Eye of Cat is arguably the most carefully crafted and executed of Roger Zelazny’s novels. At the same time, it may be the most misunderstood, reviled, and incorrectly promoted of all his works.
I spent several years editing and annotating Zelazny’s short fiction and poetry and researching and writing a biography, the results of which (combined with the efforts of my coeditors Dave Grubbs and NYRSF’s own Ann Crimmins) became the six volumes of The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny (NESFA Press, 2009). When those books appeared, Zelazny fans approached me and also e-mailed NESFA Press directly to eagerly inquire if there were any plans to republish Zelazny’s novels with the same care and diligence. But a surprising number also declared that NESFA Press should absolutely not reprint “that damned awful novel with all the poetry, the Indian, and the one-eyed alien cat.” Even more blunt comments can be found on Goodreads and other discussion groups, such as “unfortunately, the bits with Cat in them are a minority in the book. I liked his motives, but it was lost in bullshit about Singer’s dumb spirit journey where he battles himself.” And yet there are some readers who steadfastly declare that Eye of Cat is their favorite Zelazny novel!
Why such vehement, opposite opinions?
I recall my own disappointment in 1982 when I first read Eye of Cat. It promised to be a taut thriller featuring a former hunter who has traveled to many star systems, now fleeing for his life from a shapeshifting creature that he had captured years before. But the tale seemed to fizzle out with the chase finishing well before the novel’s ambiguous end. And then there was all that poetry, the oddities of narration, the intervening mythological stories, the fragments of news headlines and conversations that acted as section breaks....
I re-read Eye of Cat recently without looking at the jacket copy and had a completely different experience. I then reread what Zelazny had written about the book—much of it in his 1984 essay “Constructing a Science Fiction Novel”—and realized that the novel really wasn’t about what the packaging and promotional material had suggested. And then with some further research, I discovered a traditional Navajo shaman’s poem—which Zelazny recast in his own words as prologue and epilogue to Eye of Cat—that illuminated what the novel was really about.
It starts with misleading covers and blurbs
The cover art for the US first edition hardcover (Timescape, 1982) (figure 1) depicts a headband-clad man running toward us while a catlike, solitary eye looms ominously behind him. The text on the dust jacket declares that this novel is about a chase to the death. William Blackhorse Singer is the last of the Navajo. He has been a hunter and tracker of alien wildlife on many worlds, and he’s filled Earth’s zoo with such creatures. A particular prize has been a metamorph, a shapeshifting alien that often chooses to look like a one-eyed cat. The hardcover declares that
one of Singer’s secrets, and his greatest guilt, is his suspicion that the creature is intelligent. He confronts him and offers his own life for Cat’s cooperation in saving [the UN Secretary-General from an assassin]. Cat accepts ... a chase with Singer as the hunted rather than the hunter.
The paperback first edition (Pocket Books, 1983) oddly has a mirror image of the same artwork (figure 2) and further emphasizes the chase with this excerpt of a telepathic exchange between Billy and Cat:
I have learned hate. I have been waiting for the chance to escape, to track you as you once tracked me, to destroy you.
I am sorry for the pain I have caused you. Now that we know what you are, amends can be made.
The sun of my world has since gone nova. The world and all others of my kind are no more. How can you restore it to me?
Cat slammed against the field and sparks outlined his entire figure. Billy did not move.
After a time, Cat drew back, shaking himself.
He seemed smaller now, and his body coiled around and around upon itself, sinking into the ground.
Finally, I will help you—for a price, Cat said.
And what is that price?
A limited edition hardcover (Underwood-Miller, 1982) (figure 3) also emphasizes the chase by showing an armed Billy hiding out in mountains. Two other covers deemphasized the chase somewhat. The UK first edition paperback (Sphere, 1984) (figure 4) depicts a bizarre and unlikely scene—Billy frozen in a transporter beam wearing stereotypical Native American headdress and Cat looking like part of the rocky scenery just next to him. A later US printing (Avon, 1991) (figure 5) fits the mystical themes of the novel by depicting an introspective Billy as shaman, casting a spell to read his future. But both paperbacks feature the same blurbs and excerpts that suggest that the book is about a chase to evade death.
