Neil Gaiman, Victim of His Own Talent

I recently finished The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.  (I did review it for Fanlit.) After I read it I looked at reviews and comments. The folks at Goodreads and Amazon are split on this book. So are the professional reviewers. When I went a step further and asked one of Copperfield’s employees what he thought of the book, he said, “I was disappointed. It was hyped as his first adult book since Anansi Boys, but the main character is a seven-year-old. I guess I wanted another Anansi Boys or American Gods.”

Rather than argue with him (he wasn’t done yet) I told him we’d talk when he finished it.

And now, the obligatory warning; I intend to discuss the book in this post. Several people have gotten very snippy about “spoilers,” in both directions (I won’t link to it, but if you really want the book spoiled for you, go read the UK Guardian review. Edward Docx spoils the plots, quotes line by line from the most visceral and dramatic scene in the book, and then dismisses the book. It’s really as if, rather than reviewing it, he wanted to make sure no one read it, and I digress).

While I don’t like spoilers Ginger tomcat! There’s a ginger tomcat in the book! in general I think sometimes you havNobody Goes to Australia! Nobody! There! I’ve spoiled it, spoiled it for all of you! Bwahahahaha!

There, now that’s out of my system. Trust me, you can still enjoy the book with those two pieces of information in your possession.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a slim novel, and some people are complaining about that. They wanted a big, wild, shadowy adventure with lots of twists, like American Gods. It’s summer. That’s the book we all want. Ocean isn’t that one. This one is a meditation on memory, imagination, childhood and the nature of innocence. That is perhaps not the book we wanted to read by the pool while sipping our umbrella drink. And maybe we didn’t want to follow the adventures of a seven-year-old boy.

Paradoxically, Gaiman gets into trouble because he is such a good writer, and he pulls off the difficult point of view here too well, because SPOILER ALERT





— this is not in the POV of a seven year old. It’s in the point of view of a forty-seven year old, remembering with preternatural clarity events that happened when he was seven. He can remember which such clarity because of where he is. SPOILER ALERT





Some of the book’s power comes from the sadness and yearning at the end, as we, the readers, realize what has been happening in this man’s life… things we know that he will not remember, because that is the nature of the book.

The book is littered with clues. At one point, the unnamed first person narrator says, “I was not a happy child, but I was often content.” This is not the thought of a seven year old about his own life; it’s the thought of someone looking back.

The story is a traditional tale, and a traditional Gaiman tale about evil and powerlessness, with a trio of magical helpers. I did think the plot was thin in spots, I just didn’t care, because I was so caught up by the inner life of this lonely, precocious little boy. Gaiman’s story is really about imagination and memory, and this created a stumbling block for him. There are scenes he has to approach obliquely, because of how the main character remembers them. These scenes are perfectly rendered, but become less emotionally satisfying because Gaiman can’t give them the immediacy we expect.

On the other hand, he writes passages like this one:  “The soup was rich, and warming. I had never drunk soup in the bath before. It was a perfectly new experience.”

Can every one of us remember a moment of wonder, because something was a perfectly new experience? I can. I just don’t think that until I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane I would have defined it that way.

The most intense, revealing, terrifying scene in the book does not happen in the darkness, in a forest, in a cave or facing a shadow or a traditional monster. It happens in a bathroom in the little boy’s house. This is not an accident.

For me, though, the passage that brings tears to my eyes every time I read it is this one : “… In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, “Be whole,” and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.”

One commenter on Goodreads said that as they continued further into the book they became more angry and depressed, because it was clearer and clearer that the book wasn’t going going to have the ending they wanted. I think, even though the commenter hated the book, they got the book. The book isn’t about being heroic once and defeating the bad guy. It is, to some extent, about every minute of your life. The Guardian reviewer, on the other hand, wants Gaiman to “open a vein,” and write a realistic book, maybe about “fathers and sons;” because his realism is so… well, real. In other words, leave behind the stories that feed you, Mr. Gaiman, that captivate you and sing to you (and us), the stories that engage your passion and your imagination, and write the typical quasi-confessional literary novel we’ve all seen too many times; because that’s the kind of book that is in Mr. Docx’s comfort zone.

I had a journalist friend. He worked briefly for a small-town weekly, and one of his stories was a profile of a man who lived in the town square (before the phrase “homeless” became fashionable); on some sort of public assistance. He was an alcoholic. My friend spent time with him and interviewed merchants with shops on the square, the man’s family, and mental health professionals. He wrote a deep and sad profile of this local “town drunk.” The paper was deluged with letters and e-mails. Many locals were highly indignant that the paper would “glorify” a drunk in this way. Many locals were appalled at the paper’s “lack of compassion.”  I asked my friend what he thought of the uproar. “Both sides are pissed off,” he said, “so I think I got it about right.”

Gaiman gets it about right in this book. It isn’t a book about a there-and-back-again journey; it isn’t good versus evil, nor is it just a “realistic” novel about a boy growing up in the early 1960s. Poor Neil Gaiman, able to envision worlds and characters, monsters and heroes that the rest of us only dimly see; able to create to touchable realism the little details that make up a life; and able to braid both of those skills into one slim, dense novel. Both sides are pissed off, Mr. Gaiman.  Keep up the good work.


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