I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were (53).
Mythology meanders. It speaks to a diversity of age groups and across the ages. Strange details attach and grow on the mythic tale, which becomes encrusted with unexplained details and unexpected interpretations. Neil Gaiman's writing resembles myth, and his most famous works feature complex, meandering plots. A narrative thread runs throughout The Sandman, but the work defies simple summary, as it grows from horror comic to surreal adventure to the World Fantasy Award-Winner. Shakespeare, Superman, and the waitress at the twenty-four hour diner coexist. American Gods also wanders and grows, throwing in details that defy mundane explanation.
Gaiman's 2013 novel(la), The Ocean at the End of the Lane, makes the most sense as a contemporary mythic tale. Certainly, it defies obvious classification. It has been marketed as a sort of faerie tale for adults, but, barring one or two sequences of adult content, it reads like a disturbing children's novel that otherwise might be enjoyed by all ages, in the manner of his Coraline.
A man returns to his childhood haunts and recalls a tale, blocked from memory, of the time dark forces invaded his life, and of the mysterious neighbours who interceded. The instigating incident, the suicide of a lodger in a car, is disturbingly realistic. We see other details one might find in the story of a lonely child. The protagonist holes up and reads anything he gets his hands on. No one turns up for his birthday party.
Then old coins start appearing in unlikely places-- such as the narrator's throat. A mysterious, tenacious worm emerges from his foot. That worm becomes the new housekeeper, who takes control of his father's mind.
For all of Gaiman's power at describing the supernatural-- his prose style has only improved over the years-- it's the plausible dangers that prove most unsettling. The abusive father may be under the control of dark forces, but his actions feel chillingly real. Gaiman has a remarkable capacity to capture the perspectives of childhood. I found myself wondering what this story might have been if it had spent more time in a realistic setting.
It doesn't, of course. Our narrator seeks help from the little girl who lives down the lane, and her mother and grandmother. They're exactly what they appear to be: the Triple Goddess.
He needs their assistance, of course-- but the central character does too little on his own to confront the dangers he faces or to advance the plot. I grant, he's a young boy, and Gaiman captures the sense of helplessness one often feels in childhood, surrounded by far more powerful people and forces. The protagonist of a fantasy, however, should do more than wait around for his powerful friends to save him. This approach probably would have worked in a short story, but here it marred my ability to fully engage the text. The women, furthermore, keep reassuring the narrator that everything will be all right. An extended flashback frames the story; it's not like we don't already know he will survive.
Despite some original elements, The Ocean at the End of the Lane reads like Gaiman has been raiding Gaiman. The basic plot has strong parallels with the superior Graveyard Book, and the story and characters would not have been out of place in The Sandman. The tale makes for an intriguing, quick read, but I'm baffled by the degree of praise it has received, and often from significant and weighty names with whom I'm loathe to disagree. Heck, Charles de Lint has called the book "perfect."
Nevertheless, the book gave me one or two things to ponder. As the frame closes, an old friend tells the narrator:
"You come back sometimes," she said. "You were here once when you were twenty-four, I remember. You had two children and you were so scared. You came here before you left this part of the world: you were, what, in your thirties, then? I fed you a good meal in the kitchen, and you told me about your dreams and the art you were making"(173)
The ending provides a fascinating reminiscence on the paths life takes, and the power of memory, dreams, people, and places, recalled and understood only with the passage of time. "You don't pass or fail at being a person, dear"(175) a goddess tells our narrator. As I age, I continue to reflect upon that thought, and my own places at the ends of half-remembered lanes.
First published in June 2013