An audiobook of Zelazny’s unabridged reading (Lotus Press, 1990) shows a cartoonish set of characters in an inevitable chase scene (figure 6). The blurb describes “an irresistible tale that pits a deadly, shapeshifting extraterrestrial against a legendary Navajo tracker, who is struggling to find harmony between his ancient past and present life.” The closing words of that quote are particularly insightful.
A reissue of the same audiobook by Lotus Press depicts Billy with Cat forming an indistinct shape behind him, recognizable only by three claws (figure 7). The blurb reverses the story by describing “the tale of a shape-shifting extraterrestrial chased by Navajo tracker, Billy Blackhorse Singer.” However, it more honestly concedes “This is not merely a novel of the hunt but a gripping confrontation of ancient mythology and fantastic future ... [a] timeless struggle between the demons and gods in all of us.”
The novel as a chase thriller
The chase takes quite a while to get under way. The novel begins with poetry, followed by out-of-sequence scenes, mythological tales, bizarre text, and still more poetry. Eventually Billy is confronted with a proposition from the World Government: the UN Secretary-General’s life has been threatened by an alien assassin who will be particularly difficult to find because it can transform into any form. Given Billy’s expertise—he previously captured a shapeshifter—can he track and kill this metamorph before it kills the Secretary-General? Billy dithers but eventually agrees to come out of retirement. For strategic help, he recruits the shapeshifter that he’d locked up in a zoo decades earlier, which he’d suspected might be sentient. Cat is violently angry about the decades of incarceration but agrees to help only if Billy will consent to be hunted to the death by Cat afterwards. Billy eventually agrees and releases Cat.
In the Timescape edition, we don’t even meet Cat until page 44. After intervening text introduces other secondary characters and allows Billy to ruminate about his options, Cat is released on page 77, quickly kills the assassin on page 87, but doesn’t begin chasing Billy until page 90. Billy flees by teleportation terminals from one remote location to another around the globe, but Cat easily finds him. Billy decides to “go native” in his thinking, seems to absorb himself in Navajo mythology and religion, and hides in a canyon on traditional Navajo territory. Billy kills Cat on page 178 ... but the novel isn’t over. Another 40 pages elapse with more poetry, mythological tales, Billy’s apparent battle with something mystical called a chindi—is it Cat? himself? something else?—while secondary characters try to puzzle out what’s going on and help from a distance. The book ends with Billy motionless against the rocks and the observer (and reader) uncertain whether he’s dead or alive.
The novel doesn’t really work as a chase thriller.
What Zelazny explained about Eye of Cat
In his essay, “Constructing a Science Fiction Novel,” Zelazny explained that this was a character novel and not a thriller or plot-driven work. When he wrote it, he had been living in New Mexico for more than a decade and had become interested in Native Americans. He was fascinated by the Navajo and extensively researched their history, art, music, dance, anthropology, and language. He was struck by how the Navajo adapted to their changing environment and the influx of modern technology. Where other native peoples made rain dances to beg the gods for rain, Navajo had no rain dance but simply adapted to rain, drought, and whatever extremes of weather the gods might send. Where other tribes absorbed English words into their language, Navajo created their own words for modern inventions, including all parts of the internal combustion engine.
Adaptability. That was it. It became the theme of my novel. Suppose, I asked myself, I were to take a contemporary Navajo and by means of the time-dilation effects of space travel coupled with life extension treatments, I saw to it that he was still alive and in fairly good shape, say, one hundred seventy years from now? There would, of necessity, be gaps in his history during the time he was away, a period in which a lot of changes would have occurred here on Earth. That was how the idea for Eye of Cat came to me.
