Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Graveyard Heart

Okay, I need a good story to get the taste of the Merlin books out of my mouth, and they don't come much better than The Graveyard Heart. It's quite unlike any other Roger Zelazny story and particularly unlike any early Zelazny story.

Like a lot of Zelazny fans, I own a bunch of his stories scattered around any number of collections. Chris Kovacs has mentioned that some people have bitched about the footnotes in The Collected Stories. But, of course, they're not footnotes. I'm not sure that they're even endnotes, as there is no inline representation. When I need to talk about them, I usually call them annotations, which is probably correct, but also probably overbroad. Whatever they are, they're informative and unobtrusive.

As I've mentioned before, I happen to like them a lot. I think they're a great feature, more valuable even than having all the short works in one place, and they made the decision to to buy a collection that contained works that I mostly already owned an easy one. Also, they substantially, substantially enrich an allusion-heavy piece like The Graveyard Heart.

I don't pretend to be a scholar, but nor am I, occasional self-disparaging comments to the contrary, an idiot, and when I encounter gaps in my education I work hard to fill them, a task that is easier now than in any time in human history. And yet, when I read the annotations at the end of the story, I was shocked to find how much I had overlooked, misinterpreted or just plain missed.

Backing up a bit, I'm pretty sure that I first read Graveyard Heart in the Four for Tomorrow collection, as I had already read the other stories and I would have had no other reason to pick it up. (Lord knows I didn't need another copy of The Furies)

They were dancing,

-- at the party of the century, the party of the millennium, and the Party of Parties,

-- really, as well as calendar-wise,

The Graveyard Heart opens on New Years Eve 1999, in Times Square, just as the ball is dropping. It is the follows the infatuation of engineer Alvin Moore with Leota Lilith/Lorelei/Lachelis/Mathilde/ Mason (The Collected Stories has a truly comprehensive breakdown of these references, and while I find it unlikely in the extreme that someone might be reading the 68th installment in a series of Roger Zelazny reviews without owning them, I really feel they're worth another plug) of the graygreen eyes.  Leota is a member of the Set, a select group of super-celebrities whose member live only to be seen at the most exclusive parties on the planet. While not reveling there, they sleep in suspended animation until the next one is ready.

Alvin encounters Leota and becomes instantly enchanted, but he realizes that he will have to become a member of the Set to have any chance at all to be with her. So he reinvents himself as she sleeps, gaining the resources and sophistication necessary to meet with the Mary Maude Mullen, the Doyenne, a holdover from the final years of Queen Victoria's reign (the story was published in 1964, so it was plausible then) and “the immortal arbiter of trans-society”. I love the Doyenne. I can't think of anyone comparable in all of Zelazny's work. She could teach Dara lessons in ruthlessness.

"Hers is the quality of exclusiveness which keeps the Set the Set," she went on. "Imitators will always fail because they lack her discrimination. They'll take in any boorish body who'll pay. That is the reason that People Who Count," (she pronounced the capitals), "will neither attend nor sponsor any but Set functions. All exclusiveness would vanish from the Earth if the Set lowered its standards."

"Money is money," said Moore. "If others paid the same for their parties . . ."

". . . Then the People who take their money would cease to Count. The Set would boycott them. They would lose their elan, be looked upon as hucksters."

"It sounds like a rather vicious moebius."

"It is a caste system with checks and balances. Nobody really wants it to break down."

"Even those who wash out?"

"Silly! They'd be the last. There's nothing to stop them from buying their own bunkers, if they can afford it, and waiting another five years to try again. They'd be wealthier anyhow for the wait, if they invest properly. Some have waited decades, and are still waiting. Some have made it after years of persisting. It makes the game more interesting, the achievement more satisfying. In a world of physical ease, brutal social equality, and reasonable economic equality, exclusiveness in frivolity becomes the most sought-after of all distinctions."

There's something different about this story, and I really feel it's the Doyenne. As Corwin says of Benedict, “He is unlike any other being in Shadow or reality”, and I found her every bit as impressive as as those in the story do. Trot her out the next time someone says the Zelazny doesn't write women well. Even Leota, while unquestionably vain, is both intelligent and strong.

Moore eventually wins acceptance to the Set, and things are happy for a time. He has a complicated relationship with the poet Wayne Unger, another Setman. (Interestingly, Unger's collection of poetry, Chisel in the Sky, is largely drawn from Zelazny's unpublished collection of the same name. The Collected Stories has some interesting commentary on Zelazny's early tendency to pillage his stores of poems.)

Moore grunted. A gust of wind lashed a fiery rain of loose tobacco upon his cheek. He smoked on, hands in the pockets of his jacket, collar raised. The poet clapped him on the shoulder.

"Come with me into the town," he suggested. "It's only over the hill. We can walk it."

"No," said Moore, through his teeth.

They strode on, and as they neared the garage Unger grew uneasy.

"I'd rather someone were with me tonight," he said abruptly. "I feel strange, as though I'd drunk the draught of the centuries and suddenly am wise in a time when wisdom is unnecessary. I -- I'm afraid."

