Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Monster at the Heart of This Book

ISBN-10: 0062255657 ISBN-13: 9780062255655 Published: William Morrow & Company, 06/18/2013 Pages: 192 Language: English
A few years ago, I had the privilege to see popular fantasy/horror/comics/children's author and general polymath Neil Gaiman be interviewed by another one of my heroes, literary critic and fellow fantasy author Lev Grossman at a large theater in New York. The venue was sold out and filled with fans willing to scream at the mere mention of American Gods or Coraline. Gaiman was his usual charismatic, thoroughly British self, practically bursting with anecdotes and potential projects. That was my first in-person encounter with what I might call a "literary rock star." They are a rare breed these days, and, enamored as I am with the tortured artist archetype, I usually distrust them. 

Gaiman, however, is an exception to my irrational rule. His output is massive, diverse, somewhat inconsistent, and more than occasionally self-indulgent. That said, I think he hits more than he misses and his highs can be exceptionally high: the stone-cold comics classic Sandman series, the aforementioned American Gods, his award-magnet children's novel The Graveyard Book, and, of course, his marriage to Amanda Palmer are all impressive achievements. His children's books have traditionally taken a different tack from his adult fiction, paring down his sometimes excessive language to flex his considerable narrative gifts and trademark dry humor. 

Gaiman's newest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, reads like his first attempt to marry thematic ambition with a more economical prose style and structure. In truth, "Ocean" is so short-- it weighs in at a mere 180 pages-- it could easily qualify as a novella, but I was perfectly willing to forgive this stretch as the book is easily among the best work of any kind Gaiman has put out. The plot follows a seven-year-old boy growing up in rural England, who is abruptly introduced to both mysteries of the adult world and mysteries of an unspecified fairy-like world that, in typical Gaiman fashion, is hidden just out of sight of everyday reality. Don't worry, the book isn't another entry in the seemingly endless series of "gritty" fairy-tale re-tellings clogging the creative arteries of young adult fantasy these days-- it's far more complicated than that. This is a horror book, of a sort, with the fantasy elements as eerie and horrifying as they are majestic.

"Ocean" is frightening because Gaiman recognizes that the primordial fears that adults try to dismiss as childish are enduring for very good reasons. The novel begins with this quote by Maurice Sendak: “I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know. It would scare them.” I'm glad to say that while Gaiman may have attained rock star status in the nerd world, he has not lost his appreciation for a very specific vision achieved with minute, exacting detail. More importantly, Gaiman hasn't forgotten the ancient terrors that are most sharply perceived by the youngest among us, who haven't yet managed to fool themselves into thinking that there's nothing to fear.

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