The Ocean at the End of the Lane

There is something inherently disappointing about a hugely-anticipated book that you can, despite deliberate pacing and long work hours, finish in two days. The tragedy of this is only exacerbated when the book in question is by Neil Gaiman.

Yes, that’s right. You can finish The Ocean at the End of the Lane in two days. One, actually, if you’re not trying very hard to stop. Surely that makes something crumple a little and die inside.

Gaiman’s latest offering has been described by the author as his ‘best book’ so far. There have been rave reviews about it in a number of newspapers, there was a huge build-up with the three-chapter release, and the book comes studded with great endorsements from Erin Morgenstein and Joanne Harris, both writers celebrated for their ‘weird’, magical realist fiction. The cover too, in both editions, is gorgeous.

See? Pretty cover.

See? Pretty cover.

So what went wrong?

I hate to confess that I was not hugely overwhelmed by this novel. In fact, given the build-up and my anticipation/excitement, I was decidedly underwhelmed. I have read better Gaiman, and while I agree that the book certainly has its strong points, it doesn’t touch, in my opinion, the success with which The Graveyard Book or American Gods or even Smoke and Mirrors told their stories. Instead of leaving me with any of the satisfaction or awe that those books did, Ocean leaves me feeling confused, lost and a teensy bit annoyed.

What is it about? Well, that’s not precisely clear (intentionally so, one would assume, knowing Gaiman’s style). A little boy is witness to the dark forces unleashed by the death of a lodger. He becomes the target of those forces, and finds solace and safety with the Hempstocks, three mysterious women (of three different generations) who live on an idyllic farm at the (you guessed it) end of the lane. Of course, no fantasy novel worth its paper is going to end there, and there are complications and tribulations galore, in those quickly-turned 243 pages.

What I got from the first three chapters (posted pre-release) was a sense of darkness and foreboding, of forces bigger than human comprehension brooding upon and entering our fragile world. In short, it was a Lovecraftian ethos that permeated those pages, but unlike Lovecraft’s world, what I felt on reading Ocean was not mute, uncomprehending horror, but more a general what’s-the-big-deal sort of ‘eh’.

I am not saying Lovecraft is a better writer than Gaiman, of course. My heart will always belong to the latter. I just have a bad feeling that I’m either missing something massive in this novel, the finding of which would make the whole thing click together into awesomeness; or Gaiman hasn’t lived up to the hype in this particular book.

And that is something I just cannot bring myself to believe. Contemplate it, yes, but not believe.

The problem, perhaps, is that Gaiman is, in this book, walking too thin a tightrope. He seems to be telling the classic growing-up story, of a child discovering that the world is far more fragile than he had ever imagined, encased as he has been in the covers of adventure stories. The unnamed narrator learns that ‘Death happens to all things’, and that adults are never as self-controlled and perfect as he once imagined them to be. You cannot rely on your loving parents all the time, nor can you expect yourself (despite all the plucky school stories you might read) to be a hero when the time comes. Sometimes it’s all just too vast for you to comprehend, let alone handle.

There are some beautiful lines in the book, throwaway moments almost when Gaiman seems to be writing a letter to a younger self than a novel for adults. It is those moments that most resounded with me, such as when the child narrator wonders why grown-ups’ books are so boring, why they don’t read about adventures and fairies and magic. When he reflects on the self-centredness of his child-self, and how that is a trait peculiar to children, the belief that there is nothing more important than him/her in this world. That conviction of self-worth is one that is missing in the grown narrator (and, supposedly, his readers). Gaiman attempts, through this short novel, to remind us of a time when though we were helpless and alone and dependent, we did not rely on the straight and most obvious paths to take us home. Instead, like he points out, we wandered from dell to fairy circle and back.

But overall, I’m left feeling rather incomplete. I don’t understand what the ‘fleas’ in the book were, why (spoiler) such a creature’s name is significant at all, what on earth the varmint are and why they are so terrifying, and honestly, I’m still lost about the ocean. Maybe a second read will do wonders for my understanding and opinion. After all, I did appreciate American Gods much more on the second read. But, I must admit, I did enjoy it on the first. I did not leave me feeling just a little bit cheated.

