Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections: Time, Death and Stories

Cover of Sandman, Vol. 6, Fables and ReflectionsTitle: Fables and Reflections (Sandman, Volume 6)

Author: Neil Gaiman, with artists

Publication Date: 1993

LC Call Number: PN6727.G35S26

Sandman has never been a single coherent narrative; there is an ongoing story into which many smaller stories have been woven. Fables and Reflections is one of the volumes which presents a collection of shorter stories that don’t necessarily have much to do with the larger narrative or with each other. There is a theme among the stories in this volume, however; except for the short prologue, “Fear of Falling” and one other story, they are all historical or mythical in nature. There isn’t a huge distinction made here between history and myth; both are kinds of stories, after all. “Three Septembers and a January” is a story about the self-styled Emperor Norton of the United States (he is also of interest to a certain brilliant cartoonist with an interest in history). “Thermidor” continues the story of Johanna Constantine, whom we’ve seen a couple times before, and who is now living through the French Revolution. “The Hunt”is a supposedly Eastern European folktale told by an old man. “August” focuses on the Roman Emperor Augustus. “Soft Places” is something of a ghost story about Marco Polo (and an old friend from Volume Three turns up here). “The Song of Orpheus” is a retelling of the story of the mythical Greek bard, Morpheus’s son. “A Parliament of Rooks” is the oddball story, set in the future, but with a visit to the Dreaming, where we catch up with Cain and Abel again and consider the nature of storytelling. “Ramadan” is set in the quasi-mythical Baghdad of Haroun al Raschid and is drawn in a completely different style.

Oh, and from here on out, there may well be spoilers, but they don’t much damage the experience for this.

Time is an interesting consideration in these stories. The observant reader will have noticed that most of them are named after months: not just months in the Western calendar such as September, January, and August, but also Thermidor, which was a month in the revolutionary calendar, and of course, Ramadan, a month in the Muslim calendar. It’s curious to place this much emphasis on time, because while Dream and the other Endless are not time-travelers, they show up so casually at so many different historical moments that it’s sometimes hard to remember that they aren’t, especially since the series moves so freely from one time in history to another. But this volume isn’t really about Dream; it’s mostly about mortals, although Death is very important in “The Song of Orpheus.”

The two stories that are put most in dialogue here are “August” and “Ramadan.” Both are about very powerful men who rule impressive empires, and in a way, both are presented with the same choice. In “August,” Augustus is very careful to distinguish between his public self and his personal self. He reminisces with an actor about another actor whom he had killed due to an insult to Rome; personal insults are not important to him. He does so while disguised as a beggar; that is, he is abandoning his official identity for one day. Eventually we learn that Dream advised him to do so, after speaking with Terminus, god of boundaries, so that he can make decisions not observed by the Roman gods and in particular the newly-divine Julius Caesar. He is free, under these circumstances, to intentionally make decisions which lead to the fall of Rome, apparently as a form of revenge for the abuse he suffered at the hands of that same Julius. Ultimately, the boundary between his personal and official identities does not survive—but then, it is of course Julius who began by violating boundaries. Contrast with “Ramadan,” in which Haroun al-Raschid lives in a fantastical version of Baghdad in which everything is apparently perfect. Foolishly, he summons Dream, because he wants to ensure that his kingdom will live and be remembered forever. He has apparently been reading “Ozymandias” (well—figuratively!), or at any rate he has been seized with the fear that not only will his empire fall, it will be forgotten. His deal with Dream is that Dream will take the city, so that it will be permanently remembered in its perfect state. Dream complies, so that Baghdad becomes a dream-city and the real city is reduced to a place you wouldn’t want to live. So—one of these rulers chooses to think of the city and attempts to preserve it for the future, but does so in a way that destroys it in the present. He overlooks his personal well-being and that of everyone else, and gets a story in return. The other acts out of anger; when he is not observed, he chooses to pursue his own goals rather than enriching the empire he rules, chooses to break it down. Either way, these cities are impermanent; when these decisions are juxtaposed in this way, it becomes clear that whatever decision people make will lead to destruction. So the emphasis on time is perhaps an emphasis on the way that mortals occupy a particular, fixed moment.

At the same time, the reader is not encouraged to invest particularly in the survival of either empire. Both already belong somewhere in the past in the mind of the reader. “August” emphasizes how difficult it is for Augustus to rule over Rome and the sometimes unjust decisions he has ended up making (there seems not to be a right of free speech in Rome). There is a sense that the Roman empire is a great achievement, but it is certainly not inviting and there is not much sense of loss in its fall. “Ramadan,” features a less introspective character and must find another way to do this; it achieves distance from the reader by means of a less realistic art style and the use of formalized language as one might find in a fairy tale. The ultimate fate of Baghdad justifies these stylistic changes, but again, the reader never feels that perhaps Baghdad will survive forever.