... I saw that this was going to be a novel of character. Showing a character as complex as Billy’s would require some doing. His early life was involved with the myths, legends, shamanism of his people, and since this background was still a strong element in his character, I tried to show this by interspersing in the narrative my paraphrases of different sections of the Navajo creation myth and other appropriate legendary material. I decided to do some of this as poetry, some original, some only loosely based on traditional materials. This, I hoped, would give the book some flavor as well as help to shape my character. (440–441)
The plot developed after Zelazny had decided that this would be a character novel:
I asked myself why he would have been away so frequently. Suppose he’d been a really fine tracker and hunter? I wondered. Then he could have been a logical choice as a collector of alien-life specimens. That rang true, so I took it from there. A problem involving a nasty alien being could serve as a reason for bringing my Navajo character out of retirement and provide the basis for a conflict.
I also wanted something representing his past and the Navajo traditions, something more than just his wilderness abilities—some things he had turned his back on. Navajo legend provided me with the chindi, an evil spirit I could set to bedeviling him. It occurred to me then that this evil spirit could be made to correspond with some unusual creature he himself had brought to Earth a long time ago. (440)
The Navajo word chindi refers to a spirit released with a person’s dying breath. It can be evil and return to avenge some offense; thus, contact with a chindi is very dangerous and best avoided.
To establish the complexity of Billy’s character, Zelazny used Navajo words, poetry, customs, mythology, setting, and themes. For additional realism, his research included travelling through Canyon de Chelly with a Navajo guide—the same region that Billy traverses during the novel’s climax. Thus Zelazny was armed with “my memories, a map, my photographs, and archaeological descriptions of the route Billy followed. This use of realism, I hoped, would help to achieve some balance against the impressionism and radical storytelling techniques I had employed elsewhere.”
This future Earth contains other background material, including the ability to teleport with the ease of using a phone booth and a credit card. Zelazny worried that these details would considerably slow the story, so he decided to experiment with the text:
The problem of injecting the futuristic background material was heightened, because I was already burdening the narrative with the intermittent doses of Indian material. I needed to find a way to encapsulate and abbreviate, so I stole a trick from Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy. I introduced “Disk” sections, analogous to his “Newsreel” and “Camera Eye” sequences—a few pages here and there made up of headlines, news reports, snatches of popular songs to give the flavor of the times. This device served to get in a lot of background without slowing the pace, and its odd format was almost certain to be sufficiently interesting visually to arouse the reader’s curiosity. (441)
Through these fragments in the “Disk” sections we learn about a sentient computer facing felony charges in a bonds manipulation scheme (it later pleads nolo contendere), intelligent dolphins suing a fish canning company and later settling out of court, a computer therapist charged with malpractice, an aged humpback whale whose “Leviathan Symphony” will be performed by the New York Philharmonic, and the need to cull the recently resurrected whooping crane species because their loud call has prompted neighbors to complain about disturbed sleep. Wryly humorous, these details provide depth and realism to this future Earth.
Zelazny introduced secondary characters who are more than stereotypes. A team of six telepaths is deployed to warn the Secretary-General’s household guards against the approach of the metamorph assassin. These telepaths provide a supportive role for Billy and Cat in their effort to find and subdue the attacker. Each human telepath has personal problems that make them recognizable as individuals. Later, they form a mental gestalt to help Billy evade and battle Cat, and by the novel’s end they have matured and progressed in parallel to Billy’s progression. Zelazny decided he had to abandon the “show, don’t tell” rule to introduce these characters:
If you are going to break a rule, capitalize on it. Do it big. Exploit it. Turn it into a virtue.
I captioned a section with each character’s name, followed the name with a comma and wrote one long, complex, character-describing sentence, breaking its various clauses and phrases into separate lines, so that it was strung out to give the appearance of a Whitmanesque piece of poetry. As with my “Disk” sections, I wanted to make this sufficiently interesting visually to pull the reader through what was, actually, straight exposition.
