Stories that Want to be Told

Everything you can imagine is real. – Pablo Picasso

 I have been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘growing up’, about the books that have shaped me into the person I’ve become, the person I continue to evolve into. A few months ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s much awaited The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book which was feted with much ado and reviewed graciously all around. It failed, somehow, to move me. Perhaps this was because, as I wrote earlier, I had extremely high expectations of one of my favourite writers, expectations that even Gaiman could not fulfil.

 Or perhaps it was because I had already read a book that had portrayed the transition from child to adult in a manner that very, very few could possibly hope to achieve.

John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things is for me what The Shadow of the Wind was to Daniel in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s magnificent novel (of the same name). It is the secret book that found me in the midst of a hundred fellows, a thousand fellows. It was drawn from the shelf with a vague curiosity, a sort of purposeless browsing that I no longer have the time or the inclination to indulge. It found me, I think, in some strange, personal way, and it affected me profoundly, continues to affect me, upon every reading.

 The story begins, as all good stories ‘should’, ‘Once upon a time’. A young boy named David loses his mother to a wasting illness, in spite of his best efforts via counting routines and habits to keep her in good health. His father remarries and David must welcome both Rose and her new baby, Georgie, into the family. To make matters worse, England teeters on the brink of World War II, and David’s father is forced to move the family to Rose’s old family home on the outskirts of London, far from all the boy has known. Unable to cope with his grief and overwhelming resentment of Rose and Georgie, David turns to the thing he and his mother both loved: fairy tales. The books containing these stories have begun to whisper to David, and in his dreams he sees a strange, capering figure, with a face like a half-moon and a crooked hat who says with a cryptic, twisted smile ‘All hail the new king.’

 The story takes the track well-worn by generations of child-explorers: like Alice, David disappears into a strange wonderland, a pastiche of the fairytales he has grown up hearing and reading, lured thither by his dead mother’s voice. This world is no happily-ever-after vale, though, the shadows of war, disease and nightmare lying heavy upon it. David knows he cannot stay here, but the only way to get back is to make his way to the Old King, who rules weakly from his castle in the east. The King possesses a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things, which may be able to get David home. David must, of course, pass through a set of trials to get there and meets friends and enemies of varying abilities and dangers on his way, including a helpful Woodsman, communist dwarves, a murderous huntress, a beautiful, wandering knight in search of a Dark Tower and the sinister and all-powerful Crooked Man.

 In my short lifetime of reading, I have yet to come across a book that tells the story of discarding childhood in as beautiful, simple or affecting a manner. Connolly pieces together the golden threads of childhood fairytale favourites with the half-remembered and still-dreaded nightmares of things under the bed, waiting in the shadows, half-glimpsed in the faces of strangers. The sheen he gives to old tales is startling, whether it be his rewriting of Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, each more macabre and Carter-esque than the sanitized versions most of us postcolonial brats are exposed to. In addition to this, when he enters this new world, David brings with him his own nightmares and the filth of his own world, its wars and troubles—he must face them down in this story, or not go back at all.

 I think, I think that Connolly and Gaiman are trying to tell the same story in their own ways. How do you deal with grief, loneliness and confusion as a child, how do you make that journey into adulthood and still retain a veneer of innocence and the ability to wonder? If your tale is just a plot woven by the Crooked Man for his own ends, if reality can be shredded away by the vicious talons of varmints, where is the stability, the meaning, the happily-ever-afters and heroics we dreamed of in stories of yore?

 Gaiman’s prose, while elegant as ever, did not move me, didn’t convince me in the same manner Connolly’s did. Perhaps that was because I came to Connolly with an open mind, and read him at a time when I myself was ‘growing up’. I could identify with David more than with the unnamed narrator in Ocean, I could see echoes of the stories I knew and loved in his own adventures. Gaiman attempts to create a new mythology for his world; Connolly rests his hero’s adventures on the backs of tried and tested figures and plots, and somehow makes them seem new.

 Perhaps that, really, is where the magic lies. As I grow older, I find myself turning more and more to the kind of stories my mother tried to wean me off of. ‘You can’t always read these fantasy and fairy tale things,’ she told me on my fifth re-read of The Lord of the Rings. ‘You have to read other books some day.’