There may be something intelligent to say about choosing a different and more mystical style for the one story in the book that takes place in a non-western setting, but I’m not the one to say it. The same is true of casting Augustus Caesar as a rape victim—what does this do to the story, and is it an ethical use of that particular storytelling element? These things should be addressed, but I don’t feel able to evaluate it.

In any case, we do know what Death thinks of these rulers by her words to Emperor Norton: “I’ve met a lot of kings, and emperors, and heads of state in my time, Joshua. I’ve met them all. And you know something? I think I liked you best.” This isn’t a surprise; Norton, despite his grandiose ideas about himself, is infinitely more likable than either of them, but there’s a bit more of an explanation of it in “The Song of Orpheus.” As in the myth, Orpheus is unable to accept the death of his wife, Eurydice. Unlike the myth, he goes to speak to his aunt Death about it. (Incidentally, the scenes where he wanders bewildered around Death’s place, which she keeps like a twentieth-century suburban house with goldfish and tacky teddy bears, is possibly my favorite thing ever.) She tells him, “It was her time to go, Orpheus. People die. It’s okay. It happens.” She does help him, but she doesn’t approve. She believes in the universality of endings and dislikes the struggle for immortality. She tells him, in fact, “I don’t need to know the future. When the future’s over, then it’s me…

…yes, there is really no contest over who is the best character in Sandman.

So there’s a lot here about power and mortality. Orpheus, of course, actually becomes immortal as a result of his failed attempt to recover Eurydice. We see him in “Thermidor,” which, curiously, is actually placed before “The Song of Orpheus” in the book. Thus, we already know that he will become immortal, and that this will not be an ideal situation for him because he is carted around as a head after his encounter with the Bacchae. Even before that, he has sunk into a deep depression following the loss of Eurydice. We’ve seen another immortal human in this series, Hob Gadling, who seems to rather enjoy it, although he has his ups and downs. Orpheus is different; he is punished quite severely for his presumption. Partly this is because he was in a fight with Dream, who subsequently abandoned him. As readers, we are not surprised; Dream is not an especially forgiving person. But there’s also a sense that he should have known better. In “Thermidor,” he is something of a MacGuffin for a while; Johanna carries him around and protects him from the powerful, at Dream’s behest. So there is still a connection between them. In fact, when Johanna offers to visit him again, at a later point in her travels, he tells her, “I do not think that would be a good idea, Johanna.” This precisely echoes Dream’s words to Calliope when she asks, after he rescues her, whether she will be able to see him again. The implication is ambiguous, but Orpheus is speaking on that very page of his desire to be reunited with his father. Well, now that Dream has forgiven two of his exes, maybe his son is next?

So, there is a thread about time and mortality running through this volume. There is also a thread about storytelling, and it should be clear by now that some of the stories I’ve already mentioned touch on this themselves. The most explicit stories in this regard, however, are “The Hunt” and “The Parliament of Rooks.” “The Hunt” features an old trope: an old man tells a story to his unappreciative granddaughter. She isn’t sure she wants to hear it, interrupts several times, and criticizes the story at the end. Curiously, it’s really a story about a book, which Dream’s librarians Lucien (a fine comic character) wishes to retrieve from him. The storyteller knows exactly what the story means to him. He expresses irritation at the interruptions of his granddaughter and expounds on his meaning when she argues with him. But, her objections are also valid. She points out certain ambiguities and inconsistencies in the story, and has her own reading of it which the text doesn’t appear to invalidate. She raises an eyebrow at the assertion that it is a story of the old country, complains that it is a sexist and insular, and, because she understands that stories are told in a particular context, suspects that it is aimed at her. Are we supposed to see her as wrong? We do have sympathy for the storyteller and we see that she is missing what he thinks is the point, but I don’t know. She’s pretty smart, and stories don’t necessarily belong to the teller.

We see a similar dynamic in “The Parliament of Rooks,” in which Cain, Abel and Eve come together to tell their stories to a human child (Lyta’s child, who has wandered into their world). Eve tells the story of the three wives of Adam, and she provides several readings of this story, explains their uses, and refuses to privilege any one of them. Abel tells his own story about his conflicts with his brother and how they came to live in Dream’s country, but he is aware of the context in which he is telling it and makes it into an especially bizarre children’s story. This involves a picture of young Dream and young Death which may be my other favorite thing ever. In any case, Cain constantly interrupts him this story in a rage at his attempt to make it appropriate for children: “What are you trying to feed the child—sanitized pablum? Li’l Death? Li’l Morpheus? Revolting!” He doesn’t approve of the cuteness of it, and he certainly doesn’t approve of the glossing over of the nature of the sheep as a sacrifice. Ultimately, Abel makes it seem as if he was happy to live with Cain forever, which we’ve seen in prior volumes is certainly not the case. Where is Gaiman’s sympathy here? Wellll…. Okay. So the deficiencies of the story point up some of the things that Gaiman tries to do both here and in other works, in showing that the gods are not nice. (Exhibit A: American Gods.). So Cain is certainly correct on those grounds. The ending of the story, too, makes the reader feel deeply uneasy because it’s simply untrue. At the same time, however, Cain is being a jerk by interrupting the story and attempting to wrest Abel’s voice from him, and as Eve notes, when he is telling the story, Abel does not stutter as he usually does.