Was it the hype? The fact that it’s a Gaiman? The fact that I’m jealous of his wife and the book is dedicated to her? (Okay, I’d like to believe I’m not so petty as all that.) I’m not sure. But what I do know is that Ocean is not what I would call, on the first go, Gaiman’s ‘best’ work. It is good, as all his books are, but far from his best.

 

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Reading Rothfuss

How do I celebrate thee? Let me count the ways.

Storytelling forms the backbone of Patrick Rothfuss’ acclaimed Kingkiller Chronicle. The bulk of the narrative is, quite literally, a tale narrated by its protagonist to a scribe (or, to use his given name, Chronicler). Within this narrative are embedded a multitude of stories, told by professional storytellers, by laymen and women, sung in verses by travelling bards and troupers. The leading character and narrator, Kvothe, is himself a hero out of story, whose reputation is steadily bulked up through his life by the tales others have told of his feats. It is not often that you find a hero who responds to these stories by creating one of his own.

The premise of the series (there are two so far: The Name of the Wind and its sequel The Wise Man’s Fear) is pretty much that of any other epic fantasy. The world is going mad, even the farthest corners of it (largely populated by sheep and goodhearted, thick headed farmers) are being intruded upon by demons and men with less-than-noble intentions. Something big is going on in the busy world outside, but in this village, the usual gang continues to meet at the Waystone Inn, drink their ale and tell stories, served by the quiet innkeeper with the ‘true flame’ red hair. The innkeeper is the legendary Kvothe, Kingkiller, University-trained ‘Arcane’, dragonslayer, now hidden away in a humble guise. Why? That, my readers, is what we are supposed to find out.

And that’s just where the uniqueness of Rothfuss’ rendering begins.

I think that, with the surge in fantasy publishing and movie-making, writing good, original books/movies/plays in this genre is getting increasingly difficult. Everyone seems to follow a pattern (read: prophesied hero found in poor, often neglected orphan boy who overcomes obstacles and defeats evil dark lord), recreating, however loosely, the Hero’s Journey recognized by Joseph Campbell. This is largely because mainstream Western fantasy relies heavily on myth for its structure (and aspires to the same universal level, as laid down by Tolkien), so there’s not much room for basic plot reconstruction. Books like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire are very rare. Your success at storytelling is largely based on how well you can create your world and whether you engage your readers’ attention well enough for them to forgive and forget that they have heard this story a hundred times before.

ImageRothfuss, though he begins with a familiar premise, destroys all notions of ‘copycat’ shortly into the first book (The Name of the Wind). In this review, I will proceed to lay out five major plot points/character constructions that make him different from other fantasy authors I have read, five reasons why you should, if you are a jaded fantasy fan, pick him up. If you are not a particularly jaded/experienced reader, you should pick him up anyway.

#1: Kvothe is not your run of the mill hero

Okay, this is a huge point, and one that almost completely made the books for me. Kvothe is not, wait for it, a prophesied hero. He has not been hailed with cryptic words, not been designated a saviour, not been forced onto a path that will lead, eventually, to the slaying of an evil foe. He doesn’t seem born to fulfil any particular ‘purpose’, though he has talents and skills that certainly appear beyond the ordinary. The quest that he sets himself seems driven purely by personal desire, with absolutely no relevance to the people around him. In fact, most of those around him don’t even know of this self-appointed mission.

And can I just say how relieving it is to meet a fantasy protagonist who is aware of his strengths and plays to them? While I love the trope of the innocent, unsure hero who is humble and ignorant of his own potential, I do love the worldly-wise, sharp Kvothe as well. It’s so hard to pull off a brazen, intelligent character who doesn’t piss off his readers, but somehow, Rothfuss manages. His tone communicates clearly the distinction between the more hardened, experienced voice of Kote the innkeeper, and the younger tone of Kvothe the student and wanderer.

In all, Kvothe is a breath of fresh air, different from the other fantasy heroes one tends to come across. It’s hard not to love him.

