Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: If at Faust You Don't Succeed

I wrote earlier that I didn't think that Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming was influenced by Good Omens (and indeed, the authors may have taken pains to steer a similar plot in different directions once they learned of it), but I can't say the same can't be said of If At Faust You Don't Succeed.

It's a much richer work, and my favorite of the trilogy. The Philadelphia Inquirer said of the original: "A foolish field day…Silly names fly, bureaucracy foils evil, and it's all cute as the dickens." That's a good summation. It has no pretensions as anything greater than a silly romp and I think it succeeds outstandingly. Faust sets its sights higher and it also succeeds outstandingly.

I briefly commented in the first part of my review of the Hand of Oberon that the Chronicles from Brand's point of view would have been a really fun read, and we almost get a more-sane Brand as one the leads in Faust.

I'm always looking for authors like Zelazny, and other fans occasionally recommend Steven Brust, and while a fine writer, he never engaged me like Zelazny did, simply because Zelazny's work has such a penetrating, almost predatory intelligence to it, though not necessarily in his characters. Corwin is no dummy, but he's not an intellectual.  Brand is and so is Faust and they are both fun to read.

Zelazny and Sheckley have given conflicting accounts of their collaboration, but according to my Collected Works of Roger Zelazny, their relationship was starting to sour at this point, because Sheckley was rewriting Zelazny's contributions, much to his annoyance. That's funny, though, because Faust reads more like a traditional Zelazny story than Prince Charming did. I did like Charming, but reading Faust so soon after it makes me realize that it doesn't really have the complexly layered prose that I enjoy about Zelazny's work.

For instance, observe here, Mephistopheles' temptation of a former divinity student and petty criminal named Mack the Club, whom Mephistopheles believes is Faust.

"And where am I to enjoy my new lifestyle with unlimited wealth 'and boundless women?"

"Why, where you please," Mephistopheles said. "But if none of the present divisions of the world please you, we can take you elsewhere in time, to any moment in any place anywhere, even the ones that do not yet exist, because there is a law that says that that which is conceived must exist from the moment of its conception. And we can set you up in such a place as a great doctor of learning, or a prince of your own state, or a wealthy churchman, or what you please. We like to think of ourselves as occupational therapists, too, so you may do what you will in this new place, and if the job does not exist, we create it for you. We can find you a purpose in life that will suit you down to a T, no matter what kind of a T you are. And, with potions and simples that we supply free with our offer, we ensure you a long, happy life and a decline so gradual that you don't even notice it."

"Until the end, of course," Mack said.

"Of course. You could hardly miss noticing that."

Mack considered for a moment and then said, "You don't by any chance offer immortality, do you?"

"You drive a hard bargain, Faust! No, we don't offer immortality. Why should we? This new enhanced package of ours, limited as it may be in terms of what is possible to the imagination, is still enough to buy a trillion like you for the least part of it."

"How well you know us!" said Mack. "How wise you are!" But actually he thought that Mephistopheles was pompous, stuck-up, and more than a little silly. Mack felt he could handle this spirit, not knowing, of course, that he was falling for one of Hell's subtlest delusions.

As entertaining as it was, Prince Charming only works as a comedy. Faust works as an actual story and a very good one at that. It may be my second-favorite of Zelazny's collaborations (Donnerjack being the first), and my second-favorite of Zelazny's retelling of Faust (For a Breath I Tarry being the first there)

Mack has taken the place of Faust in a "temporal-moral" contest, where the participant will be transported to a specific time and place for each episode. At a certain point, he will be have to make a moral decision and mankind will be judged on his actions.

The real Faust arrives just in time to see Mack signing on for this contest in his place. Outraged that an impostor without even a casual knowledge of alchemy thought he could come in and steal his long-awaited pact with the devil, Faust gives pursuit. And the game is on!

Faust is fun to read and Marguerite, the goosegirl turned serving wench plays amusingly off of him.

