work—Mason builds on a character who is wrapped up in literary time. Another exciting personalization is Narcissus, who typically looks and falls in love with his reflection in a pool. Ovid combined the myth of Echo and Narcissus in his text, and that was his innovation. Here, Mason goes a step further, placing Echo in the pool that Narcissus gazes into.
“I’m interested in a predilection for literature built around strong patterns,” he says. “Recursion is interesting in itself, and self-designing systems are interesting, and how something as complex as life can emerge from very minimal assumptions.” In crafting a new web of mythological stories, Mason ultimately breathes life into our cultural genetic code, taking us through the barely trodden alleys our mythological archetypes have kept secret.
Michael Valinsky is a writer from Paris and New York. His work has been published in Paper Magazine, them, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, OUT Magazine, and BOMB Magazine, among others. He currently lives in Los Angeles.