I know (because I can see the site view stats for this blog) that I’m not getting enough traffic right now to have to worry about stirring up some kind of shit on the internet, but in the event that in the future I do somehow attract attention to this post, I want to preclude a certain brand of criticism by reminding everyone that these posts are composed extemporaneously, usually at 2am and sometimes with a glass of brandy, and I do not have the time to edit 1500-2500 words before I post them. This is an immediate reaction, not some well-thought-out critique.
Why do I feel the need to say this? Because Neil Gaiman is one of those people. People with fans.
I know this, because several of them are my facebook friends and they do fun things like going to see Amanda Palmer at concerts and getting chocolates from Neil Gaiman in person and fangirling out over the internet. You know who you are.
Of course, this would be fine if it weren’t for another problem: I kinda don’t like Neil Gaiman. I mean, I can’t comment on the guy as a person, but the version of his self-identity projected by his writing really annoys me. He seems always ready to demonstrate how much he’s read. He seems to think he’s being more clever than he is, and he likes to show you how clever he’s being, or thinks he’s being. And sometimes his stuff is really, painfully cliché, and painfully obvious. What’s more, he’s a one-trick pony: he takes something mythological, and puts it in a contemporary setting. Or occasionally, just revises the account of it. It’s a cool trick, the first few times you encounter it, but once you’ve seen quite a bit of his work, it grows tiresome.
On the other hand I can’t just reject him and spend this review picking on him, because sometimes he really does have a good idea, and he really is clever, and the story does, in fact, work very nicely. This collection was the most uneven I’ve read yet for this month; there were 1/10s here, but there were also 9/10s. Mostly there were 5/10s. This brings me to what I suspect may be his biggest problem: he needs the firm hand of an editor. Someone who will cut from the collection stories that aren’t up to snuff—there’s no reason this collection needed to be pushing 400 pages, when only about 200 pages were good material. Even more, someone to go through the story and cut out all the clichés, all the stuff he only treats superficially, to maybe complicate some of the seemingly misogynist sexual imagery he puts out there (which I suspect is more the result of being influenced by a lot of old myths than any intentional or lived misogyny).
I mean, the first line of the first story:
“Mrs. Whitaker found the Holy Grail; it was under a fur coat.”
The second line:
“Every Thursday afternoon Mrs. Whitaker walked down to the post office to collect her pension, even though her legs were no longer what they were, and on the way back home she would stop in at the Oxfam Shop and buy herself a little something.”
There’s no reason not to start with the second line. The first line reads to me like a high school creative writing course attempt at a hook, putting the concept out front because you don’t trust the reader to just read the story. It’s unnecessary, and it seems like a the narrative equivalent of leaking the punchline at the beginning of the joke.
This is just one example; the book abounds with them, and frankly they pissed me off at times. I found myself angrily reading a few of the more egregious instances aloud. Often the writing comes across as smirking and self-satisfied; this isn’t helped by an introduction where Gaiman details the inception of each story. A note in the end I can understand, but in the introduction? And some of the stories really are nothing but bad punch lines. “Nicholas Was. . .” = wouldn’t it actually suck to be Santa Claus? “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar” is to me the worst kind of humorous reference, the kind that simply throws names out without actually making a humorous comment on them; if you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean. And do I need to say anything more about “Bay Wolf” other than to tell you it’s a retelling of Beowulf about a wolf in a bay? Groan-worthy.
But when Gaiman is on top of his game, although his stories have still got the originality of a Family Guy episode (as in: original in comparison to other things, unoriginal in comparison to other instances of itself) there are some interesting retellings of old myths there, so let’s look at one, which was actually the first Gaiman story I ever read, although I didn’t know his name at the time.
The narrator starts talking about the dismantling of railroad infrastructure in the ’60s, when the narrator was just a child. His hometown “became the end of the line” and he lived with his family “on the outskirts of the town” often exploring the wilderness. He discovers a path through the wood and walks down it. “From time to time I would find these really terrific rocks: bubbly, melted things, brown and purple and black.” Walking along the path, which is always a flat, straight line, he encounters a bridge built of brick with a wooden gate at the top, and going through the gate is suddenly “nowhere”:
“The top of the bridge was paved with mud. On each side of it was a meadow. … Nothing for miles; just fields and wheat and trees.”
