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Thoughts on Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Blogging is quite obviously not the humongous priority for me it once could be. I’ve got my dissertation, I have a 13-month old, I’ve been in an intensive Arabic course this summer, I have a longer commute to church than I once did, and so on. It’s just hard to find the time. I have things that I’ve wanted to blog about for months, I have multi-part posts I need to finish, I have books I’ve been sent review copies of, I’ve got other responsibilities, and so on. The blog isn’t dead by any means, but it’s just harder than I’d like to make the time.

Sometimes, though, things rise to the surface and require dealing with. Such is the case with Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I’ve been a Neil Gaiman fan since 1997 when my friend Bjorn Townsend insisted I read the Sandman graphic novels, which ultimately I read aloud to Flesh of My Flesh starting about 11 years ago, and at the ending of which she cried, surprising herself at how moved she was by a “comic book”. Coraline we also read aloud, and of course American Gods, and some of his other children’s books and graphic novels were devoured. I was going to review The Graveyard Book when it came out but I never quite got around to it, and writing an essay on Make Good Art from the perspective of somebody who at least strives to be better than mediocre in the practice of an Orthodox liturgical craft is something I want to get to sooner than later.

Ocean I pre-ordered months ago, it arrived in June, and I’ve had to basically wait until Arabic was over to even think about reading it. Well, I started it two nights ago and finished it this morning — it really only took about two and a half hours to get through its 178 pages — and I wanted to get some thoughts up about it while they were still fresh. There are thematic spoilers here, I suppose, but I’m not going to talk about plot specifics beyond the general setup.

If you were to ask me what my worst memories of childhood are, there are a handful of things I might say. I might tell you about the memory I have, from when I was 3 or 4, of having my lip stitched up in the doctor’s office after… well, I’m still not exactly sure after what. I think my best friend at the time punched me in the face and knocked me down for some reason, and I have a very vague notion that it had to do with a toy crane truck, but all I really remember is crying while the needle was poking in and out of my bottom lip. Or I could say it was the time when I was eight, and there was this five or six hour stretch where my mom had left, she was going to separate from my dad, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, and it was just my dad and I in our huge, brand-new, custom-built house, awkwardly not talking. But then my mom came home around midnight, and they patched things up, for awhile, anyway. Or, possibly, I could talk about the time when I was ten, during the time when we were trying to sell our big custom-built house (and it ultimately took us a year to do so, and then at a huge loss), when my parents caught me lighting pieces of paper and bits of thread on fire in the kitchen sink and all the stresses combined meant they absolutely lost it on me in their rage (the one time in my childhood I can honestly talk about having trouble sitting down for awhile, if you understand what I mean). The latest incident that might come to mind could be when I was 13 or so, and there was a sudden, explosive outburst from my dad, initially directed at me for reasons I didn’t at all understand, which then instantly turned into a confrontation between both of my parents that got so bad so fast that all I could do was run out of the house and keep going for two and a half miles through town to get to a friend’s house, the only safe place I could come up with at that particular moment.

Past that point chronologically, we get out of the “childhood memory” territory, where there are a lot of things going on around us we aren’t even aware of, or even if we are aware we don’t comprehend, and into a period where probably we usually understand things pretty well. Even 13 is a little old for that category, maybe, but that event was (and still is, all these years later) beyond my comprehension. Anyway, those are the main incidental things that come to mind; there are other systematic things I could talk about, like the way I was constantly shamed at home over my weight, or how it seemed like I was so often a target for bullies in elementary school, or this, or that. I should say that all of these things, while representing traumatic memories, are not the worst things I could say about my childhood by any means, nor are they intended to paint anybody as bad people; they’re simply what I remember of what happened.

So, here’s the thing — obviously the raw images that I remember don’t take into account things I didn’t or couldn’t know, but there is clearly a context that emerges, however skeletally, from some of the details (like the custom-built house that we’re newly in when I’m eight and then having to sell when I’m ten, or having a next-door neighbor best friend when I’m four but having to run two and a half miles away to get to a friend’s house when I’m 13), and then the way I recount those memories does in fact start to shade them with historical argument, like me contextualizing the playing with fire business by locating it in the year we had so much trouble selling our house and were all stressed out beyond belief. As an adult talking about those things, I can add details to justify, to explain, to excuse — but I wouldn’t have been sophisticated enough as a 10 year old to be able to do that. It’s an adult’s game to rationalize via historicity, and we don’t even know that we’re doing it sometimes because it’s just how you have to navigate the world and organize information as an adult, as I’ve written about before. Little kids, though, don’t — can’t — do that. They may well make sense of things by coming up with a story that explains them, and it may even be a story they decide they believe, but it’s not the same thing as what an adult does. An adult is trying to lie to himself with the truth; a little kid is trying to understand the true things he knows, filling in necessary gaps strictly as a matter of utility and without awareness that the gaps represent more than what he actually knows.

