Thursday, July 09, 2009

Review: Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman

I don't completely know what to make of Neil Gaiman. I like his stories, and I appreciate his eye, and certainly he's got sort of a flashlight-under-the-covers charm about most of his efforts, but I keep wondering when he's going to turn out anything that really feels essential. Fragile Things includes some author's commentary, and Gaiman reveals that many of the shorts were written by invitation, on an assigned theme more or less, which is very good and all, but it also feels like they were written to cultivate someone else's idea. Very few of the shorts felt like they really needed to be written, like there was very much internal drive to their creation. (And it's no surprise that the exceptions were very much the better stories.)

Take A Study in Emerald. It's the first story, the one I picked up the anthology for (hi twif), and which won Gaiman a Hugo award. It's a hybrid of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft, written on request for an anthology. Gaiman did spin some gold out of the concept, basically fusing the two universes, putting the Old Ones into the political sphere and letting the people go on with their lives (while they can), and, playing coy with naming some of the characters, packs in some clever twists and revelations (the detective, of course, is not Holmes), but the story lacked a certain potency. What's missing from it is some awareness of the fact that Doyle and Lovecraft do fit naturally together. God knows that the styles are similarly pulpy and overwritten, but more than that, both authors traded heavily in rationalism. Lovecraft's world is unnatural but explainable, and his protagonists are always scientists and skeptics, if particularly histrionic ones and inevitably out of their league. Putting Sherlock Holmes against a Lovecraft horror is an elemental battle, pitting an irresistable force against an unstoppable object, and a brilliant idea with a lot of inherent power in it. That Gaiman told another good story with it was both highly enjoyable and frustrating.

I got a similar head-scratching vibe from Monarch of the Glen, the longest of the collection, and the closer. Actually, the problems bled over from the novel that preceded it (American Gods), namely that I can't make the sense out of it that Gaiman is trying to convey. It's a clever (if not rare) idea of giving life to gods by the will of their believers, but Gaiman has now let them emigrate, taking on some character of new lands along with their people, and, uh, reincarnating themselves or something. Whatever it is that brings them to being is a little inconsistent, as what they are still doing here and what releases them, and there are plenty of curious omissions, which, to be fair, feels less egregious in a novella than it did in the novel (and finding misty natural backwaters on the Scottish coast feels natural enough, and it helps that I don't really know how much he's muffing the cultural history). On the other hand, there's great stuff in it--a fine protagonist in Shadow (and now Mr Boy-Under-the-Mountain has let us see his birth certificate), dangerous villains that are nearly likeable (Gaiman does wonderful villains--Mr Smith has his own short too), and a really great take on the Beowulf myth. There is a love for the old stories that comes through, and in this case, Grendel's mother is outstanding. If only I could make more sense of her context.

The ghost stories were really the best of the bunch (and "Bitter Grounds" about Haitian coffee girls, and "Closing Time" about what might have been a passage were the best of the best). Gaiman is good at finding the places where everyday life meets Spookyville, and finding some beauty and humor in the contact between those worlds. I liked his short-shorts too. There is an art in making a story in just a few paragraphs (and to his credit, Gaiman doesn't overwrite anything), and if the poetry wasn't high art, it was pleasant enough. There was a bomb or two, but what do you want from an anthology, and I was reassured in the notes that the author agreed with me on at least one of them. The Problem of Susan works in the general milieu, but deserves a special mention for just being so unsettling. For anyone who ever loved Narnia: did Susan get a fair break being, basically, damned for being a girl? What kind of God picks favorites and tortures the rest (and never mind the sexism)? As the author notes, it was meant to be as fundamentally unsatisfying as Narnia ultimately was, and it succeeds.

In all, I like Gaiman's brushwork and use of color and shadow, and the composition seems to be almost there. Now when's he going to give us the masterpiece?


twif said...

i suppose it depends on what you are looking for. all i'm asking of gaiman is well-written tales that vere off into the creepy and/or humorous.

as for his masterpiece, he teamed up with terry pratchett for that: good omens. read it, love it.

you might like anansi boys too, if you haven't read it.

Keifus said...

I loved Good Omens, and also enjoyed Anansi Boys (also an American Gods spinoff--I think I reviewed it somewhere down there), which I think suits your description very well.

bright said...

Good Omens gets the love from me. Just loaned it to a friend at church (the one who brought me the first season of Flight of the Conchords). I always think I should be reading more Gaiman, but I don't know why. Neverwhere and the children's edition of MirrorMask would make my top 50 list.

twif said...

keif: also (and i'll, admit, i've note read it), sandman has been mentioned to me as must read gaiman. i've just never really gravitated towards comics.

Keifus said...

I'd heard of Sandman before he wrote all those novels. I remember standing in the co-op trying to decide if I wanted to sink my precious beer money into what amounted to a significant investment if I got hooked and needed to read all ten (or however many). I found the art didn't agree with me much, so I walked on.

David Marlow said...

Is this the same Gaiman associated with Batman comics? Because if it is, he was on Talk Of The Nation this afternoon.

Don't know much about him (I can't read) but it was a fascinating interview.

Thanks, as usual.

twif said...

on shadow and gaiman's gods: they need belief, sure. gods are created by man and answerable to man, in the long run. they are what the locals believe them to be, to a certain extent. that is, while they have their own independant motives, they are shaped by what people believe them to be. seems to be playing with the idea that all gods are local gods; they are all different aspects of themselves. consider the difference between odin & mr. wednesday.

shadow, as a half-god, is more substantial. but he too, is shaped by belief: he becomes what people want him to be. however, his very existance is not dependant upon it; he does have free will, but is eternally conflicted. anasai's kids got off much better, frankly.

the gods can go where ever people have an idea of them; it's just they are shaped by that idea and become, sometimes, a different being.

Keifus said...

switters: dunno, but seems likely. I bet he interviews well.

twif: It's been a while, but I recall I had a hard time figuring out where the unworshipped new American gods came from (the Analog Kid, the Black Helicopters), and while I got a kick out of following around the marginal outcast gods, a scene with some of the more famous immigrants would have served the novel well. (And I think we have to conclude that west African legend was just a lot more easygoing than it's Scandinavian counterparts.)

Rans said...

Masterpiece? Sandman. Hands down, post Sandman Gaiman is just riding on his laurels, sure it/he (still) doesnt get the literary credit it deserves because "What! a comic book?" but that doesnt stop it from defining the entire universe Gaiman writes in and gives the context you seem to be missing. Unfortunately (IMO) Gaiman has become happy with the world as it is and so lost the fuel and fire that created Sandman and it shows in his writing.