So this is ambiguous again. Telling a story is not an innocent act. Both Abel and the grandfather of “The Hunt” have an agenda. And in both cases, I’d argue that reading the story critically characters within it do is legitimate. However, they don’t read all the agendas as well as they think they do. So, while Fables and Reflections isn’t exactly an argument against criticism, it casts a wary and slightly amused glance at it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: Childhood Fears

Cover of The Ocean at the End of the Lane Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Author: Neil Gaiman

Publication Date: 2013

LC Call Number: PR6057.A319

Most of the books I read have been published for a long time, so I seldom get to look forward to a book’s debut.  This is too bad, actually, because I love to anticipate something I feel confident I’ll enjoy.  This book was one I did look forward to seeing; in fact, I went so far as to attend a reading and book signing. So, it’s a good thing that the book turned out to be as beautiful and as satisfying as it was, because otherwise I would have been quite deeply disappointed.

It’s a real departure from Gaiman’s other work.  It reminded me more of his short stories than any of his novels,* and it took me a while to understand why.  The answer is, at least partially: it’s in first person.  His other novels are all seen specifically from the point of view of a particular character, but not in first person, whereas some of the short stories are told as first-person anecdotes that almost sound as if they are meant to be about his life, but a reader may be skeptical.  TOatEotL works in a very similar way.  To say that it’s a memoir is certainly stretching it; it’s a fantasy novel, but it’s about the childhood of a character who is illustrated by a photograph of Gaiman himself (with the head removed), who lives in a specific landscape that the author assures us is very close to the one that in which he grew up. It also deals with fantasy in a slightly different way than most of his other work.  Most of his books work on the notion that there is a fantastic world or fantastic beings that exist alongside everyday life, just out of sight.  This book does that to some extent—there’s a family that lives nearby that has access to things outside of the mundane—but in fact, if you didn’t already know Gaiman as a fantasist, you might be tempted to think of this book as magical realism.  The entire story is the memory of a man who was an imaginative child; he’s not an unreliable narrator but there is a certain level of intentional difficulty to believing the story, especially as a plausible alternate explanation is very clear to an adult reader.  Still, the plausible explanation never quite attains the same status as the fantasy story; that’s the one that, as a reader, you believe.

The story, and here I am attempting to avoid too many spoilers, goes like this: a man returns home for his father’s funeral and goes to visit a farm where a girl once lived who was his friend.  He remembers an episode from his childhood which he was unable to remember previously, beginning with the most mundane details and somehow slowly moving into a story about the invasion into his world of a creature which has the ability to estrange him from his family.  His allies are the aforementioned girl, her mother and her grandmother (the Hempstocks).  There is a great deal more to the plot, but let’s leave it at that for now.

Somewhat surprisingly for a story about a childhood memory, the book is characterized by an abundance of vivid sensory details.  Early in the book, these seem to alternate between the pleasurable and the horrifying.  There is a great deal in the book about food, especially the Hempstocks’ food, which is almost magical in its ability to provide comfort and relief to ordinary people, which the Hempstocks are definitely not.  At the same time, the terrifying moments are equally visceral or maybe a little more so.  It’s not a horror story, but there are three particular points at which it creates that kind of physical response.  The intensity of the descriptions makes the book itself more intense; it feels like a very specific childhood but also kind of yours.

And on the other hand, it’s also about childhood itself.  It’s about the loneliness of childhood, about being a child who loves books, and the ability to have such vivid experiences and not necessarily think it is odd.  Perhaps most noticeably, though, a lot of it is about the powerlessness of childhood; by the time that he writes:

Ursula Monkton was an adult. It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh.  She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win. (87)

… it’s almost unnecessary to say so, because we’ve already seen how little power the seven-year-old narrator has in the world of adults.  For children not to be believed about their experiences is a common theme of fantasy stories, but here it goes further:  every aspect of his life can be controlled by adults.  He cannot leave his house or be part of his family without permission, and in fact, he is subject to physical punishment that makes him fear for his life.  Ursula Monkton is an interloper and she is responsible for many of the things that happen to him, but his powerless does not come from her malice.  His father is part of it, but there’s also, early in the book, a reference to the waxwork Chamber of Horrors, which illustrates intra-family murders.  It’s very easy for the mundane to become sinister, and the protagonist is not able to do anything about this.

I love the pace of the book, which is episodic in a very Gaiman-esque way.  I’ve alluded before to a sequence of pleasant and terrifying experiences;  the intervals between them become shorter as the book goes on, but it is interesting how something terrifying will happen , followed by a lull wherein the story sort of gathers itself, and then back into the action.  Strange as everything is that happens here, it’s even stranger when it’s integrated into these moments of normalcy, and in a way that adds to the feeling that this is a memory, because all of this comes to him along with details about how things were at the time.