The story reminded me of themes explored in This Moment of the Storm, where society moves on while the protagonists are sleeping. I bitch about the punchcard computers in the Legion stories, but aside from that, I think Zelazny was pretty good about anticipating new technologies and extrapolating the kind of societal changes they would bring. I like the scene where the Doyenne is telling Leota that she will have to leave the Set.

"You silly little dollface!" The acetylene blazed forth. "Your glimpses of the outside have been fragmentary and extremely selective -- for at least sixty years. Every news medium in the world watches almost every move every Setman makes, from the time he sits up in his bunker until he retires, exhausted, after the latest Party. Snoopers and newshounds today have more gimmicks and gadgets in their arsenals than your head has colorful hairs. We can't hide your daughter all her life, so we won't even try. We'd have trouble enough concealing matters if you decided not to have her -- but I think we could outbribe and outdrug our own employees.

Mary Maude Mullen rules! Also, when Leota announces that she is pregnant, the Doyenne asks scathingly, if the child's father will “compose her a sonnet sequence, or design her mechanical toys?” all but coming out and saying that Moore was cuckolded by Unger, whom Leota purported to hate.

It's slow and cerebral. The only action, such as it, is when Unger drives a stake through Leota's heart while she is in the cold sleep.

Cast of white Parian she lay, deep within the coils of the bunker. The canopy had been raised high overhead. Her flesh was already firm as stone -- because there was no blood on her breast where the stake had been driven in. Only cracks and fissures, as in stone.

I like the visual on that, even if it is probably ridiculous from a biological point of view. Moore attacks Unger, and undergoes a symbolic execution, a gesture that makes no sense to his by-now antiquated sense of justice. The story ends with the Doyenne reflecting on what this means for the Set.

"An ethical question has been put before the Set – that is to say, myself," said Mary Maude. "Unfortunately, it was posed by government attorneys, so it cannot be treated as most ethical questions are to be treated. It requires an answer."

Heh. Theodore Sturgeon described this as a “If this goes on” story, and I think that's apt. It concludes much as Storm does, with Moore entering the cold sleep and dreaming of wakening into a better world.

It was three days before Moore had recovered sufficiently to enter the sleep again. As the prep-injection dulled his senses and his eyes closed, he wondered what alien judgment day would confront him when he awakened. He knew, though, that whatever else the new year brought, his credit would be good.

He slept, and the world passed by.

I loved this story. I'm not sure if I'm disappointed or relieved that it's the only one of its kind, because another fable along these lines would surely invite comparisons, and I don't know if even Roger Zelazny could have topped this.


  1. Man, I need to read this one again. I've only read it once and didn't much care for it, but I feel like EVERY Zelazny fan not only likes it, but considers it one of his best short stories. I'll have to give it another whirl one of these days!

  2. Graveyard Heart is another brilliant and unjustly overlooked Zelazny story. If someone can explain why this story is generally ignored, while Home Is the Hangnail is considered a classic and reprinted all over the place, I'd like to hear it. (Guess I should post some comments about the robot story -- it's the last of the "great" Zelazny stories that I think is a dud.)

    --Chris DeVito

  3. I'm actually with ya on Hangman, Chris--I enjoyed that one the least of the Legion stories. I think it was just a little too hard-SF for me; at first, I thought it was interesting how Zelazny was coming up with a somewhat reasonable explanation for how a robot might become intelligent and turn on its creators, but then it dragged on for so long that it started to lose my attention. I guess I'm just not scientifically minded enough to appreciate it.

    As for Graveyard Heart, I'm not sure I can tell you exactly why I wasn't a huge fan. All I know is that it was the last story in The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth, and it was late at night and I decided I wanted to finish the book before falling asleep. It may have just been a terrible time to try and read a story that's admittedly lighter on the action.

    I'll be sure to update you guys when I read it again some day, to let you know if my opinion has changed. =P

  4. Hey Zach, give Graveyard Heart another shot -- much of it didn't thrill me the first time I read it (existential problems of the jet set and all, feh), but it builds up to something way more than the sum of its parts. Not so much slow as oblique, I think -- but it gets there. But yes, not one to read late at night when you're tired. Wait until you're in the mood for a story that sneaks up on you (rather than grabs you by the throat) and see where it takes you.

    --Chris DeVito

  5. I read the Graveyard Heart back in the late 60s or early 70s in a collection of shorts which included a story called "Frick the Giant Killer" (slayer?) as well as a story about a civilization where people had two personae inside them and took drugs to keep one asleep for a certain period of time then they switched. Anyone remember this book or know of the title? I would desperately like to find and purchase it. HELP!! BTW, Graveyard Heart is a good yarn.

    1. Do you think you'd recognize the titled of the collection? I don't have my copy handy at the moment, but the IDES OF OCTEMBER is an absolutely comprehensive bibliography of everywhere Zelazny's works have appeared, and it would certainly be in there.


  6. It sounds like the anthology GREAT SHORT NOVELS OF SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Robert Silverberg. The stories referred to are "Giant Killer" by A. Betram Chandler (Shrick, not Frick) and "Beyond Bedlam" by Wyman Guin.