The Man Who Loved the Faioli falls into the same category for me as A Rose for Ecclesiastes. It's one of those well-regarded Zelazny stories that never clicked for me.
It's the story of John Auden, unliving steward of a graveyard world, a walking dead man like Doctor Pels from To Die in Italbar. Like Pels, he's "the walking around and drinking with your buddies" kind of dead, to steal a line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
It happened on that evening, as he strolled (for there was no reason not to stroll) in his favorite places in the whole world, that he saw the Faioli near the Canyon of the Dead, seated on a rock, her wings of light flickering, flickering, flickering and then gone, until it appeared that a human girl was sitting there, dressed all in white and weeping, with long black tresses coiled about her waist.
There are elements I really enjoy. I like that the Failoi are unable to perceive dead things. It reminds me of scenes with jiangshi (hopping vampires) from 80s Hong Kong horror movies, who could only perceive the living by smelling their breath, which lead to awesome scenes like the hero holding his breath while the monster sniffed inches away from his nose.
I grew up on Greek mythology, and this story evokes the image of Odysseus listening to the sirens while lashed to the mast, as well as that of a doomed romance between a minor divinity and a hero.
Then he knew that it was true, the things that are said of the Faioli -- that they see only the living and never the dead, and that they are formed into the loveliest women in the entire universe. Being dead himself, John Auden debated the consequences of becoming a living man once again, for a time.
The Faioli were known to come to a man the month before his death -- those rare men who still died -- and to live with such a man for that final month of his existence, rendering to him every pleasure that it is possible for a human being to know, so that on the day when the kiss of death is delivered, which sucks the remaining life from his body, that man accepts it -- no, seeks it! -- with desire and with grace. For such is the power of the Faioli among all creatures that there is nothing more to be desired after such knowledge.
And it's a fine story. It reminds me of where my enjoyment comes from the artistry in the telling, and not of the plot, which I feel turns too heavily on the gimmick. I love lines like "The door slid shut behind them, and the temperature built up to a normal warmth. Fresh air circulated. He took it into his lungs and expelled it, glorying in the forgotten sensation. His heart beat within his breast, a red warm thing that reminded him of the pain and of the pleasure", or "What is the thing that moves you, John Auden? You are not like one of the men who live and who die, but you take life almost like one of the Faioli, squeezing from it everything that you can and pacing it at a tempo that bespeaks a sense of time no man should know. What are you?" but the story is so short that it never seems to amount to something.
John Auden encounters Sythia, the Faoili and they nourish each other for a month: A month. A month, he knew, and it would come to an end. The Faioli, whatever they were, paid for the life that they took with the pleasures of the flesh. They always knew when a man's death was near at hand. And in this sense, they always gave more than they received. The life was fleeing anyway, and they enhanced it before they took it, away with them, to nourish themselves most likely, price of the things that they'd given.
But John Auden is not like other men. He is only artificially given life, ("To touch this place beneath my left armpit will cause my lungs to cease their breathing and my heart to stop its beating. It will set into effect an installed electrochemical system, like those my robots (invisible to you, I know) possess. This is my life within death. I asked for it because I feared oblivion. I volunteered to be gravekeeper to the universe, because in this place there are none to look upon me and be repelled by my deathlike appearance. This is why I am what I am. Kiss me and end it."). Auden is willing to embrace his oblivion, but the Sythia has grown curious, and she touches the spot, restoring him to un-life, and allowing him to regard his situation with dispassion ("the icy logic that stood apart from emotion") again.
On reading it more critically for this review, I find I like it quite a bit more than I remembered. I was remembering Auden's reversion at the end as a calculated thing, and kind of a dick move. "Oh hey, I'll have some fun for a month, and then when she comes to collect: So long, sucker!" At best, he was like Jack eating the stone or drinking from the vampire, preying on something that sought to prey on him.
But with this reading, I don't think it was any such thing. There are no men for her any more, and he plays the role of the Faioli for her. I get the impression that she would have died anyway had she not found Auden, and their time together made her final month more bearable..
It is that way, and the moral may be that life (and perhaps love also) is stronger than that which it contains, but never that which contains it. But only a Faioli could tell you for sure, and they never come here any more.