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, we are given an account by a nameless first-person narrator, a not-entirely unknown device of Gaiman’s (Murder MysteriesViolent CasesMr. Punch), a narrator about whom we know very little except that he “makes art” for a living and who is having to go home as a middle-aged adult for a funeral. He does not tell us whose funeral, but it is hard to not connect it with Gaiman’s own blog posts about his father’s funeral from a few years ago. While visiting the location of his childhood home (now a block of flats), he stops in on a neighboring farmhouse that he vaguely remembers as the home of an old friend who moved away. The old friend’s… well, maybe she’s her mother, maybe her grandmother, but in any event, she welcomes him in. The visit brings back a flood of memories, which introduces us to the main thread of the narrative, about a series of events happening when he was seven years old.

That’s all I’ll really say about plot mechanics, but there’s plenty more I can say without having to spoil things. There seem to be a number of plot and thematic parallels to earlier Gaiman books like the aforementioned Coraline, Violent Cases, and Mr. Punch, but there is also a very strong Madeleine L’Engle vibe running through the book (there are characters who can’t but remind me of Mrs. Who, Whatsit, and Which, and the key image of the little boy and slightly older girl walking hand in hand through a menacing field kept making me think that a Cherubim was going to show up), and it is decidedly not a kid’s book in the way Coraline was marketed as (I chose my words carefully there), even though it’s told from the point of view of a child.

Although, even there, Gaiman tricks you a little bit, because it isn’t told from the point of view of a child. As with Violent Cases and Mr. Punch, it’s told from the point of view of an adult’s memories of childhood. But even there, is that exactly what’s going on? There are self-conscious present-day intrusions in the narrative, and then there are times when what he remembers himself saying as a child comes off as an adult dodgily trying to imagine what a child might say — Gaiman writes excellent children’s dialogue as a rule, so is this a choice he’s making deliberately, perhaps as a way of telling us that this isn’t “actually” what happened, but rather it’s how the narrator is trying to convince himself that something else didn’t happen? There’s a moment in the story that provides an internal mechanism for the alteration of a terrible memory — so is that maybe what’s going on throughout the whole book? That the whole narrative is just the protagonist’s cover story for the far more awful truth?

The way I’m inclined to read it is this. As I talked about, when we’re kids, terrible things can happen that we don’t understand. Maybe they’re just random occurrences, maybe they’re systematic problems. In any case, we rationalize them in ways that make sense to our little kid brains. I had somebody close to me once, for example, whose way of rationalizing a particular kind of abuse they had experienced was to reconceive of their identity so that they no longer thought of themselves as part of the human species.

And the thing is, adults will probably rationalize these same traumatic experiences, but they’ll do so in very different ways. They’ll justify, they’ll forget, they’ll historicize, and they’ll outright lie to themselves in order to rewrite history. As I said earlier, little kids aren’t really sophisticated enough to lie to themselves, but they can make up stories that they will themselves find convincing on some level.

But then, when we grow up, those stories don’t work, and the trauma still leaves wounds, so we either have to be honest with ourselves about what we experienced, or we have to find comfort in the “adult” forms of rationalizing. Both of these tactics might well require the adult self to remember the stories they told themselves as a child to explain what had happened, identify what really happened, and then make a choice about how to deal with it.

To me, this is isn’t a fantasy novel, although it could be taken as such. Ultimately — and this is where I guess I will mention certain other plot specifics — I take as the key “real world” events of the book the failed birthday party (bad for a seven year old boy), the death of the kitten (worse) and then the opal miner (terrible), then the nanny’s affair with the father (incomprehensible), and the scene in the bathroom between the narrator and his father (devastating). (The “Does it make you feel big to make a little boy cry?” confrontation sounds too much like wish-fulfillment, something that the adult self wished the child could have said, for me to take entirely literally.) The Hempstocks, then, are an image of what the women in his life would have looked like had they not been complicit (as he saw it) in these events. To me, it’s a book about what the narrator experienced as the worst trauma of his childhood, how he rationalized the very adult pain he experienced from death, betrayal, and violence at the hands of people who were supposed to care about him, how everybody ultimately covered it up and explained it away, and how as an adult he’s still covering it up to himself. In a way, while there are certainly similarities to Coraline et al., the Gaiman work it seems to be most like is Murder Mysteries, with the protagonist ultimately left unable, or perhaps unwilling, to admit what they’re carrying around on the inside, unwilling to put the pieces together because it would mean acknowledging that the whole is in fact a hole. The other work it reminds me of isn’t by Gaiman, but it certainly seems to me that Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth deals with many of the same issues (and, come to think of it, so does Twin Peaks, particularly Fire Walk With Me).

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a great book, no question, but it is very uncomfortable to read, particularly when one starts to suspect what Gaiman might be up to. It is not a children’s book (and it isn’t being marketed as such), even though it has some superficial characteristics of one and probably could be read and enjoyed by children. It’s the kind of thing I would have read it at nine or ten and enjoyed, but I would have gotten something very different out of it than what I get out of it as a reader in his mid-30s. As an adult reader, the pain at the core of the narrative is evident and catching, and the menace under the surface of the narrative that isn’t spelled out explicitly is a lot more frightening than stuff you’re told outright. What’s scarier — that you’re being abused by somebody who’s being manipulated into doing it by externalities, or by somebody who simply does it as part of their nature?

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