Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book Review: 'Eye of Cat' by Roger Zelazny

2 / 5 Stars

After moving to New Mexico in the mid-70s, Roger Zelazny (not unsurprisingly) became interested in the culture of the Southwestern US, particularly its Indian / Navajo culture, and its portrayal in the detective novels of Tony Hillerman.

‘Eye of Cat’ takes the Navajo –centered themes of Hillerman’s work, as well as a healthy chunk of Carlos Castaneda’s ‘Don Juan [Matus]’ symbolism, and awkwardly grafts them onto a science fiction novel.

Unfortunately ‘Eye of Cat’ is woefully overloaded with Zelazny’s New Wave affectations, which, by 1982, even he should have realized were fast becoming obsolete.

The plot is straightforward: Navajo tracker Billy Blackhorse Singer has earned a comfortable living, and world-wide renown, for his ability to track and capture exotic (often dangerous) alien creatures on a variety of planets.

When the government recruits him to help defend a diplomat from an alien, shapeshifting assassin, Singer realizes that the only way he can succeed is to fight fire with fire and enlist his own shapeshifter, the ‘Cat’ of the book’s title.

Cat’s price, however, is steep: ever since Billy first captured Cat and placed him in a zoo, Cat has nurtured a deep and abiding hatred for his captor. And once the alien assassin is dealt with, Cat wants the freedom to track down and kill Bill Singer without penalty. 

Lost in an existential funk, Singer agrees.

In due course Cat is freed, and the hunt begins; Singer takes advantage of the presence of ‘trip boxes’, or teleportation pods, to instantaneously travel around the globe and lose his hunter. But Cat has a number of abilities besides the gift of shapeshifting: he can read minds. 

Billy Singer soon discovers that losing his pursuer will be far more difficult than he had imagined….

At its core, ‘Eye’ could have been a well-crafted suspense story with SF elements, and at times the action is genuinely engrossing and holds the reader’s interest.

Unfortunately, Zelazny couldn’t resist encrusting his tale with all manner of New Wave contrivances reeking of a novel written in 1972.

The reader is forced to plod through segments of unpunctuated, Joycean stream-of-consciousness text, as well as blank verse poems using doggerel ‘Indian’ –sounding phrasing (‘My belt is a black arrowsnake’). 

Information about a subset of characters with various psychic abilities is relayed in the form of additional blank verse poems. Sundry gods and spirits of Navajo mythology materialize now and then to interject vague, rather stilted aphorisms and premonitions into the narrative.

The latter sections of the novel devolve into the over-written, phantasmagorical segments that Zelazny regularly inserted into his Amber novels, draining the impetus from the central narrative.

As a character, Bill Singer presents too readily as the stereotyped Indian; for example, his dialogue is devoid of contractions, as if Indians somehow have some sort of genetic defect that makes them unable to use phrases such as ‘ I’ll’ or ‘there’s’.

I won't reveal any spoilers regarding the book's ending save to say that Zelazny does a good job of keeping the reader guessing as to which antagonist will survive the contest.

I suspect that only die-hard Zelazny fans will  be willing to put up with the awkward, self-indulgent construction of 'Eye of Cat'.

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