 And yet, despite my best efforts, I find myself coming back to these, to the stories where a plucky hero passes through great and otherworldly trials to find himself rest and reward at the close. These stories remind that though ‘life is filled with great grief’ there is also ‘great happiness’. That though there are Beasts and Crooked Men in their underground tunnels, waiting to foster the evil that dwells inside you, with the right attitude you can battle them away, find allies in unlikely places and reserves of courage where you never thought to look before.

 I think Connolly manages to do what few writers apart from Lewis Carroll have done: take a child’s darkest dreams and craft with them a road to adulthood. David changes in the course of the story, as do his readers. And yet …

 ‘I came back,’ said David, and the Woodsman smiled.

 ‘Most people do, in the end.’

 Truer and more encouraging words were never spoken.

 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.

 

Almost in sight!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by genius writer Neil Gaiman is almost here! In a rush of excitement (and Twitter-fueled love), I preordered and downloaded the sneak peek on my Kindle. The ‘preview’ includes a short story by Gaiman, ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’, previously published in Fragile Things and four short chapters from the upcoming novel.

Like any Gaiman book, it seems a little slow to start off, and there’s an atmosphere of something brewing, of forces greater than mortal ken can comprehend. I was hit with an American Gods flashback, actually, and you might see why when you read it.

It seems to be the done thing now, to release a sample chapter or two, toy with your readers and convince them that buying a piece of a book they are going to get anyway is the done thing. Tor did it with A Memory of Light, selling the Prologue for 2.99 dollars. And I will confess that I bought it, read the other two and a half chapters that were released a little later (for free) and then read everything again when the book was finally in my hands. So I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. It’s embarrassing, a little.

At least Gaiman’s tidbit is free. So you’ll feel no shame in taking a sneak peek. Unless, of course, you’re the kind of person who won’t be able to rest in peace afterwards and keeps wondering, wondering, wondering what’s going to happen.

But the titillation is so worth it. Go ahead and download away!

Image

Yes, along with being an amazingly talented writer, he’s handsome. The man has it all. ALL.

Make, Create, Do

Three things I should be doing right now, but am failing at miserably. It is so easy to sit in front of an empty computer screen (empty but for the baleful glare of the white Word document), and let your mind drift. I see the riches that will pour into my hands when I become a best-selling novelist, the smart quips I will deliver at literary festivals, the change I can effect in children’s lives through my persuasive morals and admirable characters. I proudly declared on my college application form that I wanted to ‘be the next J K Rowling’. That I would create the next Harry Potter.

Doesn’t seem to have happened.

Because it’s easy to dream, it’s harder to buckle down to it and work. My friend has just gotten a novel published. We’ve both talked about the day when we would be celebrated writers, but unlike me, the daydreaming and glory-spying Slytherin, she went ahead and actually wrote her book. Hufflepuffian work ethic does count for something. It might not sound as fancy as the Slytherin ambitousness, but it gets you places.

When I am uninspired (which is fairly often), I listen to or read Neil Gaiman’s famous commencement address, ‘Make Good Art’. I think the man is a genius, and fervently hope to be like him when I grow up (a state whose attainment I postpone every year), so of course I take everything he says to his devoted fanbase very seriously. I put down random quotes from the speech on the sticky notes on my desktop, I quote him in my favourite quotes list on Facebook, I gush about him to all and sundry. But I have failed to put his advice into practice, haven’t I? Aye, there’s the rub.

It’s easier to say that I want to make, create, do something that causes people to admire me, read me, look me up on the internet, than to actually log off my phone, get off whatsapp, ignore the insistent Facebook notifications (which, really, are not that insistent. I like to pretend that they are). It’s easier to dream about what my panel at a litfest will be called rather than write the piece or say the words that would get me there. It’s easier to say that I am a Slytherin than to actually put the house’s principles into practice.

Not the principles that Voldemort and his cronies declared in their manifesto, of course. The other bit- about being ambitous and clever and wending your way to the top. Ends are not always bad for Slytherins, nor are the means. The books, to a great extent, stooped to simplifying and thereby vilifying the house. But an angst post about the literary and ethical demerits of this will appear at a later time.

The point of this post, really, is to say that I must Make, Create, Do. A public declaration has often had the effect of me feeling (sometimes nonexistent) judging eyes, deriding me if I fail to later keep up with the spirit of my words. I am hoping that this will have that effect, and that my lazy Muse will dust himself off or come back from his vacation in the wilds of wherever she/he has disappeared to.

Accio inspiration!