Marguerite said, "One thing bothers me. We were taught the Styx didn't really exist. So how can you ask directions to it?"

Faust smiled in a superior way and asked her, "Does the Archangel Michael exist?"

"Well, of course."

"And what about the Holy Grail? Does that exist?"

"So they say," Marguerite said.

"Well then, believe me, the Styx exists, too. If one imaginary thing exists, then all imaginary things must exist."

Marguerite sniffed. "Well, if you say so."

"Of course I say so," Faust said. "Who's the autodidactic thaumaturge around here?"

The book has the same frantic pace as its predecessor, and even minor characters like Rognir the dwarf return.

The episode in Constantinople in 1210 reminded me of Ben Bova's Orion and I really dig the exchange when Faust finally catches up to Mack.

"We seem to be at cross-purposes here," Mack said. "I doubt not that you are Faust. Yet I am Faust, too, on the authority of no less a person than Mephistopheles." .

"Mephistopheles was mistaken!"

"When the great ones make mistakes, those mistakes become law."

Faust drew himself to his full height, which was rather shorter than Mack's, and said, "Must I listen to this casuistic palaver from one who speaks in my name? By the powers, I'll have vengeance if you don't vacate immediately and leave this game to the player for whom it was intended, namely, me."

"You think highly of yourself, that much is evident," Mack said. "But as to who was chosen, it seems to, be me. You can argue till kingdom come and you won't change that."

"Argue? I'll do a lot more than argue! I'll blast you with spells of greatest puissance, and your punishment will be most hideously condign."

"Will be what?" Mack asked.

"Condign. It means fitting. I intend to give you a punishment worthy of your transgression."

"You know a lot of words honest folk never use," Mack said hotly. 

The second episode is in the court of Kublai Khan, during Marco Polo's time there. As I said, the story is more coherent than the one in Prince Charming, but it's still full of the absurdity I enjoyed there. Mack is posing as an ambassador from Ophir. Marco Polo is trying to get a feel for this stranger.

"Tell me, what are your principal products?" he asked.

"We export a lot of stuff," Mack said, "but our main products are gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks."

"Apes! That's interesting," Marco said, "The great Khan has been looking for a good source of apes."

The description of the mirror prison where Ylith confines Mack reminds me of the Lord of Bats' gem prison.

Mirror Prison:

He was in a small room with mirrors. There were mirrors on all the walls, floor, and ceiling. There seemed to be more mirrors than the number of walls would accommodate. They formed reflecting quicksilver tunnels and precipices, a baroque topography of mirrors. He saw himself reflected and re-reflected in a hundred mirrors at a hundred angles. He turned, and saw himself turn in a myriad of surfaces. He took a tentative step forward and saw his doubles do the same, though some seemed to go backwards. Another step, and he bumped into a mirror. He recoiled, and his many likenesses did the same, except for a few who hadn't bumped into anything. Mack found it strange and somewhat sinister that some of his mirror images weren't doing what he was or what the others were doing. One of those aberrant images was sitting in an armchair reading a book; he looked up and winked at Mack. Another  appeared to be sitting on a riverbank, fishing. He didn't look up. There was even one who was sitting backwards on a chair, legs stretched out, grinning into Mack's face. At least Mack assumed it was his face. Suddenly he was no longer sure what the front of his face was wearing.

Gem Prison:

     He was on his knees in a place of brilliance, and the multitudes mocked him. No.

     Those who mimicked  his every movement were other versions of himself.

     He  shook his head to clear it, realized then that he was surrounded by mirrors and brightness.