And then, of course, the characters.  As a reader, you have a great deal of insight into the protagonist; all his thoughts and fears are on display.  Other characters are more opaque, because they are opaque to him.  What was really striking to me was how much two specific characters reminded me of characters from elsewhere.  Ursula Monkton reminded me of Geraldine from Coleridge’s poem “Christabel,” to such an extent that I have to wonder whether this is one source for the novel.  In any case, it is certainly affecting my ideas of what I think Geraldine is.  I wonder if I’m the only one who thinks so.  And Lettie Hempstock, well, she’s a homebody who draws her power from owning land, so that’s certainly a difference, but in all other respects she reminds me of The Doctor.  Feel free to argue if you like.

I read the print version, because I’m not an audiobook person, but I heard him read some of it and also listened to an audio preview online, and it’s amazing, so if you’re an audiobook person, this one may be a good choice. A lot of the beauty comes from the language, which I’m not going to attempt to describe except to say that I tried to read it slowly, and remembering what it had sounded like being read helped with that–but it’s worth reading slowly and enjoying the sentences.

Also—I may do another post about the ending.  It was quite haunting and lovely in some ways , and then in other ways it draws on a trope that’s been often criticized, but then, I’m not sure it really is that. So I might write about that, but for now, let’s not get any more spoilery than this already is.

*For reference, I have read: Smoke and Mirrors, American Gods, Good Omens, Stardust, Neverwhere, Coraline, Fragile Things, Anansi Boys, The Graveyard Book, Volumes 1-6 of The Sandman, which isn’t everything, but I think that’s all the novels and a few other things, anyway.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literary thoughts

A Game of You: So about Wanda…

Cover of A Game of You Author: Neil Gaiman

Illustrators: Colleen Doran, Shawn McManus, Brian Talbot

Year of Publication: 1993

LC Call Number: PN6728.S26 G35

The fifth installment of Sandman is a really strange one; the tone is very different from the rest of the series, and the subject matter, while related, seems different, not least because Dream himself plays such a minor role.  At this point in the series, there are many established characters who have drifted in and out during various storylines. A Game of You, however, is structured around a formerly minor human character, Barbie, last seen in The Doll’s House having detailed dreams in the mode of high fantasy.  She’s left her boyfriend Ken (yup) and has moved from the strange house in Florida where Rose Walker became the vortex to a seedy tenement in New York. She’s stopped dreaming, and the volume focuses on her relationship with the dream that we saw in her earlier appearance.  Morpheus is barely seen; he puts in an appearance early on to comment that one of the skerries of dream is about to disintegrate, and of course he arrives at the end to put everything right—not because he is a deus ex machina so much as because this is his job. By this point in the series, we expect that.

Because the volume pulls in a minor character and focuses on her story, the moments in this volume which call back to the prior stories feel less like continuity and more like references.  There is Barbie’s dream, of course. When Foxglove turns out to be Donna, Judy’s friend from Preludes and Nocturnes, this is enlightening not because it tells us anything about Fox herself, but because it reminds us of the events in the diner that Judy experienced, and the feeling of trapped helplessness that went with it.  The reference to Rose Walker doesn’t pull the story into a neat line with the rest of the series, especially since it’s made to a character who has no way of understanding it;  it does, however,  inspire an oddly ominous sense that everything is weirdly interconnected in this world through a series of uncanny (in the Freudian sense) coincidences.

I enjoy this sort of story, and the sense that it is set aside from the main storyline, although of course it can be executed more or less well.  However, I can’t focus on this in my post because I really need to write about the portrayal of Wanda.

Wanda is Barbie’s best friend and another occupant of the building.  She is Barbie’s confidant in the early pages of this volume and, when the dream attack occurs, it is Wanda who provides entry into Barbie’s apartment and stands guard over her body as the other characters try to follow her into the dream world.  Now.  Wanda is transsexual, and I’m not hugely impressed by how her gender identity is handled in the book.  The portion of the plot that occurs in the “real” world mostly happens at night after the characters have been unexpectedly awakened by Thessaly’s detection of the dream attack.  She gets all the other inhabitants of the building out of bed and brings them downstairs to the culprit’s apartment, where she has murdered him.  The group includes a lesbian couple (Foxglove and Hazel), Thessaly (who turns out to be a witch), Wanda and Barbie, who cannot be awakened. All the characters but Wanda have either thrown on bathrobes or are wearing pajamas, but Wanda is wearing an undershirt and panties.  It’s reasonable and realistic that there would be some variety to what the characters choose to wear to bed, of course, but because this is a graphic novel, this means that Wanda’s body is put on display for the reader to examine for signs of femininity or masculinity.  The other characters are not so exposed. There are a few panels of Foxglove before she puts a on a shirt, but that lasts for a much shorter portion of the book.  Furthermore, Wanda’s gender and her body are discussed by several of the other characters in these scenes.  The reader is thus implicitly invited to notice these characteristics of her body. She hasn’t had surgery—her dream suggests that she is afraid to be operated upon—so her body does have some characteristics generally associated with masculinity, including a penis. In fact, Hazel, who is, ah, somewhat anatomically naïve, points at it and says “you have a thingy.” The art here makes me think back to Whipping Girl (see my post), in which Julia Serano writes about how, when she comes out to people as trans, the get this look on their faces as if they are examining her body closely for signs of masculinity. I can’t help but feel that the same thing is happening here.

