Sunday, September 26, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: He Who Shapes

Wow, this almost wound up as a proper review, rather than the "Hey, a Roger Zelazny story! I liked/didn't like it! Here are some quotes I thought were neat!" format that my reviews tend to take.

I mentioned in my Inception review that, while there are certain parallels between the two works, such as time dilation and the implanting of an idea, that's only because they deal with similar subject matter. They didn't have nearly in much as common as I was suspecting.

I can't decide if I like He Who Shapes better than the Dream Master. In his introduction to the short story, Zelazny writes:

The novel contains some material which I am very happy to have written, but reflecting upon things after the passage of all this time I find that I prefer this, the shorter version. It is more streamlined and as such comes closer to the quasi-Classical notions I had in mind, in terms of economy and directness, in describing a great man with a flaw.

Part of what I admired about Zelazny's works is how short they each tend to be. I'm sure part of that is due to the era when he produced the bulk of it, as books were just shorter then. As much as I like his novels, I think his short stories are where he produced his best material. (In general. Lord of Light is probably the best thing he wrote, and the among the best genre works anybody wrote. I also like Donnerjack quite a bit, though I'm not sure that counts, because it was created by mashing up three books originally intended as a trilogy.) That's why I'll be looking at He Who Shapes rather than The Dream Master. Also, in rereading both in preparation for this, the parts I like most were already present in He Who Shapes, so no point in going for the longer one.

Charles Render is a neuroparticipant therapist, a "Shaper", which is a kind of therapist who guides the dreams of his subjects and provides analysis in this fashion. He's also kind of an asshole. I could see George Clooney as Render, just playing his character from Up in the Air.

The other main character is Elaine Shallot, "somewhere in the vicinity of her early thirties with low bronze bangs." Hmmm...since I'm casting people in this review, who would I like to see in the part? That's a tough one. It seems like so many actresses are too young or too ephemeral for the part. Err...Let's just go with Felicity Huffman, because I can't think of anyone better off the top of my head. Elaine is okay, but the character I like is her seeing eye dog, Sigmund.

Sigmund a mutie Shepherd (though I always imagine him as a Saint Bernard, for some reason), a genetically altered dog with the intelligence of a chimp and a vocabulary of about four hundred words. I'm not a dog person, but I like Sigmund and his loyalty to his mistress.

He stared in at Render in a very un-doglike way and made a growling noise which sounded too much like, "Hello, doctor," to have been an accident.

Render nodded and stood.

"Hello, Sigmund," he said. "Come in."

The dog turned his head, sniffing the air of the room— as though deciding whether or not to trust his ward within its confines. Then he returned his stare to Render, dipped his head in an affirmative, and shouldered the door open. Perhaps the entire encounter had taken only one disconcerting second.

Eileen followed him, holding lightly to the double- leashed harness. The dog padded soundlessly across the thick rug—head low, as though he were stalking some- thing. His eyes never left Render's.

I like Sigmund. Render and Elaine are interesting characters, but each of them so intense (Render is a "granite-willed,ultra-stable outsider—tough enough to weather the basilisk gaze of a fixation, walk unscathed amidst the chimarae of perversions, force dark Mother Medusa to close her eyes before the caduceus of his art" and Elaine "has a will of ten-point steel and the emotional control of an ascetic as well—") that like I can't really bring myself to like them.

"I can't restore her sight," he explained. "I'm just going to transfer her some sight-abstractions—sort of lend her my eyes for a short time. Savvy?"

"No," said the dog. "Take mine."

I've mentioned my friend Greg, the professor of Mordred Studies if he thought Elaine Shallot might be a reference to Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott."

I forget exactly what he said, but his answer amounted to "Well, obviously. What's your next epiphany, that her dog was named after Freud?"

I quite like the poem, by the way. Loreena McKennitt set it to music, and sometimes I'll listen to it if I have a free half-hour. The Lady of Shallot is based on the legend of Elaine of Astolat so the aptronym of Elaine Shallot is a rather uncharacteristic bit of prophetic naming.

Jill DeVille is an interesting character with a great name. She's a lot smarter than she lets on, as evinced by her conversation with Bartelmetz.

"Have you seen Charles today?"

"Alas, I have not," he gestured, open-handed, "and I wanted to continue our discussion while his mind was still in the early stages of wakefulness and somewhat malleable. Unfortunately," he took a sip of coffee, "he who sleeps well enters the day somewhere in the middle of its second act."

"Myself, I usually come in around intermission and ask someone for a synopsis," she explained. "So why not continue the discussion with me?—I'm always malleable and my skandhas are in good shape."

Their eyes met, and he took a bite of toast. "Aye," he said, at length, "I had guessed as much. Well—good. What do you know of Render's work?" She adjusted herself in the chair.

"Mm. He being a special specialist in a highly specialized area, I find it difficult to appreciate the few things he does say about it.

Casting her, I want to go with Lauren Graham, though I think she's just slightly too old. Maybe Zooey Deschanel. But I like Jill. She's smart enough, but she lacks the specialized training that would allow her to converse with Render about his work in any meaningful way.

