condolences, cremation, and in medias res

This will probably meander a bit. In addition to recent events, I was sick last weekend and part of last week.

An interesting thought came to me after the last post, and it’s reflected in the comments there. Does coming into the middle of a story actually help to get us hooked on it?

  1. The first comic book I ever bought was the second half of a two-part story (Fantastic Four #26 – “The Avengers Take Over”). I remember at the time thinking that comic books, which I’d been told were very childish, were more difficult to follow than I’d expected.
  2. As I said in the comments to the previous post, I got hooked on Dark Shadows despite coming into the middle of the series and into the middle of a story.
  3. I saw the movie Serenity before I ever saw the TV show Firefly, and I was eager to go back and catch up on all the characters and history.
  4. The first Resident Evil movie I saw was #3 (Extinction), and I was intrigued by the fact that the characters obviously had some history that I wasn’t aware of.

Hmmm.

 
I’ve also been thinking about condolences, for obvious reasons, which made me think of a book called This Immortal, by Roger Zelazny, which I’ve started reading again.

There’s scene in there where Conrad, the protagonist, has just heard that his wife has died. He’s conducting a tour of post-apocalyptic Earth, for an alien visitor who he dislikes and who someone is, apparently, trying to kill. The suspects are his traveling companions, many of whom he knows very well, and he wonders if, as they come one by one to offer him their condolences, one of them will reveal something.

He’s making an effort to be a detective to help take his mind off his grief, but it doesn’t work. How people offer condolences doesn’t have much to do with what’s happening at that moment — it comes pretty deep from who they are and the culture they come from.

I’ve read the book many times, over decades, and it’s all very familiar territory — one of my favorite of his books if perhaps not one of the greatest.

And it’s always fun to be reminded of how playful Zelazny was with language. (His book Lord of Light has an absolutely terrible pun in it, and I’ve heard that he wrote the whole book to get to that pun — which is unlikely but not impossible.)

For example, Conrad is at a diplomatic function, and he’s stepped out onto a balcony with a woman who was his lover the previous summer and who is, and was, married to one of his best friends.

As they talk, discussing the fact that he is now married also, he notes that:

…she had lots and lots of orangebrown hair, woven into a Gordian knot of a coiff that frustrated me as I worked at untying it, mentally…

I love the placement of “mentally” there, but then I’m a connoisseur of scenes with palpable sexual attraction which is not, for whatever reason, being turned into action.

The book is steeped in mythology (for example, Conrad’s wife is named Cassandra, and, yes, she periodically makes predictions which he disregards, and which always turn out to be right), but it’s very down to earth. This was pretty much Zelazny’s favorite mode, and he wrote a lot of books which balanced these elements in different ways.

For example, like Alien and The Fifth Element, this is the future where everybody smokes (also a Zelazny trademark).

It also has the riddle of the kallikanzaros.

“So feathers or lead?” I asked him.
“Pardon?”
“It is the riddle of the kallikanzaros. Pick one.”
“Feathers?”
“You’re wrong.”
“If I had said lead’ . . .?”
“Uh-uh. You only have one chance. The correct answer is whatever the kallikanzaros wants it to be.”
“That sounds a bit arbitrary.”

Conrad, who is Greek, explains that this is an example of Greek subtlety, which is not actually very subtle.

The riddle gives us the great scene much later, when Conrad has been tortured and is about to be killed, and, at the final moment, he starts to laugh and asks, “Feathers or lead?”

His would-be killer is a cultural anthropologist and knows the legend, so he turns around, quickly, just in time to be squashed by the sudden arrival of Conrad’s (giant, armored, mutant) pet dog.

There’s another, even better, last-second rescue later (Conrad is a tough individual, but he does require rescuing from time to time), but that’s a huge spoiler, so I won’t.

Anyway, it’s been nice to revisit such familiar territory. Maybe it’s been comfort fiction — the literary equivalent of comfort food.

 
Over at the blog Pages of Julia, Julia just reviewed a book called “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (and Other Lessons of the Crematory),” which is another subject that’s been on my mind recently.

The books sounds interesting and entertaining, though I’m not sure I’m ready to read an entire book on the subject. I did leave a rather extensive comment on the blog post, though.

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3 Responses to condolences, cremation, and in medias res

  1. SB Roberts says:

    Hope you’re feeling better!

    I definitely think there’s something about starting at the beginning of a story. Another great example of it is a series I’ve loved since I was a kid by Mark Helprin. A relative bought “A City in Winter” for me one Christmas, and I was enthralled. When I learned that it was the middle book in a series, I spent literally years trying to find the other two. The last book, “Veil of the Snows” (and one of my favorite bittersweet endings), happened to be on the bottom shelf of a sale rack in a bookstore. The first, “Swan Lake,” I found as an adult thanks to Amazon.

    “A City in Winter” did give a very brief glimpse into the events of “Swan Lake,” but there was always still so much mystery around the unnamed, young protagonist. (Yes, she’s unnamed! But what’s fascinating is that I never realized it until I wanted to tell someone else about the story and realized that I had no name by which to call her. Perhaps that’s part of what enthralled me as well.)

    • Feeling okay, thanks, though it is an up & down process.

      The unnamed narrator reminds me of the excellent mysteries by Sarah Caudwell, where the narrator, the detective, had a name (Professor Hilary Tamar) but his or her sex was never given, and you could easily read all four books without realizing that.

  2. Pingback: returning to a familiar world » Anthony Lee Collins

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