(1981) - A dying woman sets her husband on a quest for the True Love that she wasn't.
I had read the story at the time but didn't remember it well enough to talk about it. Since then I've heard Harlan speak highly of it twice and wanted to re-read it. It's another quest/obsession story in the vein of "Adrift Just Off The Islets of Langerhans" with the subject being a different one - love. The question is, can true love be had? Harlan patterns the hero's search after that for the Holy Grail, and while doing so makes us aware of the time and effort the main character puts into the project; Harlan was apparently thinking of people (like himself at the time) who are unable to find or settle on a partner. The losses generated by an obsessive search for perhaps unobtainable things tend to outweigh the possible gain.
I can see the effort that went into "Grail" on a level of craft, but the concept and idea including the philosophical level leave me a bit cold. One of the main problems for me, once more, is that the main character is a flatly-characterized fool, lacking common wisdom, whose obvious, stretched-out journey to an ironic and not very unexpected anticlimax I don't particularly enjoy following. Not even the odd properties of True Love, the object, can elicit common human reactions from him. Instead of being able to identify with him, at the most one can identify with his wish. And in that regard, the story carries the burden of rolling towards its message without intensifying our curiosity or clarifiying the issue much. Harlan may give a proper answer to the questions he asks, but the whole matter seems secondary to real questions and problems. By True Love, I got the impression, both he and his characters meant primarily the perfect mate, and, consequently, there's little exploration of love itself. The rich literature about love that's out there makes the story look too much like a superficial late-20th century take on pseudo-issues, as well-written as it is. Whether one can find true love or not depends on one's definition of it and what we bring to it. The whole idea of going around the world looking for the perfect mate seems like something only a fool would do and someone who must be the problematic half of any partnership.
There are some rather good scenes in the middle when Harlan lets the monster in; not his very best monster but it certainly makes the story come alive for a few pages here and there. Other than that, at its best "Grail" brings back fond memories of "Count the Clock" and "Adrift" which covered some of the same territory in more exciting, fresher ways. They had the vitality "Grail" lacks. The pentagrams from "Runesmith" also reappear, and the Asian settings are mostly wasted. The whole dying-in-his-arms-and-telling-him-her-secret scene felt clichéd. There was nothing here that felt fresh.
The point that the promise of perfection is false or misleading is a good one to make, and is a clear one, but the ending still manages to confuse with the images of women which appear in the cup and which, particuarly if you compare the first and the last image, have no common denominator. It's also hard to follow the jumping-to-conclusions that characterizes the remaining paragraphs. It takes a fool to consider himself, with certainty, on the downhill side of life just because no woman among billions can quite meet his desires. And is he really sure that the last woman shown is not a contemporary of his? What was the finest moment? The moment he held the Grail? The times with Siri?
Harlan first decribed the idea for the story in an essay several years earlier (I think it's in An Edge in My Voice). He also mentioned having done a lot of research for the story; it required months of work.