Of course, there’s also the textual aspect of the story, which is somewhat equivocal.  As mentioned above, the other characters frequently comment on Wanda’s gender. Thessaly, who emerges around the middle of the volume as the only character with any knowledge about the dream world, dismisses her as a “man” and doesn’t ask her to walk the moon’s road with the others.  George, formerly a servant of the Cuckoo (that is, the villain of Barbie’s dream) and presently a severed face nailed to the wall (yes, this is pretty gross), explains to Wanda that this is because the moon won’t accept her as a woman and that her subjective gender identity doesn’t matter to the gods.  It’s a complicated scene to analyze because, while the reader is very sympathetic to Wanda’s rage, the scene also establishes the other world as one that enacts its own notions of what gender is and means, and in a nondiscursive way, no less. When Wanda states firmly “That’s something the gods can take and stuff up their sacred recta. I know what I am,” it’s a moment in which you want to cheer for her, but it’s also an expression of an impotent rage against something that won’t change.  This is just after Wanda has a Cuckoo-induced dream in which her body becomes increasingly masculine while she is about to be forced into surgery (and is misgendered by superheroes).  Later, in the dream world, the Cuckoo explains that girls are different from boys because they engage in different fantasies, different dreams. So it appears throughout the volume that the supernatural half of reality is not only bounded by gender but also regards gender as a fixed quantity which is determined by it, not you.

BUT.  There’s a late save.  All the commentary in which characters engage concerning the nature of gender earlier in the volume is just that, commentary, and is not proven.  The only time that Wanda interacts directly with the supernatural is when she is seen with Death. And Death, who is probably my favorite character in all of Sandman, gets it.  At this moment, Wanda’s body is transformed; Barbie describes her as “perfect.”  Death doesn’t reject Wanda but rather takes her in as the version of herself that she (Wanda, I mean, not Death) presumably imagines and desires.  Now, this could just be because Death is awesome. It’s obviously very difficult to tell whether this happens because Death’s magic is very different from Thessaly’s moon-magic and the dream world,* or because Thessaly is actually wrong.  What is suggestive, though, is that this takes place in Barbie’s dream. So—it’s not clear. It leaves the rest of the book in question, which is good—but it’s not entirely satisfying.

The non-supernatural characters also react to Wanda in differing ways. Thessaly’s already been mentioned. There’s also the homeless woman who questions what Wanda is and doesn’t seem to totally understand, but is at least nice to her.  And then, of course, there’s Wanda’s horrible family, because apparently there is some law that trans characters can never have even vaguely supportive families in fiction.  Sigh. But the last part of the volume is about Barbie, who truly is a friend to Wanda, interacting with Wanda’s family and trying to maintain some integrity by not entirely complying with their demands that she refer to Wanda by a masculine name and pronouns, etc. Ultimately, she engages in a small act of defiance that’s really as much about her as it is about Wanda, but it is meaningful in its way. So I guess I’m not sure what to make of the way Wanda is handled in this side of the story, either.  If I go back to Serano, who complains that there are really only two ways that trans characters are portrayed in fiction (by cis people, anyway), Wanda’s very much the tragic figure—but at least she has some character beyond that.

The thing I wish I could do is put this in context with the rest of the volume, because it does change things.  This is really a story about gender in lots of ways. The central character is Barbie. We’ve already met her in another volume in which her femininity seemed rather extreme and a little unsettling—she’s not called Barbie for nothing.  The way she works through her childhood and her own gender throughout the book is pretty important and not something I’m able to readily make sense of. There’s the fact that most of the characters in the book are female, and it’s all about how they interact with each other, sometimes to protect each other and sometimes with their own agendas.  There’s the pregnant lesbian, and the witch who does exclusively feminine magic. But I can’t really do that analysis well, at least not on a single read, partly because I’m distracted by my wish to analyze the way Wanda is portrayed, and partly because I just don’t have room. So I’ll just note that there is more to it than this and leave it at that.

(interesting that there’s much more than I can cover, even on that particular topic, in what is really a very short book. Is this because it’s a graphic novel, or because it’s just that deep? Or because I’m inefficient? NOBODY KNOWS.)

*these are also separate realms and different kinds of magic, in case that isn’t clear.

