Chicago: Chicago Review, 2016; $15.99 tpb; 207 pages
There’s always been something enigmatic about Roger Zelazny and his writing.
Even though Roger was always pleasant, he still somehow radiated a sense of cool distance, emotional reserve. If you check out the obituary essays in Locus, you’ll note how many people responded to his exciting fiction but how relatively little they had to say about Roger as a person. At the last ICFA he attended, Roger invited several people to a special dinner at the conference hotel’s gourmet restaurant. I accepted it simply as an exceptionally nice, friendly gesture; however, my wife, a sharply observant social worker, told me later, “Joe, I think Roger’s dying.” She was right. After his death, one of Roger’s oldest friends was hurt about how he’d been deceived: Roger had assured him that everything was fine, that he was cured of cancer. Evidently he found it easier to die than to be known as Dying Roger Zelazny.
Of course disguising one’s emotional vulnerability isn’t a grievous moral flaw, but it does indicate a major aspect of Roger’s writing, in which leading characters are often reserved, mysterious even to themselves. Lord of Light, for example, introduces the hero thus:
His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the –atman, however, and claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.
Therefore, there was mystery about him.
Roger had a knack for creating cryptic situations studded with vivid clues that got readers involved in figuring out who the characters were and what they were trying to do. When that intellectual puzzling led on to emotional involvement as in Lord of Light, he produced wonderful fiction. In other works—Creatures of Light and Darkness, for example—it didn’t work as well, but Roger kept experimenting to see quite how much distance and strangeness he could pull readers through without losing them. Even a minor novel like Jack of Shadows does keep readers’ attention in its presentation of a very strange world and characters who show often-mystifying powers. The setting is a world that doesn’t rotate, one side always turned toward the sun and the other always dark. The people who live in daylight believe in rationality and science as they live out their little lives in full view; dwellers on the dark side have distinct and individual magical abilities, and when one life ends (usually violently) they are reborn in the Dung Pits of Glyve at the Western Pole of the World. People who live in the dark don’t even pretend to have a moral code; they are restrained only by fear of other magic users’ power and by hyperpunctilious social etiquette. Jack, a nightside character who draws his power from shadows and who spends much of the book evading his whiny little soul, journeys into the light to research the principles of magic on a computer so that he can revenge himself on his major enemy, the Lord of Bats, who stole the woman Jack desires and sent him to the Dung Pits. The story’s world is much more detailed and curious than this bare outline can suggest, consistently wonderful and strange. It still remains somehow distant and remote, as Roger himself suggested in his M.A. thesis on Cyril Tourneur that “a universe denuded of spiritual significance may be horrible—it may also be a comic universe.”
Comedy, of course, can turn out to be extremely significant. But this novel succeeds better at being wonderful than meaningful. Jack is such a schmuck that it’s hard to find him or his exploits amusing. Readers can sympathize with him early in the story when he’s more victim than victimizer. After that, when he’s in full antiheroic mode, he continues to hold our attention by his versatile imagination, but watching him in action becomes less pleasant. Take, for example, the scene in which, after he has mercilessly triumphed over his enemies, Jack demands that the father of his consort commit suicide and gives him thoughtful advice:
“Poison is very good.... But the effects vary so from individual to individual that it can sometimes prove painful. I’d say that your purposes would best be served by sitting in a warm bath and cutting your wrists under water. This hardly hurts at all. It is pretty much like going to sleep.”
“I believe I’ll do it that way then.”
“In that case,” said Jack, “let me give you a few pointers.”
This goes on for some time.
There may be a lot of repressed emotion in this scene—and throughout Jack of Shadows all the way to the ambiguous end. But ultimately it’s hard to be sure what we’re supposed to make of Jack. Readers who are prepared to supply emotion when the characters lack it and who can delight in a marvelously strange contrivance will enjoy the novel. I don’t think it quite works, but it is almost as brilliant as it is cold.
Joe Sanders lives in Willoughby, Ohio, in a world of mixed day and night.