Monday, January 24, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Deus Irae

We continue our tour of Roger Zelazny post-apocolypsia with Deus Irea Irae.  I think it was the third Zelazny book I ever read, after Roadmarks and Creatures of Light and Darkness.

I had a PDF of the book open on the computer when my wife walked past.

"Is that a name?" she asked.

"No, it's the title of the book. It's actually a rather clever play on words. Dies Irae is a the most well known musical sequence in Catholic Requiems. Deus Irae means God of Wrath. Do you care?"

"Not even a little bit. Have fun writing your blog."

I don't especially like the book, to be entirely honest. (Though the cover, as disturbing as it is, is fantastically evocative and probably my favorite Zelazny cover art)  It's Philip K. Dick book! Now it's a Roger Zelazny book! Now it's a Phil Dick book again! Each author has a very distinctive style, and the shifts in tone remind me of a campfire story where one speaker gets to the chapter break and then passes control to the next person in line.

It's the story of an armless, legless painter named Tibor McMasters. (He paints using U.S. ICBM extensor system) He's going on a Pilg (Pilgrimage) to find Carleton Lufteufel in order to paint a murch. (Church mural) (Mercifully, they stop introducing these type of words after the first couple chapters)

Carleton Lufteufel, the Deus Irae, is another great name,

"Carleton Lufteufel," Father Handy said, "was Chairman of the Energy Research and Development Administration from 1982 to the beginning of the war." He spoke half to himself. "To the use of the gob." The great objectless bomb, a bomb which detonated not at one particular spot on the Earth's surface but which acted so as to contaminate a layer of the atmosphere itself. It therefore (and this was the sort of weapons-theorizing that had gone on prior to World War Three) could not be headed off, as a missile could be by an antimissile, or a manned bomber, no matter how fast -- and they had gone quite fast, by 1982 -- by, incredibly, a biplane. A slow biplane.

The setting reminds me of the Gunslinger. The first printing of the Gunslinger and Drawing were cool because they gave the impression of a world that had developed differently than ours, rather than a bog standard post apocalypse society, of which there already were a million.

Here! The black-spotted cow drawing the bicycle cart. In the center of the cart. And at the doorway of the sacristy Father Handy glanced against the morning sunlight from Wyoming to the north as if the sun came from that direction, saw the church's employee, the limbless trunk with knobbed head lolling as if in trip-fantastic to a slow jig as the Holstein cow wallowed forward.

Interestingly, Salt Lake City was mentioned here as well as in Damnation Alley. (I only remembered this because I came across a review speculating that Tanner might come from a Mormon family.

Collected Works has some interesting stories about it, but as the only people who read this blog either read it or wrote it, there is little point in rehashing them here.  (Also, I see they're on the Wikipedia page)

It had been a while since I read the book (probably a good ten years) and certain disturbing passages and the prolonged sequence where Lufteufel gruesomely cuts the shrapnel out of his head were the only things I remembered.

Disturbing passage one:

No; he had his own favorite, and, although it had killed only a relatively few million people, it impressed him: its evil was so blatant; it glowed and stank, as a U.S. Congressman had once said, like a dead mackerel in the night's dark. And it, like the gob, was a U.S. weapon. It was a nerve gas.

It caused the organs of the body to eat one another.

Disturbing passage two:

The bird cackled, "Let me tell you the best I've ever seen, in all the places I've ever been. It consists of an external brain which is carried in a bucket or jar, still functioning, with a dense Saran Wrap to protect it from the atmosphere and to keep the blood from draining off. And the owner had to constantly watch it, to see if it hadn't been dealt a traumatic jolt. That one lived indefinitely, but his whole life was spent in --"

Wikipedia tells me that Phil Dick initially went to college as a German major. I can't say I'm terribly surprised, since he sticks a bunch of German words everywhere. Apparently Zelazny noticed too:

Pete, his forehead wrinkling, said slowly, "I saw once what's called der Todesstachel. At least that's what your buddy Father Handy and that inc Tibor would call it; they like those German theological terms."

Heh.  He likes German words like Roger Zelazny likes "arroyo".

Dr. Abernathy says to Tibor: "A legless man cannot kneel."

I don't think of "Who gave you that Jesuitical bit of knowledge?" without thinking of David Fentris in Home is the Hangman, who employs a similar turn of phrase.

"A mirror! I need a mirror! Get the little one on top of the john and bring it to me! Hurry!"


"Looking-glass! Spiegel! Reflector! The thing you see yourself in!"

I'm just guessing, but I think Dick probably wrote that.

