Monday, October 1, 2007

Zelazny, Diction, and Style

In my recent interview, I mentioned Roger Zelazny as an influence on my writing because he taught me that a diction drop could be a tool rather than a mistake. In the Comment trail, novelist (and famous Rat) Neil Ayres asked if I could elaborate, which is like asking a retriever if he can fetch. I can not only fetch, but I can slobber all over the ball before you pry it from my fangs.

Strictly speaking, a diction drop is a sudden shift in style--usually from the so-called High Style to the colloquial. It's typically seen in amateur writing when the author is going for a Melvillean tone and stumbles into something far less elevated, as in this made-up example:

The vault of the sky shattered under the torrent of the monsoon, and he sought shelter beneath the canopy of trees, huddling in the embracing concavity of a banyan's mighty trunk; yet even that ancient giant could not hold back the deluge, and so he gave up on keeping dry.

Now, starting out the sentence with the vault of the sky might be inadvisable in the first place, but unless you're goofing around, you probably don't want to end by slumping down into he gave up. It undercuts the tone of the sentence.

And you never want to undercut your prose, do you? Isn't consistent style, voice, and diction every writer's goal? I thought so--until I read Zelazny. He deliberately plays with such things to add another dimension to his writing, to manage transitions in tone and pacing, and to keep certain passages from sounding too faux-poetic or pompous. I can't give an example of his more clever drops without quoting long scenes, but here's a transitional drop from his novel Jack of Shadows that carries us from a rather emotional scene to something more mundane:

Beside the flat, black ocean, he now walked. The stars within it danced whenever the ground and the waters trembled. The air was chill and he felt a great fatigue…He longed to wrap his cloak about him and lie down for a moment. He wanted a cigarette.

From Beside the flat black ocean, he now walked to He wanted a cigarette? (Even odder in the broader context of the book, which is an alternative-world fantasy; the cigarette is as deliberately out of place and jarring here as it would be in a novel about ancient Rome.)

Zelazny played with style and diction throughout his work, frequently dancing along an edge within the same paragraph. The first chapter of his Hugo-Award-winning novel Lord of Light opens with an epigraph from an entirely invented religious text followed by another from the sacred Buddhist Dhammapada, and then arrives at the first line of the novel:

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god.

An intriguing first line--not exactly heroic or High Style, but in the tone of a tale or myth. All this becomes more complicated, though, when we continue through the entire first paragraph:

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the –atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But, then, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.

Lord of Light concerns a future world where the technocratic rulers--The First, who arrived on a spaceship--have set themselves up as a pantheon of immortals mimicking the Hindu gods. Sam, the Enlightened One, and one of The First himself, leads a worldwide, peaceful rebellion against Heaven that parallels Buddha's pacifist revolt against the exclusionary, caste-ridden Hindu reincarnation cycle. Lord of Light is therefore at once a science fiction story, with glib technological nods as to how the alternate world works, and simultaneously a fantasy novel or myth that uses evocative language and images to further the story. Zelazny's style alternates between the grand--which is by its nature somewhat innocent--and a knowing, sometimes silly tone. The two levels of diction alternate throughout, but sometimes they are packed close together. Watch how this passage slithers from tale to modern self-consciousness and back to mythic again:

.......Hellwell lies at the top of the world and leads down to its roots.
.......It is probably as old as the world itself, and if it is not, it should be, because it looks as if it were.
.......It begins with a doorway. There is a huge, burnished metal door, erected by the First, that is heavy as sin, three times the height of a man and half that distance in width. It is a full cubit thick and bears a head-sized ring of brass, a complicated pressure-plate lock, and an inscription that reads, roughly, “Go away. This is not a place to be. If you do try to enter here, you will fail and also be cursed. If somehow you succeed, then do not complain that you entered unwarned, nor bother us with your deathbed prayers.” Signed, “The Gods.”
.......It is set near the peak of a very high mountain named Channa, in the midst of a region of very high mountains called the Ratnagaris. In that place there is always snow upon the ground, and rainbows ride like fur on the backs of icicles, which sprout about the frozen caps of cliffs. The air is sharp as a sword. The sky is bright as the eye of a cat.

(I'm particularly fond of the Gollum-like, "Go away. This is not a place to be." It appeals to the AA Milne in all of us.)

To my 13-year-old eyes, the twisting, swerving tone of Lord of Light was a revelation: Look! Would you just look at what this guy's doing! I mean...is that legal?

Of course, writers had already been playing with diction and style for decades, beginning with the strident stylistic parodies/tributes/gamesmanship of James Joyce in Ulysses, down to the inimitable originality of Zelazny's contemporary Donald Bartheleme, who never wrote anything twice in the same style (and seldom wrote an entire story in only one style). What was astonishing to me wasn't that someone would play with tone and diction in this fashion; experimental fiction by its nature had no rules. But here was a genre writer--no, worse, a science-fiction writer--jazzing around with language to serve his own ends, and managing to write page-turners at the same time.