1 Comment

Filed under Literary thoughts

American Gods: Territories and Maps

Cover of American Gods

Author: Neil Gaiman

Title: American Gods

Publication Date: 2001, but for this post I read the Expanded Edition, published in 2011

LC Call Number: PR6057.A319A84

This is my second time through American Gods, and it’s just as good if not better than the first.  I somehow got the perfect timing on this; the book is about a great literal and figurative storm that’s both destructive and transformative.  As I read this, the temperature dropped, Halloween came and went, and a hurricane appeared and knocked out my power for about a week.  So when I read about Shadow “thinking snow” and dealing with the extreme cold of Lakeside, I was existing at a much higher temperature, obviously, but I was also devoting a great deal of my energy to trying to stay warm.  When I read about the new gods of electricity and television and the internet, it had a different resonance because I was hoping each day for those things.  Easter did her thing about when my power had just come back. So in a way, it was the perfect book for that, even if my copy of the book has some wax stains on it that it didn’t have before.  (This doesn’t mean the storm is my fault, right?)

What can I say about this book? There’s a hint in here that Gaiman has intentionally made it difficult to write about it; he quotes the notebooks of Mr. Ibis (a storytelling character, and also the god Thoth) who writes that describing a story is like making a map, and that “the most accurate map possible would be the territory, and that would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless” (485).  The book does give that sense of attempting to describe something—attempting, in fact, to explain what the United States means to Gaiman, an Englishman who has lived for many years in Minnesota—but of needing to find the depth rather than pointing out useful features.  It’s not a map, it’s, you know, art.  You can get into it and live there for a while, but it’s hard to come back and explain what you thought.  So the experience of the reader with the book seems in a way to mirror what the book is trying to get at about “America.”

The book has a story, and it has a twist at the end and a respectable denouement, but  that’s never really been what Neil Gaiman is all about, and the story certainly does not rush the reader toward the solution of the rather grisly puzzle. Instead, it reads more like a sequence of very closely related episodes, in which Shadow (and the reader) gradually come closer and closer to an understanding of the gods, the landscapes, and ultimately, the people.  I found myself thinking about the HBO series that is scheduled to be made of this; it’s a surprisingly good fit because each episode, each chapter, stands by itself as well as being part of this larger story.   In fact, I found that things often happened in a very different order than I  remembered  (can the secret of Lakeview really be revealed after the battle of the gods?) and although it feels like they need to be in that order, as if we are always learning something… I think they will work very well in an episodic format.  I’m kind of looking forward to the Las Vegas episode, and to the funeral in the center, and to Whiskey Jack, who I think is really my favorite.

The conceit of the book is that the all the people who have ever come to America have brought their gods with them, so that its realistic-but-weird Midwestern setting is full of gods from all over the world.  (I’m not a Midwesterner, so I cannot say how well he captures that part of the country; I’m tempted to encourage my Midwestern family members to read it and tell me how familiar it seems.) Odin and Anansi are particularly important, but there are gods from Russia and India and even the ancient Egyptian gods. Gaiman explains this last with an extraordinary passage suggesting that the Americas are somehow naturally a crossroads, that people have always been coming here, from everywhere.  In a way, I guess this is a nod to the theory that some of the indigenous people of South America are descended from Africans, but in another way it’s part of his broader idea about what America is; it’s a place that people end up, somehow.  There are several “Coming to America” segments in which he explores various ways that people have arrived in the U.S, which includes the obligatory lost Norsemen but also indentured servants, slaves, and those who came over the land bridge.  Because Gaiman is a fantasist, history is not his primary concern, but he makes a real effort to honor the pain of American history and I think he does a good job. The story of the enslaved girl who becomes a skilled practitioner of vodoun is one of the best in the book, because it is both an acknowledgement of history and at the same time very much an individualized portrait of a person and a story that cannot be generalized. There is a great deal of this in this book.  This is part of the balancing act that Gaiman needs to accomplish.  It’s risky to write a book like this for many reasons.  He needs to avoid erasing the presence of people of color and at the same time he must be careful of appropriation.  Since I am white, I don’t want to pretend that I am the right person to judge how successfully he accomplishes this, but it seems to me that he does a good job of showing that America is not a land of white people and that he deals with the gods in a respectful manner.  (And I think it’s important, too, that Shadow is not white.)

The other half of this conceit is that even though the landscape is full of gods, they are not doing well. They are largely abandoned and forgotten, and they live on recognition.  Gaiman invites us to feel sympathy for them; we get to know them and they are—well, they’re Neil Gaiman characters, so they are fun to hang out with and interesting in their very disreputableness.  Shadow puts his finger on it when he chooses their side because they don’t talk in clichés.  But Gaiman also reminds us repeatedly that the gods are not nice, that in fact they live on sacrifices. Some of these sacrifices are relatively harmless. The bit about sacrificing time to the god of television certainly lends itself to further reflection—is that what I do?  But there are also more costly sacrifices, and Gaiman insists, for instance, on the status of Odin as the god of the gallows. It is impossible for a reader to want these gods to be worshiped in the way that they formerly were, and in the end, the book strictly avoids nostalgia for the days when these gods had more power. At the same time it insists upon the gods as indicative of what the humans around them. Hinzelmann is a very important figure in this respect, because he reminds us that nothing has really changed.   The exception to this rather grim view is Whiskey Jack, who belonged to the Algonquins and who resists the label of “god,” preferring to call himself a culture hero and explaining,

“[W]e just screw up more and nobody worships us.  They tell stories about us, but they tell the ones which make us look bad along with the ones where we came out fairly okay” (456).

