Friday, February 4, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Divine Madness

Another short Roger Zelazny book review today.

I like Divine Madness. As with A Thing of Terrible Beauty, it's a simple story whose beauty comes from how it is told, the poetry employed in its telling and the wealth of imaginative details that let the reader really believe it is happening.

It's the story of a man, who had a stupid fight with his wife who then stormed off to her car and and died in an accident. Now he's living with the guilt that comes with that, and suffering from periodic episodes that cause him to experience things backwards. His doctors tell him that it isn't really happening, that it was grief and epilepsy, meeting to form an unusual syndrome, that of "a post-traumatic locomotor hallucination, elicited by anxiety, precipitated by the attack." He knows better however.

In This Moment of the Storm, Godfrey Holmes defined man as "Man is the sum total of everything he has done, wishes to do or not to do, and wishes he hadn't done, or hadn't." and this story proves it.  Everyone makes mistakes and this story is how we relive them, and sometimes, sometimes have the chance to correct them. It's told almost entirely without dialogue and that's something that works wonderfully for the mood of the piece, because it manages to convey the sense of absolute isolation that crippling grief brings with it.

Someone in the comments section coined the word "Zelaznian" and I promised to use it as much as possible. The story crackles with Zelaznian turns of phrase and clever details (as well as the Zelaznian standbys of green eyes and car accidents) : "A  faintly-remembered  nightmare ran in reverse though his mind, giving it an undeserved happy ending." "'.dust to dust; ashes to Ashes,' the man said, which is pretty much the same whichever way you say it."

And it's not hard to evoke a feeling of grief in someone who has lost a loved one, but the story never gets maudlin. The descriptions of events are genuinely beautiful, and they do a good job getting across the desperate regret.

Time's winged chariot fled before him as he opened the door and said "good-bye" to his comforters and they came in and sat down and told him  not to grieve overmuch.

And he wept without tears as he realized what was to come.

Despite his madness, he hurt.

...Hurt, as the days rolled backward.

...Backward, inexorably.

...Inexorably, until he knew the time was near at hand.

He gnashed the teeth of his mind.

Great was his grief and his hate and his love.

I especially like the ending, because he gets a chance to correct the biggest mistake he ever made:

The door slammed open.

She stared at him, her mascara smeared, tears upon her cheeks.

"!hell to go Then," he said.

"!going I'm," she said.

She stepped back inside, closed the door.

She hung her coat hurriedly in the hall closet.

".it about feel you way the that's If," he said shrugging.

"!yourself but anybody about care don't You," she said.

"!child a like behaving You're," he said.

"!sorry you're say least at could You"

Her  eyes  flashed  like  emeralds through the pink static, and she was lovely and alive again. In his mind he was dancing.

The change came.

"You could at least say you're sorry!"

"I am," he said, taking her hand in a grip that she  could  not  break.

"How much, you'll never know."

"Come here," and she did.


  1. Crushing precision. I read this story for the first time a few months ago, in the Collected Works. It hasn't loosened its grip since, day and night, popping up at seemingly random moments in waking or dreaming and coloring my thoughts memories hopes horrors regrets acceptances. I suspect we might have a disagreement in that I don't take it literally; like Slaughterhouse-Five, I think we're experiencing a mind pushed past its limits and re-creating a reality it can live with (assuming "live" is defined somewhat loosely). This one will be with me for the duration.

    --Chris DeVito

  2. It's a beautifully moving story. There's really not enough evidence to support hallucination versus living backwards and it makes me kind of happy that we can each interpret and enjoy the story in our own way. (Also, I think it's baffling that somebody keeps editing the Wikipedia article on Slaughterhouse-Five to remove any suggestions that Billy was not literally unstuck in time. I wrote about that last year:

    I didn't realize that "Time's winged chariot fled before him..." was a reference to the line from "To His Coy Mistress": "Time's winged chariot hurrying near..." until I read the end note in The Collected Works. If possible, I now like the story even more.

  3. This is one of my top-ten favorite Zelazny stories. It's beautifully written, gripping, and powerful, from the backward lines and quotes of Jabberwocky and Hamlet to the striking imagery to the unexpected resolution. But I think it also grabs at a feeling we probably all have shared more than once, when something goes horribly wrong because of something you've done (or not done)(or said)(or not said) and you wish you were able to erase, turn back time, take it back, start over. This story involves that kind of reset button but in such a way that you're really empathizing with the character and sharing his horror as time works backwards towards the funeral, the news of her death, and so on. It's not the hackneyed reset button overdone elsewhere.

    I think this is also an example of how some of the best works can be created when the artist/author is emotionally distressed or in torment. This one was written right after Zelazny's father died suddenly and unexpectedly, and within weeks after Zelazny's second fiancee (soon to be first wife) was critically injured in a car accident that Zelazny felt completely responsible for.

    Chris Kovacs

  4. That's the thing -- the emotions are universal and incredibly raw, to the point where there couldn't possibly be anything mawkish about the story. My gut feeling is still with the nonliteral interpretation, that it's symbolic of learning and self-awareness and humility and redemption; that we can learn even from the most horrific mistakes, and survive them, and do better, and become better people. But maybe that's because part of me wishes the universe really did work the other way . . . that we could erase our horrors if only we could find a madness divine as that Zelazny makes so real. It's a beautiful dream.

    --Chris DeVito

    "Hell's a distinction you earn . . . it ain't free--"
    --John Colter