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.
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.