Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Neil Gaiman - Neverwhere

Richard wrote a diary entry in his head.

Dear Diary
, he began. On Friday I had a job, a fiancée, a home, and a life that made sense. (Well, as much as any life makes sense.) Then I found an injured girl bleeding on the pavement, and I tried to be a Good Samaritan. Now I’ve got no fiancée, no home, no job, and I’m walking around a couple of hundred feet under the streets of London with the projected life expectancy of a suicidal fruitfly.

Neverwhere is about the idea that people can slip through the gaps in our modern society and discover a world – still existing in the shadows beneath modern London – that evokes the (literally) magical days of yore. It can easily be read as a condemnation of the modern world. Richard’s fiancée, Jessica, is a vapid woman whose interests include going to art museums (with no hint that she cares at all about the art) and going to fancy dinners (calibrated to charm her boss as much as humanly possible). How Richard escapes dreary reality is by an act of compassion, something that few (if any) of the “real world” characters show in Neverwhere.

London Below is not, however, paradise. After a period of terrifying acclimatization, Richard begins to view it as the vibrant opposite of everything the dreary, callous real world is, but can we really just give into our wishes and vacate reality quite so easily? Gary, Richard’s “real” friend, certainly doesn’t think so:

“I’ve passed the people who fall through the cracks, Richard: they sleep in shop doorways, all down the strand. They don’t go to a special London. They freeze to death in winter.”

Of course, the question of London Below’s reality is not central in the narrative. What is important to note, however, is that London Below is not a simple solution to all of Richard’s problems. The world of the underground is filled with just as much darkness and evil as London Above, and it’s not just of the black and white variety. It’s hard to say that the Lord Rat-speaker’s disregard for his follower’s well being is any better than the emptiness displayed by Richard’s coworkers in the book’s closing scenes.

London Below is the main “character” of Neverwhere. It remains throughout the book more of a style than a known quantity, but that fits with the wondrous, magical feelings that Gaiman is trying to evoke. The reader knows that the market meets every night in a different place, and the reader gets to experience the strangeness of the occasion, but (despite Richard’s questions) we never find out who sets it up.

The characterization of the other characters in Neverwhere is focused first on theme and setting, second on establishing realistic personalities…which is not to say that it doesn’t do both, on occasion. The most interesting character by far is Richard Mayhew, protagonist. He stands in for all of us in the modern age, to a degree, but there is always a slight disconnect between him and the real world scenes, even before his encounter with London Below. His relationship with Jessica consists of absent mindedly doing whatever she says, and his professional life is made remarkable only by the toy trolls that wage war across his desk. When he goes underground, he begins to develop a personality of his own, reacting to both the bizarre stimulus around him and his memories of his life above.

Other characters follow the same general principles, frequently archetypes that are given enough of a twist to appear fresh. Hunter, for instance, is practically obsession personified. She’s settled on a goal, and she’d determined to fulfill it at the expense of all else.

In addition to the forces of good, or close enough to it, Neverwhere also boasts two of the best villains ever conceived. Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar are blacker-than-black, wolflike in their tenacity, and absolutely hilarious:

“Are you bribing me?” [Varney] asked.

Mr. Vandemar had picked up the morning star. He was pulling the chain apart, with his free hand, link by link, and dropping the bits of twisted metal onto the floor. Chink. “No,” said Mr. Vandemar. Chink “We’re intimidating you.” Chink. “And if you don’t do what Mister Croup says, we’re…” chink. “hurting you…” chink “…very badly, before we’re…” chink “killing you.”

“Ah,” said Varney. “Then I’m working for you, aren’t I?”

“Yes, you are,” said Mr. Croup. “I’m afraid we don’t have any redeeming features.”

“That doesn’t bother me,” said Varney.

“Good,” said Mr. Croup. “Welcome aboard.”

The entire journey is held together by Gaiman’s brilliant prose. Gaiman alternates between description and comedic wording, but both are in evidence here. If the above quotes still haven’t convinced you of the greatness of Neverwhere’s prose, allow me and Gaiman to try and sway you once more:

They walked through an impressive lobby. Then they waited while the footman lit each of the candles on the candelabra. They went down some impressive richly carpeted stairs. They went down a flight of less impressive, less richly carpeted stairs. They went down a flight of entirely unimpressive stairs carpeted in a threadbare brown sacking, and, finally, they went down a flight of drab wooden stairs with no carpet on them at all.

Neverwhere is not a particularly original book, but Neverwhere is – cliché notwithstanding – about the journey rather than the destination, the dank feel of the air rather than the exact width of the tunnel. It’s true that you’ve probably read a few books like Neverwhere, but how many of them made you look at the real world when you were done reading and recoil at how empty it all seemed? Neverwhere does just that.

Aidan, of A Dribble of Ink, has got a review here. The review, and especially the comments, here are interesting with their comparisons to Gaiman's other works and Alice in Wonderland.

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