Character Connection 4
Read about the rest of this week's "book crushes"
@The Introverted Reader
One of the rules of this meme is: "No spoilers!" And I totally stand by that. =)
This time, however, I have a character impossible to discuss without a sprinkling of spoilers, because he is someone we meet over several books. As he is only a minor character in most of the novels, however, I don't spoil the main plots of those. Anyone who reads this post can still pick up the first three titles without much trepidation . . . but really, it's the fourth book I love the most.
The Zachary Gray Quartet
by Madeleine L'Engle
I realise that for many people, the idea of a "Zachary Gray Quartet" is as ridiculous as the idea of a "William Zabka Trilogy". But I happen to be the kind of person who wonders why we don't see montages like this one on the Academy Awards telecast . . .
So that I don't tax your patience with my singing, let's just get to Zachary now. He must be Madeleine L'Engle's most untypical character--and arguably her most unpopular. We first meet him in The Moon by Night, the second book in the Austin Family Chronicles. It is also the last book in which his name is spelled as Zachary Grey.
"You still believe in God, don't you?" he asked. "Look what he did to your precious Anne Frank. Maybe he'll do something like that to you, someday. Look what he's done to me. I'm probably going to die, and what for? Why?"
I spoke in a very trembly voice, but he didn't even seem to notice. "If you took better care of yourself--"
"Why the hell should I take better care of myself? What for? For the kind of stinking world we're living in? So I'll get blown up by a nuclear bomb? Or die of radiation sickness? No thanks. I'd rather die of a nice, quiet heart attack. And then nice quiet nothing. No pie in the sky, Vicky. No burning in hell fires either. Just nice quiet nothing."
The disturbed Zachary distresses Vicky on many levels, and at this part of the story, even makes her cry. No one else in the Austin family likes him very much--and many L'Engle fans share the assessment. Yet Vicky sees something in him worth reaching out to, even if it is only his inexplicable attraction to her. Yes, she may be a Mary Sue of epic (though not embarrassing) proportions, but it really is significant that the gorgeous, dangerous Zachary is drawn to her and even chases her all over the United States after a chance meeting at a campsite. Though Vicky is still, in this novel, questioning God and feeling her faith shaken, she already represents the opposite of what the very definite atheist Zachary believes. And he has enough grace working inside him to know that and try to grasp at it . . . even as he tests it worth by trying to yell Vicky down.
When we leave him at the close of The Moon by Night, he seems to have started healing. But, as we see in this next novel, that was only a temporary reprieve. And this time around, Zachary is twice as self-destructive as he ever was.
Zachary was explaining, "We belong to a group in California called the Immortalists. We believe that it isn't necessary for people to die as early as they do, and when we understand more about controlling DNA and RNA it will be possible for people to live for several hundred years without aging--and that time is not so far in the future as you might think . . .
"Cryonics is the science of freezing a body immediately after death, deep-freezing, so that later on, in five years or five hundred--when scientists know more about the immortality factor, it will be possible for these people of the future to revive the deep-frozen bodies, to resurrect them."
Grandfather spoke with a small smile, "I think I prefer a different kind of resurrection."
A Ring of Endless Light is a book about death--which means that it's really a book about life. Indeed, it opens with the funeral of a dear family friend, who drowned while saving some kid who got careless with a boat one night. So it's interesting that when the family gets home after the funeral and Zachary shows up out of the blue, Vicky mistakes his black station wagon for a hearse.
Zachary has just been telling the Austins that his mother recently passed away and that he and his father had had her frozen. What he doesn't know is that Vicky's Grandfather Eaton is also dying and that it may just be his last summer with his family. What the Austins don't know is that Zachary was the kid who was careless with the boat--though he wasn't careless so much as suicidal.
First, the station wagon and the boat. Later there will be another car, as well as a plane. What doesn't change is the person behind the controls, who has a death wish rivaled only by a fear of death. This is not his story, though, but Vicky's, and so he passes into another novel and another of L'Engle's worlds.
I looked at one of the crumbling columns. "It's so old--"
"And gone," Zachary said, putting his dark head in my lap. "As our own civilisation will soon be gone. It's a never-ending cycle of rise and fall, rise and fall. Except that there's a good possibility we'll end it . . . With the new micro-technology, there'll be less than a fifteen second lapse between the pressing of the button and the falling of the bombs. All those bomb shelters people have built, my pa among them, will be useless. There won't be time to get to them. When it happens, it'll happen without warning."
I pushed his head out of my lap. "Shut up."
"Ow." He rubbed his head and put it back in my lap. It might happen now, in the next few seconds. A light so bright we'd be blinded and heat so intense we'd be incinerated before we realised what had happened. It wouldn't be a bad way to go, here with you."
Leave it to Zachary to spread his trademark doom and gloom all over an otherwise golden modern Greece. He may be in the world of the Murry-O'Keefes now, but nothing has changed. He is still as dark and dramatically despairing as he was when we first met him. This time, he is drawn to Polly O'Keefe, who has just begun the best and the worst summer of her life. (Really, how could he not be a part of that?)
Now I'm reminded of some advice Hilary Swank gave an aspiring actor: To find out about a character's physical mannerisms, ask yourself whether he lives out of a body part. Zachary lives out of his heart. But because it's a very damaged heart, he worries constantly that he will drop dead at any second. It just so happens that Polly has been meditating on the mystical image of the human heart holding a small space . . . and the small space being a house like a lotus . . . and the house like a lotus containing all the stars of the universe. Truly, there is more to Zachary's heart than its weakness.
"Am--am--am I all right?" Zachary's voice trembled.
"Not perfect," the bishop said, "but Karralys tells us that your heart will do."
"Yes. Yes." A touch of colour came to his cheeks. "I don't know what to say."
"But I was willing to let Polly die, and you still helped me."
"You will not do Polly, or any of us, any good by holding on to your guilt. You will help by taking proper care of yourself. There is more to be renewed than your heart."
"I know. I know. Oh, this time I know."
An Acceptable Time is the final book in the Zachary Gray Quartet--and a highly satisfying one where his fans are concerned. (It's too bad that he doesn't have very many fans, then.)
In this novel, he gets to travel 3,000 years back in time, where he proceeds to do his usual thing of screwing up everything for everyone else and making the rest of the world hate him. But as another character muses, after everything has finally been set to rights again, it is highly plausible that the Time Gate opened first for this character, and then for Polly, not for either of their sakes, but for Zachary's.
It's a very humbling reflection--and the kind that makes me wish L'Engle had written him into more books.
Image Sources: a) The Moon by Night, b) A Ring of Endless Light, c) A House Like a Lotus, d) An Acceptable Time