I actually only took one English course as a university student, looking a different devices and systems of narrative. Among other things it gave me a chance to seriously read Frankenstein, watch Citizen Kane, and finally get to grips with some of the disturbing subtexts to be found in fairy tales.
How fairy tales can contain what seem to be inappropriate meanings for what is considered to be the realm of children. Which, of course, must be clean and sweet and harmless at all times.
Having been tipped to this hidden truth, I may be a bit jaded as I tackle works by the man who is, perhaps, the most enthusiastic commentor on the subject.
Neil Gaiman is renowned for dark stories that have a fairy-tale or mythology aspect to them. His Neverwhere and his Stardust are the ones I’m most acquainted with, but I know enough to tell that it is to be encountered in his famous Sandman series, and it should be fairly obvious in the titles of Anansi Boys and American Gods.
And despite his substantial cult following, I’ve never really gotten into Gaiman all that successfully. The movie of Stardust was quite good; Neverwhere in its numerous incarnations fascinating, but the only book of his I’d say I really, really liked was Good Omens, and he cowrote that with Sir Terry Pratchett.
So it was with curiosity and some little trepidation that I embarked on his new book, the Ocean at the End of the Lane.
A middle-aged man returns to what was once his rural childhood home for a funeral. He returns to the home of the eccentric old ladies, the mother and grandmother of his childhood friend, and tries to recapture the memories of how they saved his life as a boy of seven.
When, as a boy, a suicide takes place in a slice of rural England, our seven-year-old, befriending the girl Lettie, stumbles onto the ugly force of petulance and anger that is cut loose and begins perverting the family and life of our young protagonist.
You’ll notice that I don’t mention the young whippersnapper’s name. That’s because he doesn’t clearly get one (although it might be George). The book is written from a first person perspective, which as I’ve said before, I find difficult to follow.
In this case, the problem is exacerbated by the plot itself. It’s structured as an innocence-to-experience story. I’d have thought, though, that to tell that kind of a story, you have to start from the point of sweetness and light and work your way from there. Even Lyra in the Golden Compass relishes her admittedly unusual life before her story kicks off.
Our hero, whom I will continue to call George, meanwhile, exists, in his adult and child states, in what seems to me a profound state of alienation. He comes across (intentionally, I think) as seriously depressed, his parents as oblivious. He likes sitting alone reading books, an archetype Gaiman and I can both appreciate. But the psychology surrounding this behaviour seems so bleak and dreary that after the first few chapters I felt like I was reading a parody of classic Canadian literature. The switch as things start to go seriously wrong doesn’t carry as much impact because from his perspective it doesn’t come across as much more than a ramping up from Standard Operating Procedure.
Once the supernatural side really kicked in I got on board, though. The entity that begins working its bizarre mischief on the community exists someplace between the capricious fair folk of myth and a Lovecraftian abomination. The mysterious three women evoke the Weird Sisters of MacBeth, Granny, Nanny and Magrat from Discworld and Doctor Who in equal measure. George’s inquisitive nature and his nobility and child’s moral centre serve him well and also teach him harsh lessons.
I don’t know whether I just didn’t get it the first time, or if Gaiman is playing to a set of archetypes and ideas I’m not familiar with, or if he’s just that clever, but he points out the convention in the text that a story is defined by how it changes the protagonist. He then goes on, to my perplexity, to point out that our hero hasn’t changed much. In fact, in the frame narrative, he seems to have trouble even remembering any of it. He’s just disconnected. It’s also worth noting that most of the story consists of him being led around by his supernatural friend and being the object of the contest between good and evil. The result is that he doesn’t actually do very much.
Maybe that’s the point: as a seven year old, he’s too young for any of this. When confronted with an actual fairy-tale crisis he’s totally out of his depth, unable to comprehend anything and unable to process it in later life, nor can he understand people to any degree of depth. He’s just foam on the raging ocean of life. Still, it does make for an awfully dreary and confusing read when our character starts out a sad sack and remains one indifferent to the extraordinary experiences he’s had. It reads like something written by a (very, very talented) high school kid at the heights of teenaged angst and I am somewhat mystified as to what we’re meant to take away from it. Personally, I want to sidle over to the Laundry Files and bring them over to investigate just what the blazes happened here.
Neil Gaiman is justly popular for his wordplay, wisdom and eloquence. But as a story writer I’ve always felt he and I don’t really see eye to eye. One gets the impression that this story of an offbeat child who grows up to be an artist is him projecting every so slightly, but who knows? Whether this is his fault or mine I don’t know but for all the cool things going on in it, I found Ocean at the End of the Lane to be an eldritch blend of dismal and confusing. A good story should be like chasing a butterfly through a beautiful meadow and finally catching it (not that I hold with tormenting animals, I hasten to add). But in this story the butterfly is a mosquito trying to bite me and I haven’t been offered a net.
It’s probably just as well that this review is considerably shorter than the ones I’ve been churning out lately, and hopefully means I’m on the road to rediscovering the meaning of ‘word limit.’ I just wish it wasn’t because I have so little to say. I’m not saying that Ocean is bad, it actually is pretty cool, I just don’t understand it. If anybody can offer elucidations as to what I’m supposed to take away from this yarn, please tell me ‘cause I’m stumped.