Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Neil Gaiman - Fragile Things

One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless.

The tale is the map which is the territory.

You must remember this.
(p. XIX, the Mapmaker)

Fragile Things is Neil Gaiman’s second collection and my first experience with his short fiction. These stories are wildly disparate, ranging from the bleak to the jubilant, and the majority of these stories function by throwing the narrator into contact with some other world, be it a literal one or the simple breath of wonder into an otherwise ordinary life. This is surely not the first time that Gaiman’s tackled the theme – in fact, it’s no secret that almost all of his works boil down to “normal bloke discovers magical world” – but the number of different ways that the same general idea can be reached from is simply staggering.

One of Gaiman’s techniques here comes not from showing us the point of the story via the world building, but rather via said world building’s deconstruction, putting the story’s soul in the violation of the initially established principles, the process of exposing a loophole or intricacy that we didn’t first grasp. This warping of the rules – a game that doesn’t so much violate the initial promise to the reader but rather twists it until the result is utterly unrecognizable but thoroughly satisfying – can be found in a good number of the collection’s stories. Harlequin Valentine begin with our viewpoint harlequin affixing his heart to his Columbine’s door, and when she opens the door, we get underway. The story is a quick and witty affair, consisting of the Harlequin’s toying with his one-day valentine and messing with the lives of everyone that he encounters as he follows her. At this point, the reader thinks that they understand the rules, but they’ve got no idea. It’s at the end of the story, where the harlequin’s love has a consequence unexpected enough to shatter everything we know about how the story’s cosmos function, that the tale goes from whimsical to powerful.

Not every story in the collection ends in a twist, but almost every one does mess with the reader’s perceptions and expectations. At the end of Harlequin Valentine, the former Columbine says: “That’s the joy of a harlequinade, after all, isn’t it? We change our costumes. We change our roles.” (p. 174, Harlequin Valentine) Almost every story in the collection, and almost every character in those stories, is a slippery being, refusing to settle into clich├ęs or expectations. Bitter Grounds is a story of shifting identity, and as the narrator drifts further and further away from whom he was, the tone morphs to accompany his shift. Keepsakes and Treasures, a dark and dreary tale, takes a second out of its forward progress to point out that, if not for the oppressive prose and characterization, we’d be reading a fairy tale: I told him I thought it sounded like something from a story book. “I mean, think about it. A race of people whose only asset is the beauty of their men. So every century they sell one of their men for enough money to keep the tribe going for another hundred years.” (p. 128, Keepsakes and Treasures)

One of the most interesting stories from the collection, and 2004’s Hugo winner, A Study in Emerald, is impossible to predict from start to finish. It is, as Gaiman explains in the introduction, an attempt to wed the rationality of Sherlock Holmes with the otherworldly unknowability of Lovecraft’s horrors. Stephen R. Donaldson (and Writing Excuses) has talked often about how fiction is a combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and the reason that A Study of Emerald is so weird in Gaiman’s catalog is that the magic is actually the familiar, here. Though the two ingredients seem as likely to combine well as peanut butter and cheese, the mixture actually works, and neither element of the story feels forced…and yet I did not love A Study in Emerald, and the reason why is the problem I have with some of the stories in this collection.

Neil Gaiman is a writer of ideas, and they are fabulous ideas, big and witty and wondrous. The problem is, when ideas of that caliber get down in the trenches, they occasionally push other parts of the story aside. This works at times, like in the aforementioned Harlequin Valentine, when the torrent of bizarre ideas and imagery leads to a great emotional moment, but it can also lead to stories where you can admire what Gaiman’s done, but can’t really enjoy the result all that much.

The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch suffers quite badly from this. The story is a about a small group of friends and acquaintances who are taken on a tour of ten increasingly bizarre rooms. As they go, one of their party, Ms. Finch, is transformed and is lost from their lives. The descriptions of what the party sees is interesting, but the tale fails to achieve its impact because those sights leave no room to really care for those watching them, leaving of the party member’s disappearance an unmoving event.