#2: Denna

If Rothfuss does well with Kvothe, he outdoes himself with Denna. As the love interest and main female character (there are a number of female characters, none stereotypes), I feared for a moment that she might suffer the fate assigned to most of her breed- be reduced to nothing more than a romantic outlet for the hero’s passion or assigned the damsel in distress role. Denna, much like Egwene, defeated my gloomy expectations. She is literally as described by one of the characters, a ‘shower of sparks from a whetsone’, a spate of blazing light that throws into shadow everything around her. She is feisty, intelligent and so damn independent that you want to cry in relief that yes! Here is a fantasy heroine you can love, you can admire a la Katniss Everdeen. Here is a woman who enters the story as a love interest but is SO MUCH MORE. I love Denna, and I think that I would continue to read this series even if Kvothe sucked, only because I love her so damn much.

#3 The Stories

And there are a fair few of them. Rothfuss weaves beautiful tales, building a mythology for his world. Like in most fantasy novels, characters describe the wonders of a bygone era, one that possessed arts and ‘magics’ that the current one has lost. Besides these token tales of a mysterious past (which will no doubt prove important in the final book), there are a number of shorter, less grandiose stories in the books: folk tales, fairy tales, told by common men and women to pass the time around a fire. I’m going to go all lit-student here and comment on how Rothfuss uses the device of the storyteller not only to frame his narrative, but also to reflect on heroism in general. What is Kvothe but the stories people tell of him? What happens when those stories are done, where does he rest in between? The Kingkiller Chronicle is that rare thing: a story performing itself, showing us what a hero does after he has walked off into the sunset. It’s a bold narrative choice, but one that Rothfuss is executing wonderfully.

#The University

Anyone who ever wanted more of pure Hogwarts goodness, the rivalries between its students, it Houses, its classes without the more dramatic story of Harry Potter; anyone who loved New Spring precisely because it showed us a Tower (however briefly) before the advent of the Dragon Days; anyone who loves the Citadel sections of A Dance with Dragons will warm to the large swathes of text that deal with Kvothe’s tenure at the University. Here you have long, detailed visits to the academic centre of ‘The Four Corners of Civilization’, a look at all the different classes Kvothe takes, the students he meets, the professors, even the exams (here they’re called ‘Admissions’). You have a hero trying to make it on a less than ideal student budget and working while he studies. No plush ticket to five star meals and four poster beds for him. Kvothe lives in a dorm for a while before making his way to better off-campus housing.

I think Rothfuss has time and little urgency in the University chapters precisely because (as referred to above) Kvothe’s ‘quest’ is not one that involves the rest of the world. His friends are not prepping him for an inevitable showdown, nor does all of civilization appear to be moving towards a confrontation. Because of this, life goes on at its usual pace, and we, as readers, are allowed to see the world as it exists well before chaos and confusion (and the drums of war) seeps in.

#5 The Fae

The Fae in Rothfuss’ world greatly resemble the ancient, dangerous Fair Folk of old Irish tales, the People recreated in books like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. They are, quite literally, fey, not human in aspect, expression, voice or (most chillingly) laughter. Their paths do not often cross the human world’s, and their customs and societies seem as varied, if not more so, than that of their more mundane neighbours. Rothfuss, though he does not engage in a detailed exploration of this realm (not yet, at least) offers enough tantalizing glimpses to make the reader yearn for more. His writing in these parts acquires an almost poetic bent (you’ll see what I mean), communicating thereby the almost transcendent beauty and ungraspability of these beings. They are not here to help or hinder, particularly. What they do is to remind us of how very large and varied Rothfuss’ world is; how, even two books in, we are not entirely done with exploring it.

Though I have recorded quibbles with his writing, I have to admit that he has the ability to weave an original, arresting story. Get yourself a copy of his book and trust me, you won’t be disappointed. I myself can’t wait for the next.

No, it’s not ‘Okay’

So I’m reading Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles (I know, I’m late to this party). The books are great- I love that Kvothe is pretty much a nobody and a non-prophesied hero who gets by on his wits alone. I love Denna, who is a refreshing break from all the beautiful, ever-in-danger female stereotypes one often finds in fantasy literature, who’s feisty without being a perfect character. I like the amount of detail Rothfuss seems to be packing into this world and last but not least, I love the way he punctuates his narrative with stories, people telling stories and listening to them.