      He  stood, regarding the confused prospect. He was near to the center of a large, many-sided chamber. All of the walls were mirrors as were the countless facets of the concave ceiling and the gleaming  floor beneath him. He was not certain as to the source of the light. Perhaps it had its origin, somehow, in the mirrors themselves. Part way up the wall to his right, a table was laid. As he approached it, he realized that he was walking up an incline, though he felt no extra strain upon his muscles nor any disturbance of his sense of equilibrium. Hurrying then, he passed the table and continued on in what he deemed  to be a straight line. The table was behind  him, then above  him. After several hundred  paces, it was before him once again. He  turned in a right angle from his course and repeated the walk. The results were the same.

I enjoyed how Odysseus and Achilles were woven into the story. (Azzie conjured up Helen to tempt Faust, and the pair leaves Hades to get them back.)  What could have been a throwaway gag actually contributes to the overall narrative. I really like their portrayal of Hades as a gloomy place where the dead go through the motions of being alive because they have nothing else to do. The temperature is "just chilly enough that you weren't comfortable sitting outside, but not cold enough to be invigorating." Sisyphus had been set free long ago, but he still pushes his rock, because it gives him something to do. This corresponds to my understanding of the Greek afterlife.

When they finally catch up to Faust, they unleash the Furies upon him:

The door of the tavern was suddenly blown open by a blast of ill-smelling air. The Furies flew in. They came as three big crows with dusty black feathers, screaming and squawking and bombarding everyone with smelly excrement. Then they transformed themselves into their human shape—three old women, long-nosed and red eyed, wearing ragged, dusty black garments. Alecto was fat, and Tisiphone was skinny, and the third, Megaera, was both fat and skinny, but in all the wrong places. All the sisters had eyes like fried eggs after the yolk has run. They danced around Faust, screeching and cackling, laughing and hooting, leaping and capering, and Faust tried to maintain a dignified silence, but it was difficult with these ancient harridans carrying on so.

At length Faust said, "This behavior will do you no good, my dear ladies, because I am not of your time and construct and so it is unlikely that your presence will fill me with pious horror."

"Pious, schmious," Tisiphone said. "Maybe we can't coerce you physically. But you will find it difficult to carry on a conversation with us screaming in your ear all the time."

"This is ridiculous," Faust said.

"But that's the way it is," Tisiphone said. "Maybe you'd like to hear us sing a particularly irritating folk song with several hundred choruses? All together, girls."

The finale is rather different in tone than the rest of the book, and I'm still not sure if that's a bug or a feature, but it does an effective and entertaining job of tying everything together.


  1. I'm not tryin' to start a fight or anything (since I know you liked the book, Josh), but as a Zelazny fan, I feel I need to make a confession here: this is the first of Roger's works that I wasn't able to finish.

    (Well, I guess it's technically Sheckley's book, since he re-wrote all of Zelazny's parts, but whatever.)

    After 158 pages, I couldn't take it anymore. I just couldn't stand Sheckley's writing. Zelazny could have taken the same story and done it in 100 fewer pages, without the cringe-worthy dialogue. But instead we got this abomination.

    You know, I've often read that Sheckley was a master of the short story, but after finding out that he robbed us of some (potentially) quality Zelaznian storytelling by re-writing Roger's parts, I will forever hate Sheckley and probably never seek out these short stories of his that are supposedly so good.

    I feel like I'm an embarrassment to the title of "Zelazny fan," being that I've bailed on one of his books. (A TRUE fan would read them all in their entirety.) But at the same time, I don't consider this to be one of Zelazny's books, because Sheckley ruined it.


  2. I can't cast you out. Zelazny fandom is too small to permit that kind of Balkanization. (Also, I can't take the risk that a Zachian Reformation would ecclipse the pro-Faust orthodoxy).

    Did you read the first? If so, did you like it?

  3. In response to your first paragraph: lol. Thanks for keepin' me around.

    In response to the second, I did read Prince Charming a few years ago, and I seem to recall quite enjoying it. (I mean, it wasn't anything earth-shattering, but it was light and fun and I like that sort of thing.) Really, I think Faust COULD have been a good book if Zelazny had had a hand in it, but I just couldn't get past Sheckley's writing.