The truly obvious results of idea-driven writing are the curious that become increasingly common as the collection goes on. These are, for the most part, successful. Most, like Strange Little Girls or 15 Cards from the Vampire Tarot, illustrate a single mood or idea, then fade away before losing their welcome. The only one of these that felt unnecessary was Diseasemaker’s Croup, which, while clever, is just too insubstantial to be really interesting.

Of course, Gaiman’s output here is far too diverse to be so simply summed up, so How to Talk to Girls at Parties and How Do You Think This Feels? pop up to lay to waste the concepts-in-center-stage theory. The former is a very funny story about a teenage boy going to a party and being too oblivious to catch the girls’ hints that they aren’t from earth at all. The narrator’s, and the story’s, cheeky refusal to every get the point is surprisingly endearing. The second of those, however, is probably the weakest story in the collection. In it, the narrator is left by his mistress and creates a gargoyle to guard his heart in an attempt to never again feel hurt. The problem with the story is that the supernatural element is so slight, and the mundane too generic, for there to be anything to ever catch fire.

Despite how much time I’ve spent talking about potential drawbacks, Gaiman’s flights of fancy are the core of his work, and his refusal to reign them in is pretty much the soul of the man’s writing. His ability to let his ideas stand on their own, presenting the character’s and the situation without the need to constantly shape the reader’s opinion, allows some of the collection’s pieces, such as Keepsakes and Treasures, which only works due to Gaiman allowing the reader, not the author, to be the judge of the character, or in October’s Chair, which is either an unsettling story of losing touch with reality and a painful and needless death, or a heartwarming story of escape and embracing the fullness of life.

The poetry’s inclusion here was evidently quite controversial, and I’m glad that it made its way inside in the end. Gaiman’s prose is almost always deliberate and light, obscuring great depth with an airy surface and true wit, and his rhythmic tendencies come to the fore for the poetic part of this collection, the cadence of the words creating an irresistible and enchanting feel:

If I were young as once I was, and dreams
and death more distant then,
I wouldn’t split my soul in two, and keep
half in the world of men,
So half of me would stay at home, and
strive for Faerie in vain
(p. 27, The Fairly Reel)

So far this review has never tackled the entirety of Fragile Things, or even made much of an attempt to do so. Some stories are like this, some are like that, some aren’t like that…but wait, surely it must have more cohesion than that? Surely the collection (unlike this review) was not a mere scattershot assembly of random pieces, worthy and unworthy? Well, rest assured, because Gaiman is one of the best collection editors I’ve ever read. What I mean is that, even if a particular story didn’t work for me, every tale still bolstered the whole. This is a compendium of odds and bits, yes, and there are new characters in (almost) every story, yeah, and new worlds, etc, but there is not a single point in the entire collection when Gaiman says: Alright, hold on for a second, I’m going to go change gears. Every word of Fragile Things flows into the next, across line breaks and story breaks and genre lines, and the balance with which the man paces insures that you’ll never want to put the book down, no matter how many pages you’ve just turned and how many tales you’ve just completed.

This is, like any short story collection, a tad uneven. Still, there are three mind blowing Bitter Grounds pieces for every one How Do You Think This Feels?, and Gaiman shows no fear when he takes us into a new place with each page, each destination both bizarre and familiar. This collection has quite a bit of essential material for any Gaiman fan.

Standouts: Harlequin Valentine, Bitter Grounds, October in the Chair, the Fairy Reel

1 comment:

  1. It is an amazing book containing 'a lot' of short stories and poems. Gaiman has mastered the art of entering the realm of the mind previously unexplored by any reader, and he does it really well. 'How to Talk to Girls at Parties', 'Feeders and Eaters', 'Closing Time', 'Sunbird' and several others in this book are captivating and awkwardly brilliant ! I would recommend this book to every mature reader !
    An of course,

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