Coming where it does, near the end of the novel, this seems so much healthier and more sustainable and humane, and this, I think, is where Gaiman comes down, recognizing the need for Story and also the need to humanize.

American Gods is probably Gaiman’s best work (though I remain very fond of his short stories), at least partly because of its scope and the extent to which it is rooted in his need to understand his subject matter—there are certainly places in which The Graveyard Book feels more polished, but well, American Gods  is special. But it’s very, very Gaiman, from the sideways world conceit to the rhythm of the sentences. Anyway, there is a lot to like here, so I’m going to point out just a few things:

–Shadow.  Shadow is fantastic.  Given everything that I said above, one might expect him to be a cipher, just a vehicle through which the reader experiences these larger ideas. Nope. Not at all. In fact, he’s a complex and often surprising person. The improbable excellence of his vocabulary, his quietness, and his stubbornness, which allows him to get through the book without full allegiance to anyone , and this is really important by the end.

–Although I could wish that female characters played a greater role in the story, I always liked Samantha Black Crow—well, she’s almost impossible not to like. But this time around, I really found myself liking Laura as well.  It’s strange because she is kind of monstrous and there’s her betrayal near the beginning of the book. But I enjoy the fact that, although we start out with her as the dead wife, the tragic loss, by the end of the book, it turns out that she is the muscle.  I enjoyed that, and I enjoyed her cleverness and how, perhaps even more than Shadow, she is on her own side. I like how she ends the book wiser than she began, as well. And although I seldom really buy into love stories in books, the relationship between her and Shadow was actually convincing.

–As I was reading the book, I kept thinking of how nice it would be to read it aloud, or have it read to me.  It has the cadences of a book intended to be read aloud.  Try this passage:

They came to Lookout Mountain from all across the United States. They were not tourists. They came by car and they came by plane and by bus and by railroad and on foot.  Some of them flew—they flew low, and they flew only in the dark of night, but still, they flew.  Several of them traveled their own ways beneath the earth. Many of them hitchhiked, cadging rides from nervous motorists or from truck drivers. … (434)

Nice, isn’t it?  And I think it’s pretty fitting for a book that is so interested in what is ultimately an oral tradition.

–Oh and also. The book is funny.  I enjoy Gaiman’s sense of humor quite a bit.  My favorite:

“I think,” said Mr. Nancy, “that wherever two men are gathered together to sell a third man a twenty-dollar violin for ten thousand dollars, he will be there in spirit.” (489)

An allusion to something rather serious, a call back to the way that the characters are written, and a wry tone—well, I like it.

1 Comment

Filed under Literary thoughts

The Sandman: Images & Immersion

Cover of The Sandman: The Doll's HouseCover of The Sandman: Dream CountryCover of The Sandman: Season of Mists

Titles: The Sandman, Volumes 2-4 (The Doll’s House, Dream Country, Season of Mists)

Author: Neil Gaiman. Many other people worked on this, and their work is important, but I can’t possibly list them all and don’t feel comfortable picking and choosing, so see the series’s Wikipedia page for more about them…

Publication Date:1990

LC Call Number: PN6728 .S26 G35

Years ago, back in my adjunct days, I picked up a copy of Neil Gaiman’s short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors, to read on the bus as I shuttled between campuses. This was early in the semester, with no papers to grade yet, so that time on the bus was temporarily mine.  It’s a very diverse collection of stories, including fantasy, horror, stories that read a little bit like fantasy and a little bit like personal anecdote, and even some poetry. Some were whimsical, some were serious, and some were just odd. I liked some of them better than others, but on the whole, I enjoyed the collection very much, and over the years, I kept coming back to Gaiman, until I’d read all his novels and both his short story collections.  He still has quite a bit of other work I haven’t read, of course,* and, delightfully, he keeps writing more, but the major thing I hadn’t read was Sandman.

I don’t read graphic novels, or I hadn’t.  It’s not that I had anything against them; actually, I’m all for the proliferation of different media in which stories can be told. I just hadn’t read any, and I found them a little intimidating. A lot of people say the opposite, but I’m an extremely text-oriented person.  Example: it was only about five years ago that I realized I should pay attention to what movies look like instead of just converting their dialogue into a script in my head and reading it. So it didn’t seem like graphic novels would be a good match for me. But I was interested in reading Sandman, and eventually succeeded in receiving Preludes and Nocturnes as a gift.  I was a little surprised how much I liked it, but still it took me a while to get the next three volumes in the series.  I finally did, though, and a few days ago, I finished reading up to this point.

