Zachary Mason, who retold Homer’s story of the wanderings of Odysseus in his well-received 2007 debut novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, takes on Ovid‘s epic narrative poem Metamorphoses in his latest work, Metamorphica (2018). Mason distills Metamorphoses’ over 250 Greek myths into 53 brief stories, including the tales of Arachne, Daedalus and Icarus, Philemon and Baucis, Narcisssus, Achilles, Midas and many more.
Metamorphica is a loosely connected collection of retold myths more than a cohesive novel with a single plot. It’s rather fragmented, both as a collection and within the stories themselves, many of which are of the “slice of life” variety. But lovely and elegiac writing marks the whole set, and each individual story is a well-crafted jewel, focusing the reader’s eye on its own individual theme and distinct characters. Mason focuses on the characters’ psychology and motivations: pride, revenge, love, greed, power and other timeless passions that resonate in both the ancient Greek settings and in our modern world.
The theme of transformation or metamorphosis also frequently resurfaces in these tales: Scylla was a beautiful sea-nymph who is now a man-eating monster; King Minos spends years pursuing his vanished friend (and prisoner) Daedalus, becoming a changed man in the process. Pentheus, a disciplined man dedicated to his duty, has a life-changing encounter with Dionysos, the god of transformation. When Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis so she will release the winds to allow the Greek armada to sail to Troy, his wife Clytemnestra is never the same afterwards:
… I remembered how he’d washed his hands in a fountain after killing her with the look of a man relieved to have put a difficult task behind him, and my mind ignited like dry kindling; suddenly I was empty of love, and had no purpose in life but to be his undoing. I’ve been waiting a long time for my husband to come home.
Mason reinvents the Greek myths liberally in several of these stories, leading to some unexpected but logical twists. Midas, for example, invents the concept of coin money rather than having the magical power of turning everything he touches into gold. Icarus, with his homemade wings, dashes himself against the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere rather than melting his wings by flying too close to the sun (though his fate in Mason’s story is quite different). Orpheus ventures into the underworld to win his lover Eurydice back from Death, but comes to a surprising realization about her as they climb through the cave toward the sun.
Although these stories are relatively independent of each other, they’re still interrelated, tied together by Greek mythology themes, some recurring characters, and a fascinating star map that visually mirrors the structure of Metamorphica, with each star named after a different story or character in the book. The map is divided into seven sections, with each section and its (imaginary, I’m fairly certain) constellations matching up with a different part of Metamorphica. Mason explains:
Lines are narrative connections which form constellations.
A story’s distance from the center increases with its distance from primordial time. The outermost ring is the end of the age of myth, which is the aftermath of the Trojan War or shortly thereafter.
I strongly recommend Metamorphica to any student or fan of Greek mythology, or readers who appreciate lyrical writing and fantasy that tends toward the somber and introspective.
Metamorphica, by Zachary Mason, is a collection of loosely linked stories that reshapes Ovid’s original tales. Not a simple retelling, Mason uses the core of the stories but adds his own imaginative flourishes and twists, though he keeps them set in ancient times. I love the concept, and on an individual basis there’s a lot to like here, but as a collection I found it wanting.
Mason bookends the collection with Ovid himself, during his exile. In between each story is typically focused on a single mythic figure, though true to the originals, others flit in and out of another’s tale. Some figures, too, are given more than one story, while Death probably appears in most, becoming perhaps the premier thematic character. The stories range from true flash fiction, almost prose poetry in their brevity — a half-page or so — to a few pages long.
A few of the shorter ones had effective moments, but mostly my response was more “meh.” I tend to respond more to character development and so my preferences were the longer stories, and while one or two went too long, several hit the sweet spot in terms of developing both plot and character to create an emotional impact. I did think his female characters paled next to the male ones in terms of portrayal and/or a sense of personal agency.
Individually, I thought each story was stylistically strong, often quite lyrical in nature, but the more I read the more the stories felt all the same both in tone and style, and it didn’t take long for me to feel a sort of deadening monotony. So much that I struggled to keep going even before I reached halfway. From that point on I pushed myself to finish, picking it up and putting it down several times and almost giving it up more than once. What that means is I really can’t recommend Metamorphica as a collection, but I will note a few of my favorite stories for readers to perhaps selectively try.
“Ajax:” While I liked the little twist in “Galatea,” it wasn’t until I reached the eighth story, “Ajax,” that I found myself truly immersed in the work. Ajax comes alive fully as a person, and his story and voice ring true throughout, making for a moving version of his tale.
“Minos:” Another of the longer stories, this is another one where the voice and character feel fully developed so that the impact of events is all the stronger. When Minos goes in search of Daedalus, who somehow disappeared from the labyrinth, it takes far longer than he could have predicted, and he ends up a far different man. One of the more overt examples of the transformations that lie at the center of the myths.
While, as noted, the shorter stories didn’t do a lot for me, I did find several that either had a nicely effective twist to them on the source material (“Galatea,” “Thetis”) or the style throughout carried the story enough (“Nemesis”). Other stories had particular lines or passages I highlighted; as mentioned, Mason’s prose style is lyrical and original and had I read the stories over time in magazines I probably would have responded more positively to each individual one. But as a collection, even given that I’m usually happy if two-thirds of a collection “work” for me, I was overall disappointed in Metamorphica, mostly due to the monotone nature of style, theme, and voice.