Another problem in the book arose when a number of telepaths used their unusual communicative abilities to form temporarily a composite or mass-mind. There were points at which I had to show this mind in operation. Finnegans Wake occurred to me as a good model for the stream of consciousness I wanted to use for this. And Anthony Burgess’s Joysprick, which I’d recently read, had contained a section that could be taken as a primer for writing in this fashion. I followed. (442)
Zelazny wrote a character novel and not the chase thriller suggested by the various editions’ cover art and blurbs. To be fair, the Timescape hardcover’s jacket also acknowledged that Billy “has come to what he sees as the end of his life ... the chase is as much for his soul as his body. [Billy must] come to terms with a world that has adopted him, made use of his skills, and left him feeling that he has no place to call his own.” And so the true focus of the novel was there in the blurb but buried within more prominent references to the chase.
Eye of Cat is a character novel about a man coming to terms with himself. He has lost his way and his soul, is plagued by guilt over his wife’s death, and is the last of the Navajos. He no longer knows who he is or if there is any point in continuing to live. He believes that he lost some part of himself during his many journeys to the stars and back and wonders how to recover it.
The poetic prologue
The novel begins with Zelazny’s poem, “Evil-Chasing Prayer.” These words unlock the novel’s message, but he did not provide the key to understanding it. This fits with Zelazny’s assertion that although he wanted his work to have multiple levels of meaning, he felt it wasn’t necessary for readers to identify the allusions in order to enjoy his work. The poem begins:
At the door to the House of Darkness
lies a pair of red coyotes with heads reversed.
Nayenezgani parts them with his dark staff
and comes in search of me.
With lightning behind him,
with lightning before him,
he comes in search of me,
with a rock crystal and a talking kétahn. (8)
For the casual reader, this poem may help to cast an atmosphere suitable for a story about the last Navajo; for readers who don’t like poetry, it is likely to be skipped over. It describes a mythological tale, but several unfamiliar words are undefined. I had to research Navajo mythology and language to learn that Nayenezgani is a Navajo god-hero who is also called the Slayer of Alien Gods. A kétahn is a walking stick carried by gods and medicine men; it is also means an offering to the gods in the form of a reed cigarette.
The second through fourth stanzas of Zelazny’s poem have a repetitive structure, describing Nayenezgani’s descent into a House of Darkness. Successive entryways contain striking images of “two red coyotes,” “two red bluejays,” “two red hoot-owls,” and “two red screech-owls,” each lying with “heads reversed.” The “House of Darkness” and description of “heads reversed” may suggest Dante’s Inferno, wherein Tiresias and his daughter Manto are forced to walk backward through Hell for all eternity with their heads reversed on their necks. Or it may conjure up images of totem poles depicting bizarre animals whose heads are turned the opposite way.
The poem ends abruptly with a brief fifth stanza that simply reads, “Farther....” We are left without a conclusion to the action or any explanation as to who Nayenezgani is and what he expects to accomplish.
What is this poem about and why did Zelazny place it here? He described that some of the poetry that he wrote was “only loosely based on traditional [Navajo] materials,” whereas other pieces were completely original. With additional research through Navajo texts, I learned that Zelazny had paraphrased a real (and lengthy) Navajo shaman’s prayer titled Qa-Ya’-Tyi or “The Prayer of the Rendition.”
The original shaman’s prayer is fifty repetitious stanzas, far longer than Zelazny’s adaptation. Although it was originally a sacred poem known only to shamans, the original Navajo text and an English translation appeared in 1888. In it, author Washington Matthews explained:
My informant said it was the most potent prayer that he knew. So sacred is it held that no one may repeat it, or any part of it, twice on the same day, nor may any portion of it be repeated by itself. It must be said through from beginning to end without stopping. (149)
The poem is a Navajo’s plea for help from the gods. During his travels in another world and through some act of witchcraft, he has lost an important part of himself. It’s not his physical body or soul but an important third part, a spiritual or astral aspect of himself that he senses has been lost. A witch from the underworld possesses this third part of him and can use it to work evil on him, similar to how a voodoo doll might be manipulated.
