Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: A Thing of Terrible Beauty

I am unfortunately running out of Roger Zelazny books to review. Just a handful left now. I've already been interspersing shorter works between the novels and that's what I'll do today.

I say that I've always liked Zelazny's short works, but that's not completely true. Take A Thing of Terrible Beauty. It's a wonderful story, told over the course of just a couple pages. I came across it when I was still in my teens, and could make neither head nor tails of it.  I obviously understood on the strictly literal level, that some bodiless entity was riding along with a critic and experiencing things along with him, but there was clearly a deeper level that I knew I was missing. (I don't have my copy of Threshold here as I'm writing this, but there are so many references to classical literature that I imagine the end notes are almost as long as the story.)

I'm paraphrasing Zelazny badly here, but I recall  that he said in an introduction or an afterword somewhere  that he read a poem that caused him to reassess his views on poetry. Until he read that particular poem, he believed that it needed to contain a narrative elements. I'm entirely at a loss for specifics here, but I feel the same about A Thing of Terrible Beauty, because it is such a lyrical work that I would be content to read it as poetry, even if it didn't tell a story.

I love the opening line: "How like a god of the Epicureans is the audience, at a time like this!" but teenage Josh was probably like, "Fah, what the fuck is this? That last story had a robot vampire and I'll bet this one doesn't have robots or vampires!"

I did read the whole thing, because it was so short and there was a reference to Oedipus in the first paragraph and I've been a huge mythology buff for as long as I've been able to read.

I tend not to like long excerpts for shorter works, but the thing I love about the story is that the lines are so poetic that they remain powerful even when divorced of context: Now that inchoate scream from the dawn of time, and Oedipus stalks the stage in murky terror!

The story is a simple one. An incorporeal entity, a self-described itinerant esthetician, has been benignly coexisting alongside Phillip Devers for ten years, perpetually on the cusp of his awareness. Understanding of certain human emotions has eluded it, and, as it has learned that the world is about to be destroyed, it comes right out and reveals itself by asking "DO YOU SMELL ME, DED?"

Whoops, wrong story.

His mood is a strange one. It is almost as if he knows what is to occur at one o'clock—almost as if he knows what will happen when the atom expands its fleecy chest, shouldering aside an army of Titans, and the Mediterranean rushes to dip its wine-dark muzzle into the vacant Sahara.

But he could not know, without knowing me, and this time he will be a character, not an observer, when the thing of terrible beauty occurs.

I usually love Zelazny for the concepts he brings as much of as the poetry of his work, but this story is something special even by the standards of a career defined by poetic prose.

I mean, this short story has more beautiful lines than most books: "...and in the last moment when the unalterable jungle law is about to prevail,, he must stare into the faceless mask; of God, and bear himself, for that brief moment, above the pleas of his nature and the course of events."

The plot itself is unremarkable, but the beauty is in how it's told. One of my all time favorites.


  1. The half-remembered introduction I referenced above is from the essay "An Exorcism, of sorts", and the quote I mangled was "And there was a time long ago when I favored literalness and almost total coherence in wasn't really till I came across W.S. Merwin's work that I realized that I could be consistently happy with imagery alone when it proceeded from a person of extremely powerful vision..."

    That's how I perceive the language used here, so powerful that the fact that it tells a story is almost incidental.

  2. What I liked, even as a teenager, about this story was its insight into catharsis, a term I'd never heard before much less the definition or Aristotle's treatise on tragedy. But I knew the feeling if goosebumps, not from fear, and I felt pathos for the alien spirit inside Devers as it floated away from the poetic destruction of earth, feeling nothing.

    And I thought the thread was picked up again in "For a Breath I Tarry" where it posited that man's mortality and his awareness of the same were what made him what he was more than any of the trite answers from "This Moment of the Storm" even the authors explicit rejection of a similar definition there.

    And again in "The Man Who Loved the Faoli" it touches again on the same idea and after the man has surrendered himself to her she inadvertently flips the switch that turns his emotions off once again and you feel pity not for the woman creature who is doomed after giving so much (maliciously or animalistically) but for the man who can no longer feel pity himself.

  3. Welcome aboard and thanks for adding to the discussion!

    Though I am disturbed that everyone who winds up here winds up having more insightful commentary than I do. :)