Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Passion Play

Okay, since I was suck a dick in my review of Flare, I think I'll switch back to a favorite for this one.

Passion Play is fairly well known to Roger Zelazny fans as the first story he had sold. I've mentioned in my review of Coils that I've admired his restraint in implying where others would have explained. (Explained, I would imagine, in the same kind of condescending detail we found in Flare.)

Okay, last reference to Flare for this installment Honest.

The Coils review has Zelazny's description of his "a-ha!" moment, where he figured out what he was doing wrong, so there's no point in quoting it again here. However, he does have a lengthy enough introduction to the piece that there is another stuff I can quote.

The government wanted everyone in my class to have a physical examination. They gave me the forms and I drove up to Euclid over a weekend to see the closest thing we had to a family doctor, to have him complete them. When I sat down in his waiting room, I picked up a copy of Life and began looking through it. Partway along, I came upon a photospread dealing with the death of the racing driver Wolfgang von Tripps. Something clicked as soon as I saw it, and just then the doctor called me in for the checkup. While I was breathing for him and coughing and faking knee jerks and so forth, I saw the entire incident that was to be this short short. I could have written it right then. My typewriter was in Dayton, though, and I'd the long drive ahead of me. The story just boiled somewhere at the back of my mind on the way down, and when I reached my apartment I headed straight for the typewriter and wrote it through. I even walked three blocks to a mailbox in the middle of the night, to get it sent right away.

It's weird. As much as I like the story, I think I like reading the story about how it came into being even more. From the final words of the introduction:

These are the things I learned, or fancy I learned, from "Passion Play" and its aftereffects. I do have one other thing to say, though, which came to me slowly, much later, though its roots are tangled somewhere here:

Occasionally, there arises a writing situation where you see an alternative to what you are doing, a mad, wild gamble of a way for handling something, which may leave you looking stupid, ridiculous or brilliant—you just don't know which. You can play it safe there, too, and proceed along .the route you'd mapped out for yourself. Or you can trust your personal demon who delivered that crazy idea in the first place.

Trust your demon.

I find that Passion Play itself reminds me of Devil Car, in that it's a silly concept played fairly straight. In this case, robots driving cars to reenact the then recent death of Wolfgang von Trips

At the end of the season of sorrows comes the time of rejoicing. Spring, like a well-oiled clock, noiselessly indicates this time. The average days of dimness and moisture decrease steadily in number, and those of brilliance and cool air begin to enter the calendar again. And it is good that the wet times are behind us, for they rust and corrode our machinery; they require the most intense standards of hygiene.

It reminds me of his other short, earlier work, like A Thing of Terrible Beauty in that the plot a quick, quirky thing, but telling of the story, in this case, is literally inspired. What more could you want from a Roger Zelazny story? It has cars, first-person narration and poetic descriptions.

"Von Tripps has smashed! The Car is dead!"

A great sound of lamenting rises from the rows of unmoving spectators. The giant fireproof van arrives on the field, just as the attendants gain control of the flames.

Four tenders leap out and raise the Car from the ground. A fifth collects every smoldering fragment.

And I see it all!

"Oh, let this not be blasphemy, please" I pray. "One instant more'"

Tenderly, the Car is set within the van. The great doors close.

The van moves, slowly, bearing off the dead warrior, out through the gates, up the great avenue and past the eager crowds.

To the great smelter. The Melting Pot!

To the place where it will be melted down, then sent out, a piece used to grace the making of each new person.

A cry of unanimous rejoicing arises on the avenue.

It is enough, that I have seen all this.

Happily, I turn myself off.

1 comment:

  1. I went back and read this story again after posting this and I think Zelazny did something particularly clever. As the notes to the the COLLECTED STORIES point out, Von Tripps died at the Grand Prix at Monza, and not at Le Mans, and they point out that myths often drift away from the events they depict as they are told and retold. However, there is brief line in the story:

    "We scream about the turn, in this great Italian classic of two centuries ago. We run them all here, at the place, regardless of where they were held originally."

    And to me, that suggests that Zelazny suspected that his recollection of Le Mans may not have been correct, and he was hedging his bets a little. That's another reason why I like the story. It depicts these machines, reenacting an event that they don't properly remember, and which may come to resemble the initial event not at all. And as is so often with his work, I find the ambiguity appealing. Were the machines wrong about the details, or do they simply perform all of these rituals at Le Mans? I think it works either way.