The principal war gods of the Navajo pantheon are invoked to rescue the Navajo man for whom the shaman chants this prayer. From the east comes Nayenezgani (spelled Nagaynezgani in Matthews’s translation), “Slayer of the Alien Gods.” From the west comes his twin brother-god Thobajischeni, “Kinsman of the Waters.” They descend into the underworld, pass through many forbidding gateways (guarded by a Red Bear, a Red Serpent, a Red Hawk, and a Red Coyote), reach the lair of the witch goddess, defeat her, and take the third part of the man back into the world. They retrace their steps precisely on the way up to the surface, with all of the places and forbidding gateways renamed in reverse order. At some point on the return journey, the Navajo supplicant joins them, conscious and aware, in the form of his astral or spiritual self that they have rescued. One of the gods walks before him and one behind to protect him from further evil. They bring him back to the home of his corporeal self and reunite him to become whole again. All is restored and made beautiful at the end of the long prayer:
The World before me is restored in beauty,
The World behind me is restored in beauty,
The World below me is restored in beauty,
The World above me is restored in beauty,
All things around me are restored in beauty,
My voice is restored in beauty,
It is restored in beauty,
It is restored in beauty,
It is restored in beauty,
It is restored in beauty. (163)
By paraphrasing this poem as prologue, Zelazny indicated that the novel concerns Billy finding and being restored to some lost part of his self. If the shaman’s prayer is followed true to form, Eye of Cat should have a happy ending.
But there is more to it. Billy is a shaman, and it is he who is chanting this prayer to Nayenezgani for help in battling a personal chindi. He invokes Nayenezgani at the climax of the novel. It is only with re-reading that the novel’s narrative structure becomes evident. The novel begins at the climax with Billy chanting this prayer of invocation. With the fragment of the fifth stanza “Farther ... ,” Billy’s voice fades out, and we flash back to hear the story that led up to the moment of crisis, followed by what occurs after Nayenezgani arrives to rescue Billy, and an epilogue that paraphrases the end of the shaman’s prayer with everything around Billy restored to beauty.
The novel reexamined
With these realizations, it now becomes clearer that this is a novel about Billy coming to terms with himself. He is 170 years old, tired, disillusioned, depressed, cast away in time from everyone he knew, and the last of the Navajos. It is past time for him to come to grips with the psychological baggage he has accumulated. He’s made some very serious errors—the arrogant act that led to his wife’s death and then knowingly caging a sentient being in a zoo while trying to forget about it. What is left for him?
After the prologue, the novel flashes to a nighttime scene in which Billy stands outside a house in New York. He hears a loud crashing:
indication of the strange struggle at the dark house. No matter how the encounter goes, he, William Blackhorse Singer, will be the loser. But this is his own thing to bear, from a force he set into motion long ago, a chindi which has dogged his heels across the years. (10)
It is a confusing scene, and only on re-reading the novel does it become clear that at this moment Cat is fighting the alien assassin to the death.
Zelazny then flashes further backward in time to what may be Billy’s retirement party years before and a conversation with a matriarch who gave him prior assignments:
“A man like you should be doing something.”
“That’s for you to say. When the gods are silent someone must choose.”
“The gods are silent,” he said, finally looking into her bright ancient eyes, “and my choices are all used up.”
“That’s not true.”
He looked away again.
“Let it be,” he said, “as you did before.”
She removed her hand from his. He finished his drink.
“Your character is your fate,” she said at last, “and you are a creature of change.”
“I live strategically.”
“Maybe too much so.”
“Let it be, lady. It’s not on my worry-list. I’ve changed enough and I’m tired.”
“Will even that last?”
“Sounds like a trick question to me. You had your chance. If I’ve an appointment with folly I’ll keep it. Don’t try to heal my wounds until you’re sure they’re there.” (15)
This is how the forward narrative begins, with declarations about Billy’s weariness and seeming uninterest in doing anything more with his life. He sees himself as out of choices. It will be 44 pages before we even meet Cat, and Cat will be dead 40 pages before the end of the novel. This is because Cat only serves to focus Billy’s attention on what the real problem is: that Billy is depressed and welcoming death. He no longer confronts his mistakes and problems or even fights to live.