In later works, Zelazny continued to have a slippery style, but he tended to spread it out. The diction changed radically within a book, but there were less of the sudden drops and elbows in the side, and more of the slow segues that matched language to content. By the time he began the Amber series--which, like most series of any flavor, ran too long for my taste--he had achieved a chameleon style that morphed to match what was needed for a scene, and he could write passages which, at their peak, were far over the top; but he vaulted that top so casually that, in context, the passages are read without a hitch.

In Nine Princes in Amber, the first-person protagonist is a Prince of Amber. Amber is a Platonic Ideal of a city; all the other cities of the multidimensional universe, indeed, all of our universe, consists of only the shadows and reflections of Amber. Our narrrator is an amnesiac who has lived for centuries on the shadow called Earth, and has been employed mostly as a mercenary. In one passage, memory of his recent (several hundred years) past returns:

I saw the paper skins and the knobby, stick-like bones of the dead of Auschwitz. I had been present at Nuremburg, I knew. I heard the voice of Stephen Spender reciting “Vienna,” and I saw Mother Courage cross the stage on the night of a Brecht premiere. I saw the rockets leap up from the stained hard places, Peenemunde, Vandenberg, Kennedy, Kyzyl Kum in Kazakhstan, and I touched with my hands the Wall of China…

I saw the rockets leap up from the stained hard places? I like it, but I wouldn't expect it in a novel with this hardboiled Hammett passage:

......It became boring with the third repetition, so I threw the bedclothes over his head and clobbered him with the metal strut.
.....Within two minutes, I’d say, I was garbed all in white, the color of Moby Dick and vanilla ice cream. Ugly.
.......…Laughing Boy’s wristwatch told me it was five forty-four. The metal strut was inside my belt, under the white orderly jacket, and it rubbed against my hipbone as I walked…When I reached the first floor I turned right, looking for the door with light leaking out from beneath it.
.......I found it, way up at the end of the corridor, and I didn’t bother to knock.

Clobbered? Laughing Boy? But wait--there's more, when Roger goes all Song of Solomon on us:

…for often at night my dreams were troubled by images of thy green and golden spires and thy sweeping terraces. I remember thy wide promenades and the decks of flowers, golden and red. I recall the sweetness of thy airs…Amber, immortal city from which every other city has taken its shape, I cannot forget thee, even now…

Looked at in isolation, each of those quotes is perhaps a bit too much, but trust me: they don't call attention to themselves in the context of the book. The guy always had his eye on the volume control, and fiddled with it constantly.

Was Roger Zelazny high literary art? Maybe not, though I'd argue some of his books were more thought-provoking, entertaining, and stylistically challenging than, say, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. Was he the first to play such games? Assuredly not. But he was the first to gain my attention, and he deeply affected my sense of what is stylistically permissible in a novel.

You can do that? Too cool. Now I wanna be a writer!

11 comments:

Tim Stretton said...

Fascinating piece! It's done for me what these things always should: made me want to go away and read some.

Zelazny has been on my "must catch up with" list for, oh, fifteen years - but I think I'll let him jump the queue now.

Jake Jesson said...

I have to go read Zelzany now.

...Just as soon as I finish reading Eco's "The Name of the Rose", and write a fucking essay on it. Hooray!

Neil said...

Thanks, David.

By the way, for someone who made such a HUGE deal about people spelling his name wrong... ;)

David Isaak said...

Hi Jake--

I thought Name of the Rose was kinda fun, though I wouldn't wanto to write an essay on it. What is there to say? Even Eco admitted he wrote it as a sort of lark ("I felt like poisoning a monk.")

David Isaak said...

Hey, Tim--

I think you'll enjoy him, though on occasion he slumps into genre-land.

Jamie Ford said...

Wow, that's a serious breakdown of Zelazny--one of those long-lost favs of mine. Now I'm gonna have to dust off that copy of Damnation Alley...

David Isaak said...

Hey, Jamie--

Zelazny, Alexie, the two Maus tales, plus the Lee twins (Stan and Harper).

You have great taste, mi amigo.

Tim Stretton said...

'Genre-land'? Hell, I have a second home there...

Jake Jesson said...

David, there may not be alot to say, but there's plenty to write about it.

Funny thing, too - most of the parts of "Rose" that made me think "hey! someone could write an essay about a hidden meaning there!" narrator Adso promptly points out the hidden meaning and comments on it.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jake

Yep, our boy Umberto is marvellously postmodern and self-conscious. What's cool is that he doesn't think this exempts him from having a story to tell.

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