Happy Independence Day — both here in the U.S. and in many other nations.
Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Just page back one to find out why weeding my garden makes me think about writing. Then come and join me and Alan as we continue our look at urban fantasy with a focus on some of the works of Neil Gaiman.
ALAN: Whenever Urban Fantasy is mentioned, sooner or later Neil Gaiman comes into the discussion. His early novel Neverwhere exemplifies this brilliantly, though most of his books can be categorised as urban fantasies.
JANE: Oh, yes! I first encountered Gaiman’s work when Roger Zelazny turned me on to Sandman. At that point, Sandman wasn’t yet finished, but was increasingly popular. Both Roger and I were living in relatively small cities (me in Lynchburg, VA; he in Santa Fe, NM). We fell into the habit of each buying two copies of each issue and mailing them to the other. That way, if Sandman sold out at our local store we wouldn’t miss a part.
Sandman is convoluted, complex, and ultimately completely satisfying. If it had been written as a novel, rather than helping give rise to the now abused term “graphic novel,” it certainly would have been classified as urban fantasy.
ALAN: I’ve never read Sandman. My first exposure to Neil Gaiman was Neverwhere and I only read that because I was absolutely entranced by the television series. I read the book and was immediately converted into a Gaiman fan, but even so I never went looking for Sandman – I have a bias against comics/graphic novels. I simply don’t know how to read them and they bewilder me. I don’t understand the continuity (probably because I don’t have a very visual imagination and pictures don’t really speak to me at all).
JANE: It’s a shame you don’t respond to visual storytelling, because Sandman is what a graphic novel should be. These days the term tends to be applied to any collection of comic books bound into a trade paperback volume. Sandman is an episodic novel. Gaiman was permitted to suggest what artist would illustrate which part of the story. (Believe me, this is not common, as I know from my limited experience with that industry.) Gaiman would pick an artist whose style he felt worked well with the story. We chatted once about Charles Vess’ illustrations for the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” sequence and Neil commented, “No one does fairies like Charlie.”
There was other attention to detail that helped take Sandman beyond the usual run of “comic books.” Word balloons and the lettering of text varied with the speaker, for example. This made it seem as if the characters had individual voices. The work became more like a performance, not merely an illustrated story.
ALAN: That’s a clever idea!
JANE: In any case, returning to Gaiman’s novels… I’ve never seen the Neverwhere television show. I encountered the novel first when Jim and I went to Neil’s reading at a World Fantasy Convention. He’s an excellent reader and we enjoyed ourselves very much. After, we were standing outside the room chatting with our friend, Andy Miller. Neil came out, paused, thrust a heap of print-out into my hands and said something like: “I was going to give you the book I was reading from but X took it from me. I printed this out in case there wasn’t a copy of the book here. Would you like it?”
Needless to say, I did! Neil really is a very nice person, one of the handful of Roger’s friends who I felt went out of his way to make sure I knew he considered me a friend, too.
ALAN: Oh yes – Neil is a truly lovely person. Once he was a guest at an Australian convention and Robin was appointed to be his minder, to make sure that he was always at the right place at the right time. Naturally she fell in love with him and even today, many years later, she gets a really soppy smile on her face whenever she talks about him
JANE: I’ve talked to other of Neil’s “minders,” and they all have the same reaction!
Despite my inclination to really, really want to love Neverwhere, I felt it fell short – rather as if the novel was waiting for someone to come along and illustrate it or perform it. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Neverwhere a lot. There was just something lacking.
It wasn’t until American Gods came out that I felt that Neil had hit his stride as a novelist. Although it could have been illustrated or performed, it didn’t need the visual collaborator to make it work. I got caught up in the story from the first. I’ve re-read it several times since and enjoy the story every time.