What I DON’T like is his use of the word ‘okay’.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘okay’ has various origin-stories, one of which is that O.K. stood for Old Kinderhook, American Democratic President Martin Van Buren’s nickname. Van Buren apparently signed off on documents with the initials ‘O.K.’ and though he lost his re-election bid, the word stuck as a quick way to signify approval on documents. Other theories say that it is the abbreviation of a jocular misspelling of all correct (‘oll korrekt’) or the representation of Choctaw ‘okeh’ (meaning, ‘it is so’). For further information, go here: http://etymonline.com/?term=ok

To cut a long story short, ‘okay’ is a word that arose out of a specific cultural context, be it the Van Buren signing, the unverified Choctaw expression or the misspelling. It is a word that entered into common parlance due to popularization and repeated use, not because it was evolved to signify a particular object, mood, person, animal, thing, whatever. It is deeply rooted in historical factors (like many words and expressions we use today) and quite possibly would never have developed the place it has today were  it not for those people (Van Buren, the jocular misspellers) and their idiosyncrasies.

It is, therefore, jarring to hear characters say ‘okay’ in a high fantasy novel, whose world is assumed to have developed on an entirely different footing, historical trajectory, what have you. What are the chances that there existed a president/king/dark lord who signed his documents with the initials ‘O.K’ in any  of those fantasy worlds? I ask specifically in the context of high fantasy, not urban or new-age or the in-between space occupied by books like Harry Potter and Philip Pullman or Neil Gaiman’s works. All these books use characters and settings strikingly similar (if not actually based upon) the ‘real world’ depicted in realist novels, the settings and scenarios we are familiar with in our humdrum, Muggle world.

All right, let’s say that somehow, the word has managed to evolve in the fantastical realm in question (in this case, Rothfuss). The second reason why it is so odd to the reader (this reader) is the dissonant note it strikes in the prevailing register of the novel. Let’s face it, most high fantasy in the Western world today is written in the vein or at least the shadow of Tolkien. The author might claim to have never heard of or liked The Lord of the Rings but you can rest assured that some critic is going to come along and compare the newer work to the older one. Tolkien is the grand-daddy of this genre, and all those who have come after him are, whether they know and like it or not, using something of what he has left behind, if only (and this is a pretty big ‘only’) the fact that he can claim to have almost single-handedly made ‘high fantasy’ a respectable, mainstream genre. I’m not saying these authors owe a debt to Tolkien, but the fact remains that Tolkien’s work is recent enough to have clout and make itself known and accepted as the Holy Grail of High Fantasy Writing, and whatever you do, you are GOING to be compared to it. (Also, let’s face it, no one is ever going to come out and call you better than Tolkien, no matter what you do. It’s sad, but you have to live with it, for the next few centuries at least. Come on, no self-respecting critic is going to come out and say that some modern day playwright is better than Shakespeare.)

I let myself get distracted by the Tolkien allusion, but the long and short of it is that thanks to him, high fantasy is not considered ‘high’ if it isn’t written in a certain formal, faux-medieval register, replete with ‘my lieges’ and ‘I know not of what you speaks’. At least, not in my book. Perhaps I’m being narrow minded here, but I think that a lot of readers would agree with me. It’s not slang and informal speech that I’m against, but the context of said speech should be that of the fantasy world, and not our humdrum reality. Expressions such as ‘burn me’ in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time for instance are slangy and frowned upon in courteous circles, occupying the space that is reserved for ‘damn it’ and ‘oh shit’ in our parlance. So if you want to use slang (and you have every right to in a complex world that includes all strata of society and more often than not moves in less dignified circles), use it with context in mind. Make it another facet of the world you’ve built and don’t get lazy and use terms that we use here—you might just stumble across a reader who gets in a snit about it and gets jarred dramatically out of your otherwise finely crafted world.

In short, Hermione is okay, Galadriel is not. Harry might say ‘my exam went okay’, Kvothe should not. It’s lazy, it’s far too casual in a world-inappropriate way, perhaps it’s too American for a genre that we (sadly) look upon as very British, still (like I said, blame Tolkien). And worst of all, it jerks you momentarily out of a wonderfully built and lovingly detailed dimension into a reality which, more often than not, I find myself describing as ‘okay’.

 

 

P.S. – LOTR and other high fantasy fanfiction that uses ‘okay’ gets to me for the same reasons. Unless, of course, the author aims to write a humorous or parody piece, in which case if it’s well done (and many are), anything goes, really.