Zelazny: immortality vs suicide?

Having giggled a bit about the Onion’s sf horoscopes earlier, I’m now pondering the one about Roger Zelazny:

Even if you do find their unique combination of style, universal competence, ennui, and raw ambition strangely exhilarating, you’d probably be a lot happier if you stopped keeping company with suicidal types, immortals, and suicidal immortal types.
I’ll happily grant you the fact that many Zelazny heroes do display “style, universal competence, ennui, and raw ambition”, and many indeed are immortal or effectively so. But one element of the Onion’s satirical summary just didn’t ring true for me. A brief hunt through the combination of Google and my personal library brings me to Theodore Krulik’s book about him, where I find on p 49-50 a discussion of the obsession of Charles Render, the protagonist of “He Who Shapes”/The Dream Master, with suicide, finishing with a note that:
Samuel Delany represents a basic tenet of Zelazny’s world with a two-sided coin; one side is immortality and the other side is suicide. Most of Zelazny’s heroic figures fall on the immortality side of the coin. Although there are several protagonists in Zelazny’s short stories who may be placed on the negative side of the coin, Dr Charles Render is the only such representative in the lengthy, sustained form of the novel.
(A cite is given to a 1977 essay by Delany on Thomas Disch and Roger Zelazny in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which I should obviously try and get hold of.)

I have to say I really wonder how accurate this characterisation of Zelazny’s writing actually is. Of course, there’s an awful lot about immortals with god-like powers. Excuse me for a moment if I summarise his solo novels, listed here in chronological order:

This Immortal (1966) – hero is immortal
The Dream Master (1966) – hero is a psychiatrist
Lord of Light (1967) – main characters have godlike powers
Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969) – main characters have godlike powers
Isle of the Dead (1969) – hero has godlike powers
Damnation Alley (1969) – hero is a Hell’s Angel
Nine Princes in Amber (1970) – main characters have godlike powers (Amber 1)
Jack of Shadows (1971) – hero has godlike powers (if somewhat restricted)
The Guns of Avalon (1972) – main characters have godlike powers (Amber 2)
Today We Choose Faces (1973) – hero is effectively immortal (via cloning and partial memory transfer)
To Die in Italbar (1973) – several characters have godlike powers
Doorways in the Sand (1975) – hero is a perpetual student
Sign of the Unicorn (1975) – main characters have godlike powers (Amber 3)
The Hand of Oberon (1976) – main characters have godlike powers (Amber 4)
Bridge of Ashes (1976) – time travel and immortality
The Courts of Chaos (1978) – main characters have godlike powers (Amber 5)
Roadmarks (1979) – time travel and immortality
Changeling (1980) – fantasy leaking into our world
The Changing Land (1981) – standard fantasy
Madwand (1981) – fantasy leaking into our world
Dilvish the Damned (1982) – standard fantasy
Eye of Cat (1983) – main character is a Native American tracker
Trumps of Doom (1985) – main characters have godlike powers (Amber 6)
Blood of Amber (1986) – main characters have godlike powers (Amber 7)
Sign of Chaos (1987) – main characters have godlike powers (Amber 8)
A Dark Travelling (1987) – fantasy pastiche
Knight of Shadows (1989) – main characters have godlike powers (Amber 9)
Prince of Chaos (1991) – main characters have godlike powers (Amber 10)
A Night in the Lonesome October (1993) – fantasy pastiche

Looking down the list, I’m trying very hard to think of Zelazny characters – whether protagonists or not – who displayed suicidal tendencies, and drawing a bit of a blank. One very off-stage character in the Amber books, Morganthe (Moire’s daughter, Random’s ex-lover, Martin’s mother), is said to have killed herself some time before the series begins. The Colonel Who Never Died, in Jack of Shadows, is given rather gruesome instrutions on how to slit his wrists by the novel’s eponymous hero, but this is in the context of a military defeat and anyway he knows he is going to be resurrected almost immediately. And that’s it, as far as I can remember.

There are a number of Zelazny characters who put themselves at risk (and indeed some of them die – most notably, Billy Blackhorse Singer in Eye of Cat) for the sake of a heroic cause, but such behaviour is not normally described as suicidal. A number undergo death-like experiences and are transformed – thinking especially of the multiple protagonist of Today We Choose Faces and the villain in Roadmarks. But it’s not really what Delany appears to have meant.

There is a serious discussion to be had about “He Who Shapes”/The Dream Master. The second chapter (of both versions) begins “The suicide bothered him [Render] more than it should have”, and there is a recurring discussion of suicide throughout the text. But here again I think it’s wrong to read the story of Render’s self-destruction as suicidal; it’s much more a story of hubris, of a man who thought he had godlike powers and pushed them too far because of a love that he wouldn’t admit.

It’s also perhaps his most autobiographical novel. Render is still getting over the death of his wife in a car accident several years before; Zelazny at the time of writing the novel was getting over his first marriage of a few years before – a marriage which had in fact been delayed because he and his then fiancee were injured in a serious car accident, and then again because of his father’s sudden death. It’s not very difficult to join the dots.

So, my proposition is that suicide is not, in fact, a major theme of Zelazny’s works, and without having read Delany, I think he was being too flippant.

Now, I’ll admit that there are a couple of witnesses against me (apart from Samuel Delany, whose 1977 piece I haven’t read). Douglas Barbour, in a review of Krulik’s book, snorts in disappointment, “Four times, for example, Krulik refers to Delany’s brilliant essay, ‘Faust and Archimedes: Disch, Zelazny,’ yet he never elicits anything more out of it than that the twined themes of immortality and suicide are to be found in Zelazny’s work.” The tone of Barbour’s comment leads me to suspect that Delany actually had quite a lot more to say.

The other witness against my case is, rather significantly, Zelazny himself, as quoted by Krulik (p. 29) in what appears to be an unpublished (and undated) essay called “Tomorrow Stuff” in the Syracuse archives of his correspondence:

What are my particular hang-ups and foibles? Immortality, suicide, one man against the winds and the tides and the stars, sometimes the impossible love which sustains, impossibly, the tortured soul, sometimes the hate so big that it would burn the innocent to reach the guilty, and sometimes the simple, contemplative pleasures – like good food, friendly cats, a pipe of pleasant tobacco – that make life worthwhile, despite all ugliness.
How seriously should we take this self-description? Zelazny, of course, was a fan of Delany’s (and vice versa) and even dedicated Creatures of Light and Darkness to him; I find myself wondering if he wrote this after reading what Delany had written about his work, and thought, “Aha, if Chip thinks that’s what I’m writing about, maybe he’s right…”

Certainly the simple statement that Zelazny’s work shows a basic tension between immortality and suicide sounds deep and profound and convincing. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, it just ain’t true.

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