No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, April 18, 2009

#31: The Dead Man's Brother -- Roger Zelazny

I had a philosophical bent of mind with which to console myself and a handy metaphor to objectify the moral. (p. 247)


Originally entitled Apostate's Gold, this novel was completed by Zelazny around 1971, scheduled for publication and then cancelled. For why? It's not SF or fantasy (though there's a sliver of the fantastical about it, if you squint) and the publishers were wary.

Also (whisper it) it's not an outstanding thriller in the way that the best of Zelazny's SF was outstanding.

Ovid Wiley is a respectable New York art dealer who wakes up one morning, as you do, to find the corpse of a former associate in his home. Over nicotine and caffeine, Wiley considers his situation (the corpse, one Carl Bernini, was his partner in crime long ago in Europe, where Wiley's study of art history extended to acquiring and reselling examples: they parted on bad terms) and eventually calls the police.

Via a convoluted and not entirely credible sequence of events, Wiley ends up on the run in Brazil with a dead priest's girlfriend, visiting the Museum of Brazilian Art and pontificating on various art-world scams. Oh, and solving a murder or two whilst remaining fiercely independent -- just like a typical Zelazny hero.

I am not against murder. I was never party to any social contract and I am, by inclination and belief, an anarchist. Not being responsible for the way the world was set up, I do not feel bound by its rules. (p.234)

Which is all very well if you're a semi-immortal, semi-magical, semi-Other being, like most of Zelazny's heroes (I can't think of any heroines). On a New York art dealer, be his past ne'er so shady, it grates a little: he is not immune to or beyond the reach of society, as is proved over and over in this novel.

On the other hand, Ovid Wiley is very, very lucky -- which isn't obvious in the narrative. There are plenty of coincidences (what's a thriller without coincidence?) but as many negative as positive. Wiley's luck, indeed, seems to consist mostly of a knack for surviving air crashes: it's hard to see other evidence. I wonder if this is a sub-theme that Zelazny would have consolidated: there are several other threads left trailing, and the denouement seems hasty and unpolished.

The Dead Man's Brother is full of dense-packed lyric prose -- distinctively Zelazny, for example his philosophical musings on the vastness of ocean or his vibrantly ringing description of Rio de Janiero -- that also manages to be hard-boiled: this is Zelazny Noir (but then so's Doorways in the Sand, to pick just one example). Plenty of wit, too:

Consciousness is a cold statue in a pigeon-infested park, scoured each morning by the mysterious and not altogether benign processes of certain bodily fluids whose existence I resent daily. Asked by a psychologist I once knew what animal I would most prefer being if I could not be a man, I immediately replied 'a tapeworm'. He had asked me before I'd had my morning coffee. (p. 83)

Zelazny makes the reader work: a few handy links ...
Tupamaro | Purkinje | mors janua vitae | ignoti nulla cupido | cucullus non facit monachum | Child of the Dark | Cândido Rondon ... I have to confess -- having spent hours in our local library as a teenager, ticking off obscure references on a list tucked into the back of Nine Princes in Amber -- that it's much easier reading a new Zelazny with the advent of Wikipedia and Google!

Read a sample chapter here!

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