Thursday, September 1, 2011

Childish Fantasies

As a child and a teenager, I read a great deal of fantasy books. I did this because my father had quite a few in his closet, partly because I'm geeky that way, and partly because I was expected to. Popular wisdom where I grew up, and in fact everywhere in America I have personally been, held that there was a special connection between children and fantasy that rendered younger people more likely to read and fantastic stories than purportedly-mature adults. I have read no studies confirming that this is the case but am provisionally prepared to accept it as truth, at least for people resembling me, that is the children of white, white-collar American families of no great religiosity. The question that interests me is why that should be. I've heard quite a few explanations over the years, but none of them has entirely satisfied me, as most seemed to rely on an uncharitable misunderstanding of either children or fantasy, while the dissenters simply shifted their contempt towards adults and realism.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere

In the tradition of blogs like Slacktivist, Formerconservative, and Ana Mardoll, I am getting into the Internet game of page-by-page reviewing. The model popularized by these blogs is to take apart one book in excruciating detail, devoting one week and hundreds of words to each 2-5 pages of the original text. In addition to the ordinary function of a review—evaluating the quality of a book and engaging other readers about its themes—this long form criticism has several benefits. First, it allows us to explore not only whether the book works, but how and why it works, which is of interest to aspiring writers and to some kinds of readers. Second, it allows us to story's implicit values and the tropes is uses to get there. Finally, it turns the review into a platform for the reviewer to declaim on a variety of issues tangentially related to the substance of the plot—basically an excuse and a writing prompt for small doses of opinion- and journal-blogging.

For my object of scrutiny, I've chosen Neil Gaiman's first solo novel, Neverwhere. Let me clarify right off the bat that I did not hate this book. Most review blogs I'm aware of use this format for extended deconstruction of a book with either subpar writing, dodgy values, or both. Neverwhere is not a perfect book and I'm going to talk about things that bothered me, but it's also a very entertaining and largely successful book and I want to talk about that as well. By way of preview, here are a few of the issues I expect to discuss:

The Plot: The story here is just fun, so I'll definitely be taking the chance to recap how and why it entertains. That said, there are a couple of decision I'm not sure I agree with, and at least a few scenes I just plain don't get. I'm definitely going to call on readers to help me figure out what was going on in a few of the more mysterious scenes.

Magic & Monsters: A great many supernatural beings appear in Neverwhere, including virtually all of the important characters. I'm extremely interested in how they work, because I find them exemplars of a trend in Gaiman's writing which seems to have become very popular in fantasy in general. Neverwhere's spirits and monsters are all basically incarnations of abstract concepts, but more specifically they're incarnations of functional concepts. A character's role in the story is to be a killer, or a hunter, or a traveler, and they are therefore endowed with all the powers requisite to carry out their duties. I want to contrast this with the magical creatures of my favorite childhood books, which tended to be designed along thematic or even arbitrary lines. Creatures came with diversified abilities which might share a theme like “water” but didn't directly imply a particular narrative role. I have a great deal to say about the advantages of both models, and will be soliciting recommendations to broaden my understanding.

Bildung: Neverwhere looks very much like a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age story. An adult but basically juvenile man is flung into an extraordinary situation, learns and grows, and ends the story on the cusp of a new set of self-chosen challenges. I want to talk about what the book seems to say about adulthood. This is one of the issues where I expect to be most critical of Neverwhere, because ultimately I'm not convinced what the story passes off as adulthood is the real thing.

Class and Gender: Although Neverwhere is a story about a white man, it includes a large number of prominent women and minorities. That inclusion alone is good and on the whole the characters are all handled very well. However, I do have some questions. Is Neverwhere fair to Richard's girlfriend? (no) Are we meant to take this as a flaw in Richard? (not sure) Is the entire book actually one extra-long dick joke? (yes)

Boundaries & Symbols: Neverwhere's basic premise is a literal underground society existing in the magic spaces outside and between the cracks and crevices of the city of London. This parallel world is generally undetectable and does not interact with “London above.” However, some apparently homeless or mentally ill people may be members of it. Apart from facilitating swashbuckling adventure, this set-up has some really obvious allegorical potential, but whatever meaning we're supposed to take from this is not spelled out directly in the text. As I go through this book I'm going to share my thoughts on how exactly this shadow world works, where Gaiman seems to be inconsistent, and what lesson the story seems to be teaching.

Posts will go up weekly, probably on Fridays. Watch this space.