The narrative is primarily linear although there are flashbacks to Billy’s earlier life, interspersed with poetry and mythological tales that add color and atmosphere to the tale. Recalled out of retirement, Billy realizes that the best thing to track a shapeshifter is another shapeshifter, and if Cat is sentient, Cat may be willing to help. So Billy confronts Cat and has his fears confirmed—Cat is sentient and was wrongfully imprisoned in a zoo. In the dialogue quoted earlier, Cat proposes to help Billy if Billy agrees to let Cat hunt him to the death. Billy agrees.
But Billy is already resigned to dying. Cat doesn’t realize this until he kills the assassin, prods Billy to run, and discovers that Billy will not flee or fight:
You require my life. Take it.
[ ... ]
I have already resigned myself to dying. Do you believe yourself the only misfit alien on this world, Cat? My people—my real people—are also dead. All of them. The world in which I now find myself is a strange place. The Dineh are not as I once knew them. Your offer only brought my condition into full focus. And I have prepared myself for this.
Cat drew back.
Years ago, he said, I saw in your mind a great pride in your people’s ability to adapt. Now you say that is gone from you. I say this means that you have become a coward, seeing death as the easy way out.
That is not true!
Look within yourself. I have but given you an excuse to resign.
Then fight me, Billy. Pit your skills against me one more time.
You are afraid, now, where you were not before. You are afraid to live. (88–89)
By declaring Billy a coward and a disgrace, Cat forces Billy to respond. Cat gives Billy an hour’s head start and a week to stay alive. If he can evade Cat and live for seven days, then Cat will leave him alone thereafter.
The chase brings Billy back to life but still not hoping to live:
Abruptly, he found that he was happy. A part of his mind was almost cheering for Cat, hoping that even now the beast was on his trail. Let it be close. Let it be very close and clean, he felt. Or else what the joy in such a context? This was the most alive he had felt himself in years. There was a new song inside him now, accompanied by his drumbeat footfalls. (95)
But Cat realizes that Billy still wishes to die, and he has been subconsciously betraying his destinations through telepathic communication with the shapeshifter. The chase becomes a disappointment to Cat:
You have changed from what you once were. I see that within you which was not there in the old days. Do you know what you really want?
To beat you, Billy said. And I will.
No. Your greatest wish is to die. (114–15)
Even when Billy lies unconscious in a wrecked car, Cat declines to kill him. The chase would be over too soon, and Cat is reluctant to give Billy what he wants. Cat also wants to die, for he, too, is the last of his kind:
The sun of my world has since gone nova. The world and all others of my kind are no more. (45)
Billy finally realizes that his death wish has betrayes him by revealing his final destination to Cat even before his first trip box journey. We learn why he blames himself for his wife, Dora’s, death. He wanted to prove that he could climb the forbidden mountain called Shiprock, which rises nearly 1,600 feet above the desert-plain in Navajo Nation of New Mexico. It had been climbed successfully only once, 200 years earlier, and subsequent climbs have been banned because Shiprock is sacred to the Navajo. Shiprock features prominently in the myths of Nayenezgani; it is where he killed two Bird Monsters. Billy convinces Dora to climb with him; she slips, evades his grasp, and falls to her death.
Aware that his subconscious has betrayed him, Billy now “goes native,” descending into the mystical thinking patterns and language of a shaman. He does partly in an effort to block Cat from reading his thoughts and also to take advantage of traditional Navajo hunting methods that he’d thought he had forgotten. He goes to Canyon de Chelly—also in Navajo territory—for a strategic defense against Cat. He sees what is likely Dora’s skull at one point, but whether that is in the real world or a mystical world is unclear. It cannot be the true place of Dora’s death because Canyon de Chelly is about 100 miles from Shiprock.
Cat notices the difference in Billy:
I feel you are stronger here than you were before.