There is the persistent theme of suicide to escape this society of strangers and maybe that's where Zelazny critics get the idea that his works often contain the theme of suicide. I can almost see that here, because it is made so explicit, but I think that Render's final act is, like so many of Zelazny's heroes, one of self-destuction, rather than of suicide. With suicide, the death of the self is the goal. With self-destruction, it is an inevitable, but incidental consequence. I think it's an important distinction

Okay, this wouldn't be a Josh review without me saying, "Hey! Here are some quotes I thought were neat!" In that spirit:
  • "The universe did not invent justice. Man did. Unfortunately, man must reside in the universe."
  • "—And if something that strong should break, in a timeless moment of anxiety." smiled Barlelmetz sadly, "may the shades of Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung walk by your side in the valley of darkness.
Final word? It's wonderful. I never get tired of the Greek hero, the noble man doomed by his single, defining flaw. It is Render's nature to be what he is. And I don't like the tautology contained in that statement, but it's true. He is Render, the Shaper. To think of himself as something else is to become that thing.


  1. Since I'm on a negative kick here, I'll comment on some of the other Zelazny stories/novels that don't work for me (there are very few). "He Who Shapes"/THE DREAM MASTER is probably the best-written of them. I mean, line by line, the writing is inspired and often brilliant.

    I think my sticking point is that Render is supposedly a classic Greek hero, a "noble man doomed by his single, defining flaw," as you put it, JJ. My questions: In what way is Render -- this arrogant, condescending prick -- a "noble man"? And which of his many flaws is the "single, defining" one? I mean, this guy is egotistical, controlling, supercilious, uptight, petty, arrogant, condescending (not to be repetitious), astonishingly un-self-aware (for a supposedly brilliant shrink), and basically your classic snotty little prima-donna git. He's a puffed-up ponce just begging to be bitch-slapped.

    But like I said, the writing is beautiful. This is one of those rare novels -- well, it's the ONLY novel -- that I actively dislike and often reread. Somehow the words blind me, until I get to the end and realize, Hey, wait a minute, these characters are suckwads!

    I'd agree with Zelazny that the original novella is superior to the novel expansion. If nothing else, in the novella, the talking dog is, at least, a somewhat sympathetic character; in the novel, Zelazny turns the dog into yet another neurotic creep. Bummer.

    Well. If I were to use your grading system, I'd have to split it up and give "He Who Shapes" an A+ for writing, an F for story. Not sure how to reconcile that.

    Chris DeVito

    1. It is tempting to try and do a rebuttal to your 'negative kick' review, but ultimately futile. It is an unattractive story (HWS version) populated by irritating characters but ultimately one I returned to, to try and understand if I'd missed something, then again simply to enjoy the prose. Fascinating but ultimately unsatisfying, like some bizarre grotesque.

      By the way...Rend: Split or divide in pieces. So the name of Render for the antagonist is appropriate.

      Michael Malt

    2. Hey, if you read the following comments you'll see that I'm seriously conflicted by the story; and I still haven't worked it out. It's just one of those things. Still plugging away at it though . . .

      --Chris DeVito

  2. I think all of the flaws you've outlined are manifestations of his Hubris. (It is a Greek tragedy, after all)

    Do you dislike the story itself or simply all the characters in it?

    I agree with you about the novel versus the novella. I can't think of any instance where I enjoyed an expanded work more, except for perhaps Damnation Alley, because of the Conrad link you identified.

  3. I think this is one of those stories where the characters *are* the story, to the point where I can't separate them. And I also have a bit of a bias, since the Tragic Hero thing generally doesn't hold a lot of appeal for me (if the hero doesn't even have a chance, what's the point?). But I definitely get something out of the story, or I wouldn't keep rereading it over the years!

    I get the feeling that Zelazny was focused on the structure so much that he ignored the characters' attempts to get beyond what the author (the Render?) was forcing them to do. This is particularly the case with Jill DeVille, who shows some real sparks of life before Zelazny simply pushes her offstage. I feel that something similar happened with Bridge of Ashes -- Zelazny was so intent on working out the ideas and the viewpoint tricks that the characters got shortchanged. (I was, as you noted, kind of harsh on BoA -- I'll try to give it another chance, one of these days. Right now I'm deep into Wilderness -- 2/3rds in and I not only think it's far and away Zelazny's best collaboration, it ranks with his best stuff, period.)

    --Chris DeVito

  4. I think it's the first Zelazny novel I've read as teenager - full version I mean)) I found it confusing and unspeakably beautiful, I still find it very moving and sad - I see in it a story of an extremely strong man who fights to have full control of himself and his emotion and is still brought down by inescapable grief which he tried so hard to bury. It catches up with him. Also, a journey in the realms of one's mind...

  5. Also, Felicity Huffman as a beautiful woman in her early 30s? She's 51 and looks it, sorry.

    1. You're probably right. I still associate her with the character she played is Sports Night and she was in her 30s in that.