He decides it’s time to go home but when he climbs back down to the bottom of the bridge:
“There was a troll waiting for me, under the bridge.
“‘I’m a troll,’ he said. Then he paused, and added, more or less as an afterthought, ‘Fol rol de ol rol.'”
The troll says that now he’s going to eat the boy’s life, but the boy says his sister is near and the troll should eat her. The troll sniffs him and can tell that he’s lying, explaining that trolls can smell all kinds of things. The boy offers the stones he gathered, but the troll explains that they’re just the “discarded refuse of stream trains. Of no value to me.”
Finally the boy argues that the troll doesn’t want to eat his life yet, since he’s only seven and hasn’t experienced life yet. He says he’ll come back, and the troll agrees to it. The boy runs away. He grows older. When he is fifteen he returns, this time with a girl, Louise. As they are walking home picking random paths through the newly constructed housing estates, he stops by the bridge to try to get laid, but then she freezes suddenly and the troll is there.
“‘I froze her,’ said the troll, ‘so we can talk. Now: I’m going to eat your life.'”
The troll is glad that he’s grown older, giving more to eat. He offers the troll Louise instead, but the troll doesn’t want her, because she’s “an innocent” (not sure what’s meant by this, but I do see fringes of the virgin-whore complex cropping up all over Gaiman’s work) unlike the narrator. He talks the troll into letting him go because he is still so young and has experienced so little of life.
They head home; years later he finds out that she was apparently expecting a kiss that night; anyway, she ended marrying and getting her hair cut, which apparently is a major turn-off to the narrator. He grows older, has a career, and one day after a particularly depressing end to a marriage, precipitated by his own poor behavior, he takes a walk off into the woods. He sees the bridge, and realizes he is there again. He sees a bit of clinker rock and takes it with him. The bridge is now covered in graffiti and trash, but he stands beneath it. “I came back. I said I would. And I did. Hello?” He starts to cry and the troll arrives, seeming lonely and scared.
“I held out my hand and took his huge clawed paw in mine. I smiled at him. ‘It’s okay,’ I told him. ‘Honestly. It’s okay.’
“The troll nodded.
“He pushed me down on the ground, onto the leaves and the wrappers and the condom, and lowered himself on top of me. Then he raised his head, and opened his mouth, and ate my life with his strong sharp teeth.”
But this isn’t the end; the troll reaches into his coat and pulls out a lump of clinker rock and hands it to the narrator. The troll is wearing his life, as it is described, and the narrator grips the rock in his hairy hand. The troll walks away back into the village, and the narrator remains, sitting under the bridge, watching and listening.
“I’m just going to stay here, in the darkness under the arch. I can hear you all out there, trip-trapping, trip-trapping over my bridge.
“Oh yes, I can hear you.
“But I’m not coming out.”
I’m not sure what to make of the sexual imagery, the concept of the troll, the repeated use of the landscape of vanished trains and the clinker rock. I don’t really have the energy to try to work out how all these complex ideas interact right now. But the point I want to make is that they are there, and that their interaction isn’t immediately obvious and superficial, as with many of Gaiman’s other stories. Essentially I want to present this as an example of what is worth reading in Gaiman, because he does have some very good writing. I only wish there had been an editor standing near him with a hatchet to cut out all the “Bay Wolf”—or perhaps that his own editing instinct had kicked in to tell him when a certain idea was too cheap to play with the others. I don’t know if I can exactly recommend this collection, but if you’re interested, check it out. For the record, the other stories here that I thought were good were “The Price”, “The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories” (yes, that is a single story), “Queen of Knives”, “Looking for the Girl”, “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale”, “Foreign Parts”, “Mouse”, “Tastings”, “Murder Mysteries”, and “Snow, Glass, Apples”. May seem like a lot, but keep in mind there were 30 stories/pieces in this collection, so that’s only about a third. Anyway, I picked this up as a pretty cheap paperback; if you can find the same, it would probably be worth it for those stories mentioned, and your opinion may differ from mine.
Aaaand that’s it for this week. We will continue our streak of British writers on Monday with the satirical horror of H.H. Munro, better known as Saki.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.