The Big C was neat, it was a malfunctioning pre-Smash computer that  waylays passersby and breaks them down in order to continue its existence. This reminded me of  the stone from Jack of Shadows.

Huh. The Great C says to Pete. "Well, as Oscar Wilde put it, 'Each man kills the thing he loves." I didn't know that was Wilde. I thought, of course, of Yama's line to Mara at the beginning of Lord of Light. He was obviously quoting someone, but I didn't know the providence of that quote.

They eventually encounter Carleton Lufteufel in the most transparent disguise ever, going under the name Jack Schuld, Shuld is German for debt. I kind of like that, as Lufteufel is trying to make amends for his crimes.

Overall, it has some elements that I like, but it's just so relentlessly grim that I didn't enjoy it.  "There are no heroes in Dick's books", Ursula K. Le Guin wrote and that about sums it up. Everybody's just kind of an asshole.


  1. I similarly find that it has elements that I like, but it's a struggle to enjoy it. It's not the best work of either author. But I very much enjoyed the editorial comment made by Zelazny's cat...

    By the way, you misspelled Irae in the URL, the title of the entry, and the first line.

    Chris Kovacs

  2. Oh, bugger. I can fix the title and the body of the text, but the URL is automatically generated from when the post is first made. Ah, well. A testament to my folly.

  3. i quite enjoyed this book and its allusions to gnostiscm... i however didnt quite understand the ending..

  4. Just reread this for the first time since the late 1970s. No idea what I thought of it back then (except that I have very little memory of it, which I guess says something); now it seems fragmented, disjointed. I like parts of it quite a bit, others not so much, and a few chapters either went nowhere or just seemed to fill up space (the guy popping pills to see God, but then trashing his girlfriend's place, for one [gee, I wonder if Dick or Z wrote that chapter?]). For me it went off the rails completely in the last few chapters -- I could have done without the spirit-Lufteufel "curing" the "REtard" girl, Dr. Abernathy's pointless epiphany, and the tacked-on 2-page wrap-up about Tibor and the "murch" (ugh).

    I really like the scene where Tibor kills Schuld, though; I think the rest of the book should have stayed with Tibor's viewpoint from then on. After all, the poor bastard had finally done something honest and real.

    --Chris DeVito

  5. I just finished Deus Irae for the first time, and I've got to agree with Chris D: the book could have done without a lot of what happened after Schuld's death.

    Overall, though, I enjoyed it. Some people may be put off by the fact that you can tell where the authors change, but I really didn't mind. It seemed to me that Dick was a faster/easier read, whereas Zelazny was a _better_ read. So I appreciated both perspectives for different reasons.

  6. I just re-read this for this first time in probably six or seven years, and I think I enjoyed it the most this time around. I was patient and read it slowly, and got a lot more out of it. There is certainly a lot of ironic humor and witticisms that I missed before. I especially like the dung beetles worshiping the VW Beetle. And the autofac and the Big C. And is that Zelazny's pun about exposure?

    Anyway, this time around it made a lot more sense and seemed to tell a coherent story which reached a satisfactory resolution for several of the characters. Plus it makes pointed commentary about how religions may incorporate or appropriate myths, lies, and mistaken identities, and it doesn't matter.

    I'm left wondering whether the mistakes about geography were an oversight, or deliberate humor, or evidence that civilization is so screwed up that no one knows where anything is anymore, or even what the place names are supposed to be. The story begins in a place called Charlottesville, Utah (which as far as I can tell does not exist), and Tibor sets out to go toward Los Angeles. But after not long of a journey (30 miles is mentioned at one point), a bird tells Tibor that they've just crossed the border from Idaho into Oregon, and the sign says "New Brunswick, Idaho." Now, I'm not American, I don't live in the US, but I recalled enough US geography to think that the journey sounded a bit improbable. And sure enough, looking on google maps, Tibor had to have gone pretty far west in order to be making an eastward (backwards) journey from Oregon into Idaho, and he's not gone anywhere near Los Angeles. He went northwest and then east instead of just going southwest. And it was thousands of miles. ((Josh, did you not notice any of this???))

    Anyway, I enjoyed it a lot, it made me think, and I laughed out loud several times. I'd rate it significantly higher now than I did previously.

    1. I have a typo in there because it should have read "...crossed the border from Oregon into Idaho..."

    2. CK:(Josh, did you not notice any of this???)

      I'm afraid I didn't. I'm hopeless when it comes to geography. That talking bird probably has a better understanding.

      However, you raise an interesting point, and, as I'm due for a re-read, I'll probably try the book again soon with this quirk in mind and see where it takes me.