KR Reviews

Change Agent: On Zachary Mason’s Metamorphica

New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. 304 pages. $26.00.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses concludes with a final, glorious transformation: a celestial capstone to fifteen books of hexameter verse in which bodies morph and mutate at will or at the whim of the gods. In this instance, it’s Venus who takes the soul of the slaughtered Julius Caesar and carries it up into the heavens where, in Charles Martin’s free-verse translation, “she could see it glowing / and feel it start to kindle in her bosom: / she let it go; and as it flew through space / trailing fire, it flickered like a star.”

In the thousands of years since its original composition around 8 CE (while Ovid lived in exile on the Black Sea at the behest of that same star’s adopted son, the emperor Augustus), the Metamorphoses has taken its rightful place in the firmament of ancient epics. Through their word choice, imagination, and intellectual concerns, poets and translators such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Amy Clampitt, Ted Hughes, and Seamus Heaney have shaped Ovid’s stories into something both familiar and strange—much as the Roman poet cribbed characters and episodes from Greek and Roman myth and folded them into his own vision.

Zachary Mason’s Metamorphica, a collection of short (occasionally flash) fiction, is the most recent transmutation of the Metamorphoses. It hearkens back to the original apotheosis of Julius Caesar by using the stars as a way to rearrange and reimagine selected tales from Ovid’s work. In Mason’s constructed cosmos, the night sky is divided into wedges whose individual stars (in this case, the stories themselves) are influenced by the gods Aphrodite, Athena, Zeus, Nemesis, Dionysos, Apollo, and Death. Constellations are the result of throughlines between individual stories, tying together, say, the creation of Galatea by the sculptor Pygmalion and the unrequited love of the cyclops Polyphemus for that very same woman (now a sea nymph).

Underneath this architecture, however, are the individual tales themselves. Unlike Ovid, Mason seems less interested in merely recounting stories than in getting inside the heads of the mythological figures themselves. Hence, the chief power, mystery, and resonance of many of these tales comes from their first-person perspective. We aren’t told of Icarus’s fatal flight into the sky; instead, we’re in his head as he rises above a “continent of cloud so far below me. The curve of the radiant world.” We walk through the underworld with the seer Tiresias as he ministers to the confused dead. We witness the transformation of Arachne into a spider, a familiar story which, in Mason’s hands, becomes something fresh and exciting. Consider Ovid (in Charles Martin’s translation):

Then, as the goddess turned to go, she sprinkled
Arachne with the juice of Hecate’s herb,
and at the touch of that grim preparation,
she lost her hair, then lost her nose and ears;
her head got smaller and her body, too;
her slender fingers were now legs that dangled
close to her sides; now she was very small,
but what remained of her turned into belly,
from which she now continually spins
a thread, and as a spider, carries on
the art of weaving as she used to do.

And here’s the first paragraph of Mason’s two-paragraph story, “Arachne”:

When the rope tightened and the world turned grey I expected to see nothing, or perhaps Death’s opening white hands, but instead Athena was there, lifting me up to relieve the pressure on my neck, and she’d become a giant, so vast she held me on the palm of her hand. I looked up into her face and saw pity, but then the image fractured into elements without meaning, a fissure where her mouth had been, her eyes blue suns.

The freshness of Mason’s fictions comes from the jubilant disregard they have for the nuts and bolts of the myths themselves (background information is provided in italics at the start of every story, almost as if Mason wanted to get them out of the way so he could launch into something new). It’s the same witty, adventurous approach Mason employed in his debut book, The Lost Books of the Odyssey (2010)—whose playfulness served as an illuminating commentary on the shapeshifting nature of oral storytelling, of how a tale’s every retelling becomes, in effect, its own distinct tale.

“Epistolary,” one of the few third-person tales in Metamorphica, powerfully embodies this idea of invention through reinvention. The story charts the journey of a letter by Ovid to Augustus, as it passes through the hands of different couriers, circulating through time while never quite managing to reach Rome. “Countless letters are in circulation now,” Mason writes, “and some trace their ancestry to the original but all, by now, are corrupt, little more than florilegia of ghost stories, quotations out of context, fragments of geography. Through the incessant operation of chance some few have come to resemble their original, but there’s no way to find them.”

Mason works, as many contemporary fabulists and metafictional experimenters do, in the company of writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. Many of the stories in Metamorphica seem just as much a tribute to these twentieth-century storytellers as they do to Ovid, whether it’s Icarus trapped in a loop of eternal recurrence (rising up to the sun and falling down to the sea ad infinitum) or Helen, who has somehow escaped her mythological fate and lives by the sea where she ignores stories of “a war for a woman in a city in the east.”

There’s also a pervasive sense of melancholy in Mason’s prose that rests on these stories. Death commands only one celestial wedge in Mason’s cosmology, but the god may as well be the unifying thread between all of them. (A river of black water is a recurring motif in these tales, whether it’s the doctor Asclepios or the self-involved Narcissus.) Perhaps this is because in order for change, for metamorphosis to occur, something old has to die. And while we will never sound the death knell of Ovid’s masterpiece, we do have, in Mason’s work, a bold new creature and a brilliant feat of literary imagination.

Photo of Zak Salih

Zak Salih is the author of the novel Let’s Get Back to the Party (Algonquin Books, 2021). His fiction has appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Epiphany, The Florida Review, Foglifter, and other publications. He lives in Washington, DC.