TT: The Role of the Reader’s Knowledge

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and take a look at Puye Cliffs.  Then come on back and join Alan and me as we take a look at how the reader’s knowledge can shape the reading experience.  Along the way, we focus in on a writer whose works we both admire greatly – Roger Zelazny.

Eye of Cat

Eye of Cat

JANE: Last time, Alan, you mentioned how – although you like Fantasy and Science Fiction that uses myth, history, or both as a foundation –  the further the material moves from sources with which you are also familiar, the less easy you find it to relate to.

ALAN: That’s right. And the example I used to point it out was Roger Zelazny’s novel Eye of Cat which was full of references to Navajo culture.

JANE: I was already somewhat familiar with Navajo material when I read Eye of Cat.  Nope.  It wasn’t because I was such a great scholar.  It was because I liked the mystery novels of Tony Hillerman, which are largely set on a Navajo reservation and have many Navajo characters.  (Hillerman, by the by, shares the dedication of Eye of Cat with his two most famous fictional characters, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.)

However, for reasons I now forget, when I taught a science fiction seminar back when I was still  at Lynchburg College, I chose Eye of Cat as an assignment.  My students were as uncomfortable with the material as you were.  Now that I think about it, it might not have been my best choice.  Not only was the material indebted to Navajo myth and legend, one of the main characters is a highly unreliable shapeshifter.  And part of the novel is written in verse…

I’ve found that once readers are overwhelmed, they miss things that ordinarily they would catch.  Roger was notorious for the jokes – some sly, some overt – that he would slip into an otherwise serious novel.  Therefore, you’d think more of his readers would have thought carefully about a certain passage in Eye of Cat.  Not one of my students did – not until I had them work it out in class.

The passage in question comes at the end of the novel: “Moving nearer, he saw the pictograph Singer himself had drawn on the wall with his own blood.  It was a large circle, containing a pair of dots, side by side, about a third of the way down its diameter.  Lower, beneath these, was an upward-curving arc.”

Did you get it?

ALAN: It’s a smiley face! How delightful!

JANE:   Yep!  A smiley face…  To me (putting on my English professor hat), this pictograph says a lot about how Billy felt at this key point…  But most people will miss the detail.   Therefore the ending of the novel will be oblique

ALAN: It’s been many years since I read the novel, but I don’t recall spotting that at the time. I was so lost and confused by that stage of the book that I think pretty much everything was passing me by.

JANE: Yeah…  I don’t think most people did.  Roger out-clevered himself.

As an aside, I don’t know if it’s available anywhere, but Roger read Eye of Cat as an audio book.  His readings were always wonderful, but this book especially loaned itself to being read aloud.   It was released in a slightly abridged form (which might contribute to confusion)  but, even so, it’s wonderful.  Roger also was recorded reading A Night in the Lonesome October.  People always talked about Roger being shy.  In some ways he was, but he also loved to perform.

ALAN: Roger had a wonderful voice and he used it to great effect when reading  out loud. When you and he were here in New Zealand as convention guests, he read some extracts from A Night in the Lonesome October to us. He was just brilliant; he carried his audience with him all the way and afterwards I told him how much I’d enjoyed it and how well he’d done the reading. He smiled happily. What I didn’t tell him (perhaps I should have) was that I’ve done a  lot of reading to audiences – I’ve won prizes for it. So I know what’s involved and how hard it is to do it well. Roger did it very well indeed. I’d love copies of those recordings, if they still exist.

JANE: How wonderful that you’ve won awards for reading aloud!  That’s neat.

So, how about Zelazny’s Lord of Light?  He used a lot of material from Hindu and Buddhist sources.  How easily did you relate to that one?

ALAN: Lord of Light was also hard to relate to in some ways, but it wasn’t as difficult as Eye of Cat. I did know a little bit about the mythologies (though not as much as I should have), so to that extent the book was approachable. And there’s also something irresistibly attractive about a god with the very prosaic name Sam. Little touches like that kept me reading and enjoying the book.

And of course the book contains one of the best jokes Roger ever made. The Shan of Irabek suffers an unexpected grand mal seizure:

“Then the fit hit the Shan.”

I read that sentence with utter chortling delight. It truly made my day.

JANE: I remember the first time I read that passage…  I just sat there staring at the page, unable to believe it.  Then I started laughing.  The only other time I’ve reacted in that fashion  was to the opening verse of “C’est Moi” from the musical Camelot.