Whichever of us wins, it is better this way than any other. We are each of us the last of our kind. What else is there for us?
I do not know.
It is a strange country. I do not understand everything about it.
Nor do I.
Soon we will meet, old enemy. Are you glad that you ran?
Billy tried hard to think about it.
Yes, he finally said. (173–74)
In the canyon, Cat dies quickly, dispatched by falling rocks that Billy dislodges with his laser rifle. If the chase were the focus of the novel, the story would have ended with Cat’s death, but the tale doesn’t end there. Once Cat is gone, Billy realizes he has to fight the personified form of his own demon, his chindi. It made itself known earlier in the struggle with Cat and has gathered strength through Billy’s suicidal thoughts and his flight:
“I am your shadow,” the other said. “I am the part of yourself that you chose to neglect, to thrust aside when you elected to return to the blanket because you were afraid of being me.
[ ... ]
“I am your negative self. Not better, not worse, only unrealized. You summoned me a long time ago by running from a part of yourself. You cannot destroy a negation.
[ ... ]
“So keep running, keep regressing into the primitive and I will grow in strength as you do.
[ ... ]
“Yes, flee. Give me strength.” (159–60)
It is not Cat, as Billy first thinks, but Billy’s lost self, his chindi:
I am not the beast you slew. I am that which you cannot destroy. I am all of your fears and failings. And I am stronger now because you fled me.
[ ... ]
I am the part of yourself which will destroy you. You have denied me for too long. (204–05)
It becomes a fight to the death that Billy nearly loses, but just when his faith and strength are about to fail him, he remembers to use the shaman’s prayer—his words that he began chanting in the prologue of the novel:
And he begins singing the song the old man taught him, the calling of Ikne’etso, the Big Thunder ... the [chindi] stands his ground and draws Billy into a crushing embrace. But Billy continues to choke out the words. (207–08)
Nayenezgani and his twin brother come to rescue him, but it is Nayenezgani who slays the chindi with an arrow. Billy and his chindi are reunited, becoming one:
In that moment he knows that he has entered his double and his double has entered him, that he has fused with the divided one, that the pieces of himself, scattered, have come home, have reassembled, that he has won....
And that is all that he knows. (208)
The main storyline ends on the cusp of a moment when a secondary character—Ironbear, also a Native American but from the Sioux nation, one of the six human telepaths who tried to aid Billy—stumbles upon the scene and stands transfixed. He is uncertain if Billy is alive but feels that he has come upon a sacred scene that must not be profaned. The telepathic group of six have largely resolved their own personal demons and come out better than they started (I daresay even the one who died).
Is Billy dead or alive? According to the shaman’s prayer, he should be alive. He is clearly at peace and reconciled with himself as indicated by a smiley face he has drawn in his own blood on the rock wall, which Ironbear sees. His survival is also suggested by the epilogue, a final poem in which Billy chants a paraphrase of the shaman’s poem and thanks Nayenezgani, who rescued and restored him:
I met my self’s chindi
became my chindi’s self.
I have traveled through the worlds.
I am a hunter in all places.
My heart was divided into four parts
and eaten by the winds.
I have recovered them. (214)
Billy also chants that “there is beauty all around me,” echoing the closing stanza of the original shaman’s prayer.
But Billy may have transcended this world to become one of the Navajo gods. The concluding chant is preceded by fragments of text including this short poem:
Now you travel your own trail, alone.
What you have become, we do not know.
What your clan is now, we do not know.
Now, now on, now, you are something not of this world.
If Billy is now a Navajo god, that would be consistent with Zelazny’s fascination with godlike protagonists in so many of his novels. Moreover, since Billy appears to interact with the war god Nayenezgani in some of the Navajo myths and dream sequences interspersed throughout this novel, it may be that Billy was a god all along. The audiobook blurb got it correct when it declared that Singer was “struggling to find harmony between his ancient past and present life.” Perhaps he had forgotten that aspect of himself until he was reunited with his chindi.