I must admit that I feel terribly greedy when it comes to these books. I just want to take them away with me into a corner and consume them, page by page, like persimmon cookies. And then, possibly, I want to do it again. It’s that kind of addictive.  Additionally, at this point, I should probably stop pretending that I am too sophisticated a reader for this to happen to me. Heh. It’s a great thing, really—after all, sophistication has its price.  In any case, I stopped when I’d read all the books that I had, and on the whole, I think that’s a good thing. I’ll leave the rest for a while, so that I retain this feeling that there’s more and I can dip back into it when I get a chance.

In any case, I think part of this feeling of immersion came from the format.  As I say, images are an unfamiliar way for me to get information.  It feels a little… left-handed, for lack of a better term.**  It’s a type of reading I’m not used to doing and for which I need to use a different part of my brain, in addition to the parts I usually use.  I’m reminded a little bit of the intensity of watching Pan’s Labyrinth with subtitles; I could understand most of the spoken dialogue, but of course I was also reading the subtitles, and at the same time, I was assigning a verbal narrative to the action, so I was getting all the information in the movie in several different ways, and also the movie was both terrifying and fantastic.  The amount of attention demanded was so high that it was bound to be an immersive experience.  Sandman is similar. I read it slowly, making sure I looked carefully at the images as well as reading the text.  At first, this felt like cheating—getting information from illustrations!—but the art in a graphic novel is not an illustration. It is part of the text.  It really rewards this sort of reading, too.  The edition I read of Dream Country includes a script for “Calliope,” that is, the text that Gaiman provided to the artist, Kelley Jones. At one point, Dream shows up to tell an author that he is wrong to hold a Muse as prisoner, and he’s described in some detail, ending with the line:

                He is not pleased… Imagine a parent, or a cop, waiting for you to come home.

…and that was, actually, exactly what I’d thought when I saw it. So, there, I can read graphic novels.

So that’s what it’s like to read Sandman.  I can’t, at this point, get as analytic with it as I usually do in my posts.  Perhaps later. But I can list a few things that I noticed, or things that I loved, which I can at least gesture toward…

I love how the story appears at first to be a relatively uncomplicated one—just some slightly connected stories about Dream and his attempts to reclaim what he had lost during his imprisonment—but upon reading further, everything turns out to be connected and it’s a much bigger story than it at first appears.  When the story of Nada is told at the beginning of The Doll’s House, we’ve already seen her, and we know, or suspect, approximately how true it is (and yet we are still shocked, somehow).  Rose Walker being friends with Judy from Preludes and Nocturnes.  Morpheus escaping his imprisonment just in time to see Hob.  When you come at it sideways the way this story does, there’s a certain pleasure in discovering that things hold together, in a way there isn’t when a story is told more straightforwardly.  I feel sure I’ll see Charles Rowland again…

I love how, when I began to form objections or questions, they are answered, as if they’d already been there and were only waiting for me to notice them. I wondered, throughout much of Dream Country, why Dream would help Calliope and not Nada—and at the beginning of Seasons of Mists, Death and Desire bring this up with him.

I love how much of it is little allusions to everything in the world. I certainly don’t get all the references. I’m not a comics fan (as one might have guessed from my comments above!), so I don’t know a thing about John Constantine.  Similarly, the Chesterton references went over my head (should I do something about this?).  But then there’s the use of Shakespeare, there’s the invocation of Milton for the Hell storyline, there’s Calliope and the little reference to Orpheus and so on.  And then there’s the fact that Dream looks oddly like Robert Smith of the Cure—at least, sometimes he does.

I love the fact that the only rape joke I’ve noticed in the series so far is put in the mouth of a serial killer speaking to a room of serial killers.  (and that’s everything that needs to be said about rape jokes, you know.)

I love the character of Dream and the fact that, although he’s mostly sympathetic, we don’t entirely approve of him. He’s clever and serious and usually just. When he shows up, it is very often at a moment in which we will be pleased to see horrible characters get their comeuppance. At the same time, he is vengeful, perhaps too vengeful, and the things he does to people worry us.  Really, I felt no sympathy for Ric Madoc, but what happens to him is disturbing enough that I was relieved when Calliope called a halt to it. I am still concerned about Alexander Burgess, much as he may have deserved his fate. Dream is also a world-class sulker and terribly impressed with himself. Sometimes we are impressed with him, too. Sometimes not.  When Dream tells him what she thinks of his behavior over Nada, I was tempted to be charmed by Dream’s gallantry, and by how quick he is to take her seriously.  At the same time, I was exasperated by his need to be told this, ten thousand years later.

I love Death, too, but it’s almost impossible not to. And I love the fact that this book gives me an opportunity for the following reflection:

You know things have gotten weird when Death needs to wear running shoes.

Oh, there’s more, but I think this is all I can articulate for now…

*For instance, did you know he wrote an episode of Babylon 5? I didn’t, until I saw it! It was just like a Neil Gaiman short story!

**That is, for me, my right hand is the dominant one, so things that require this sort of perspective shift are like using my left hand.  If you are left-handed, then right-handed would be a better term for this feeling. If you’re ambidextrous, then I’d need a different analogy.

2 Comments

Filed under Literary thoughts