Interestingly, the readership seems split on that scene in Lord of Light.  Some people love it, while some think it is completely out of place in an otherwise “serious” novel.

ALAN: Nothing’s so serious that you can’t have a little bit of fun with it.

JANE: I’m with you on that!  I think without being too bold, I can say that Roger would have agreed with us both.

Now, duty calls, deadlines beckon.  However, I’d like to continue discussing Roger’s work next time.

ALAN: Yes – Roger was such a versatile writer. There’s a lot more to explore.


11 Responses to “TT: The Role of the Reader’s Knowledge”

  1. Peter Says:

    You touched on it briefly, but I think the reason people are more likely to bounce off Eye of Cat (or Creatures of Light and Darkness) than Lord of Light, which also draws on cultural knowledge the average reader may not have, really comes down to questions of style.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Interesting point. Both do include poetry in the text. I hadn’t made the connection.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        A reader can also bounce if the book isn’t as expected. I don’t know about Eye of Cat, but in the case of Creatures of Light and Darkness, I ran into the way that covers can influence expectations. I first read Lord of Light and Creatures in the Avon pbs, which have very similar covers. Similar enough that I was silly enough to expect similar stories – they looked like a set. They aren’t, at all, and at the time I was rather disappointed in Creatures. In retrospect, the differences – all of them – go hand in hand: Mr Zelazny drew on different pantheons and told stories matching their underlying cultures in ways that suited the stories. Nonetheless, that initial expectation affected my enjoyment. Someone else might simply stop reading because of the mismatch.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    As I remember it, my take on Eye of Cat was that it had a great start, by about half way through, I didn’t care what happened any more. With that attitude, I’m sure I missed anything that would have otherwise been interesting. Since I like everything from Beast Master (Andre Norton’s take on the “last Navajo in Space” theme) to Tony Hillerman, and my father grew up in the Four Corners Area, I don’t take this kind of disinterest lightly.

    As for Lord of Light, I read it first as a young teen and was horribly confused. It took a while for me to figure out where the beginning and end of the frame story were, and then it made sense. I don’t have any quibbles about that book per se, but I do think that Zelazny recycled many of the Lord of Light characters into This Immortal, at least in their tone of voice and attitude. It was sort of like seeing Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman opposite each other in two different movies. The names and make-up are different in each case, but it’s still Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman.

    Humorous side note: The real movie Argo (as seen in the movie of the same name) was apparently not a Star Wars rip-off. Instead it was supposed to be a film version of Lord of Light, complete with Jack Kirby artwork. While I think it’s too bad that they couldn’t have used the original artwork in last year’s movie Argo, I understand why they made the switch.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Actually, _This Immortal_ pre-dates _Lord of Light_, so that doesn’t quite work. However, Zelazny did have a fondness for a certain type of ironic, world-weary immortal as a character. This has led to people speaking of “the” Zelazny hero (or protagonist), a view I don’t agree with. If you can find a copy, I went into the topic at great length in the literary biography of Zelazny I wrote many, many years ago for Twayne.

      • Heteromeles Says:

        Ah. Thanks for the clarification. I didn’t check the copyright dates when I read them. I’ll see if I can find that copy of Twayne.

  3. Paul Says:

    At an SF convention in 1993, Roger Zelazny was asked his own favorites among his works. He listed “This Immortal,” his first; “Lord of Light,” his most ambitious; “Doorways in the Sand,” “Eye of Cat,” and “A Night in the Lonesome October” (because it was so different from anything he, or probably anyone else, had done).

  4. Louis Robinson Says:

    Lord of Light is _serious_???

    Good thing I didn’t get the memo. I don’t do serious.

    • janelindskold Says:

      It does have its serious, even philosophical, moments. Thing is, Roger was wise enough to realize that having such does not omit the possibility of humor — even very broad humor.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Of course you can allow people to laugh. Barber of Seville and Marriage of Figaro are pretty deep – there’s a reason Beaumarchais spent a good bit of time in exile and Mozart got in trouble for setting them to music – but if you aren’t guffawing through them there’s something wrong. And not with the artists 🙂

  5. TT: More Wonder! | Jane Lindskold: Wednesday Wanderings Says:

    […] work a while back, so I’ll restrain myself from repeating.  People who are interested can look Here and Here and even […]

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