ALAN: I could never get to grips with American Gods, probably because it was telling far too large a story and was about far too many important things. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Neil’s books is his lightness of touch, his humour and I found that missing in American Gods. The style was too serious (dare I say ponderous?) and I bounced right off it. However, he redeemed himself in the sequel. Anansi Boys is a delight – the lightness of tone is back and I absolutely loved it. Of course it helps that Anansi is the trickster god, the joker…
JANE: Ah… Here is where we differ. Perhaps since I encountered Neil’s work in Sandman (which despite being a “comic book” is anything but light), I have never thought of his work primarily in terms of humor or lightness. That isn’t to say there isn’t any humor in Sandman, but that isn’t what I think of first when I think of a Neil Gaiman tale.
I’ll be honest. I was very disappointed by Anansi Boys. Perhaps because of my familiarity with both mythology and literary fiction, I was able to predict the plot from about chapter two. In fact, eventually, I gave a quick verbal sketch of what I thought was coming for Jim and every bit of it came true. There were some nice touches in the prose, but I’ve read the story of two brothers who are rivals but need to bond to face a common problem so often that even the supernatural touches could not redeem it from a feeling of “same old, same old” for me.
ALAN: Yes, that’s certainly true. But, as we’ve seen before, I tend to be a bit more forgiving of such plotting defects than you are. For me, exuberant prose can always rescue a tired plot. Neil was having fun telling his tale, and I was having fun reading it. I can’t argue with your analysis because it’s perfectly correct, but in the end I found that it didn’t really make any difference to my enjoyment of the story.
I also loved The Graveyard Book which is a novel built up of short stories. It describes episodes in the life of a child called Jack who is brought up by the ghosts in a graveyard. Structurally it owes a lot to Kipling’s stories about Mowgli in The Jungle Book (a debt Gaiman freely acknowledges) and it is a joy to read. And it is a brilliant urban fantasy as well, in the sense that you and I have been using the term. Again, of course, I’m biased. Kipling was a huge influence on me when I was a child.
JANE: You know I’m a Kipling fan… I think that’s why I wasn’t crazy about The Graveyard Book. If I want to read The Jungle Book, well, I’ll read it. I also found myself thinking that the story really wasn’t about Jack. It was about Jack’s parents learning to give Jack up – to let him grow up. I found this odd in a book ostensibly for younger people.
I thought the opening was amazing, though. I’m sure it gave many young readers nightmares! Since it was intended to be scary, that’s just fine.
Oh! You mentioned that The Graveyard Book is a novel built up from short stories. Given Neil’s long history of work in comics, I think this is a natural form for him and he’s very smart to know he should use it.
ALAN: I think that’s very true – I’ve heard Terry Pratchett talking about Good Omens (the novel that he and Neil Gaiman collaborated on) and Pterry says that one of the things he brought to the project was control over the structure. He says that Neil seemed to have problems with the idea of a long, continuous narrative. Perhaps they were ideally suited to each other – Pterry himself has written almost no short fiction, and claims that he hates doing it. So each of them complemented the other and the whole was greater than the sum of the parts!
JANE: Oh! I loved Good Omens. That novel was a great combination of the strengths of two wonderful and talented writers. So often collaboration dilutes, rather than enhances, but Good Omens was an exemplar of the best collaboration can be.
ALAN: Neil has just published a new novel called The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel about a young English boy, slightly socially inept, who spends much of his life lost in books. At the end of the lane where he lives is a farm where three generations of women live. The youngest, Lettie, is eleven years old – there are hints that she’s been eleven years old for a long time, possibly centuries. On the farm is a pond which Lettie says is an ocean. And who is to say that she’s wrong? The women befriend the young boy and when a malevolent spirit slips into the world and seduces his father, the women, and the ocean, play a large part in saving him. It’s a wonderful book. I loved it!
JANE: I haven’t read it yet, but I certainly plan to do so.
Come to think of it… The new book also sounds like an urban – or should I say farmland? – fantasy! I can see we’re far from done with this topic, but I’m off to write, so we’ll need to wait until next week.