Success as a character novel?
As a character novel, Eye of Cat works really well, and it’s a completely different, richer experience from the chase thriller it was touted to be. The poetry can’t be skipped over because it contains much of what Zelazny wants us to learn about Billy and his people. Within this character novel, the chase to find the shapeshifter assassin is a minor incident that leads into Cat’s chase to kill Billy, which is also only a part of the bigger path that Billy has to follow.
The title Eye of Cat may draw undue attention to the chase scenes, but I think it really refers to Cat’s wise perception of Billy’s true problem: his subconscious death wish. It echoes the phrase “eye of the needle” for the challenges that Billy must face in order to come out whole or die in the attempt, and “eye of the storm” for the calm resolution that Billy achieves at the end despite the destruction around him.
Echoing “This Moment of the Storm”
Billy’s history and problems bear significant similarity to Godfrey Justin Holmes in Zelazny’s 1966 novella, “This Moment of the Storm.” Holmes is a loner who has outlived everyone he knew because of his lengthy space travels, and he, too, is battling personal demons. He blames himself for the death of his beloved from preventable circumstances that arose through his actions and inaction. It is also told in flashback, framed by the beginning and the end of the novella in which Holmes looks back from a detached perspective on the events of the story. But unlike Billy’s successful resolution in Eye of Cat, for Holmes the future is unresolved and bleak:
But I think of this thing often: Perhaps there is a Golden Age someplace, a Renaissance for me sometime, a special time somewhere, somewhere but a ticket, a visa, a diary-page away. I don’t know where or when. Who does? Where are all the rains of yesterday?
In the invisible city?
It is cold and quiet outside and the horizon is infinity. There is no sense of movement.
There is no moon, and the stars are very bright, like broken diamonds, all. (218)
“This Moment of the Storm” works both ways: as a character story and as a dramatic but tragic action piece. A reader doesn’t have to appreciate both aspects in order to enjoy the tale. This is quite unlike Eye of Cat in which the action starts late and ends too soon, leaving Billy to explore mysticism and self for the last 40 pages on his way to spiritual redemption, forgiveness, wholeness, and godhood. Eye of Cat only fully works if the character’s journey to redemption constitutes the main story and if the messages in the poems are understood. Although I think that the novel was packaged and marketed incorrectly, I can also appreciate that the publisher had a problem. How do you market a novel that concerns a man battling depression, his past, his personal demons, and deciding whether to kill himself, be killed, or fight to survive? A man who may become a god at the end?
When you read Eye of Cat, skip the cover art and blubs. Think of Zelazny’s “This Moment of the Storm” before you read it. Or picture a troubled, lonely man at the end of a long career who is coming to terms with his life, his successes, his failures. You will experience a completely different novel than what you’d anticipated from the packaging. And trust me, the poetry will illuminate and enrich the character and the story and should not be skipped over. Billy—or, more properly, Singer—is chanting a prayer for divine help at the beginning and end of the novel with his tale recounted in between those bookends.
Christopher Kovacs lives in Paradise; he is a character in The Ocean at the End of the Lane; and Roger Zelazny isn’t his only favorite author. All three of these statements are true. Some day he might even write an essay about another author to prove it.
My thanks to Josh Wanisko who alerted me to some similarities between Godfrey Justin Holmes and William Blackhorse Singer.
Matthews, Washington. “The Prayer of a Navajo Shaman.” American Anthropologist 1. 2 (1888).
Zelazny, Roger. “Constructing a Science Fiction Novel” (1984). Nine Black Doves: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Volume Five. Edited by David G. Grubbs, Christopher S. Kovacs, and Ann Crimmins. Boston: NESFA Press, 2009.
——. Eye of Cat. New York: Timescape/Simon & Schuster, 1982.
——. “This Moment of the Storm” (1966). Power & Light: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny Volume Two. Edited by David G. Grubbs, Christopher S. Kovacs, and Ann Crimmins. Boston: NESFA Press, 2009.