Friday, July 10, 2009

On Gaiman

I don't think it's any secret that I've been reading a lot of Neil Gaiman in the past month. In the last three weeks, I've read Good Omens, Coraline, American Gods, and Absolute Sandman, Vol. 4. I just picked up a copy of Stardust, and all of his short story collections, Neverwhere, Smoke and Mirrors, and Fragile Things, are on my immediate short list. I cannot recommend him enough, and he is undoubtedly one of the finest writers we have at the moment.

It's not surprising that I like his work, really. In his books, he has an uncanny knack for prose. He knows how to build suspense, or create a mood, better than just about anyone; Coraline is a Young Adult novella, but I was genuinely creeped out on several occasions. In his more adult works, he draws from an incredible range of wide-reaching mythologies, finding ways for them all to interact and work as one, cohesive whole. It's all the more enjoyable for the fact that Gaiman doesn't wait for you; in American Gods, he mentions a squirrel which says "something sounding like 'Ratatoskr.'" A little research reveals that Ratatoskr is the name of the squirrel in Norse mythology who lives in the World Tree. There are "easter eggs" like this strewn throughout his work, and, while he's not the only author to make frequent allusions to relatively esoteric things, he has the distinction of making the stories enjoyable without any working knowledge of the mythologies he draws from. If you're already familiar with them, his writing is that much better, and reaches the point of admirable, but there's no "You Must Be This Informed To Read" bar.

What is surprising to me is that I haven't gotten to most of his stuff sooner. I've been reading The Sandman, between its trades and the Absolute collection (an over-sized series of gorgeous slip-case hardcovers from DC Comics, in which they collect and reissue their prestige titles), since my sophomore year. I found "Preludes and Nocturnes," a collection of the first eight issues of The Sandman, in the teen section of the Glastonbury Public Library, and I was immediately hooked. It's inconceivable to think that Gaiman had only written one miniseries prior to his work on The Sandman, as its opening arc is absolutely brilliant. It gets you acclimated to the universe by opening with a storyline that is essentially an action movie, and an amazing one at that. From there, the series rapidly grows darker, more cerebral; The Doll's House is a twisting, winding, psychological thriller of the finest quality. The Corinthian is Gaiman's crowning acheivement, a nightmare of his devising that feels so natural when next to mytholofical stalwarts such as The Furies and Fiddler's Green that you don't believe he made it up.

I've been working on completing The Sandman for six years, and reading the last pages was an event. I was astonished as I read The Kindly Ones and The Wake; The Kindly Ones was the last major arc for The Sandman, an epic spanning thirteen issues that took in the entirety of Gaiman's creation, referencing occurances throughout the series in such a way that I began to believe he'd had it planned all along, yet refused to believe it was possible to have such a clear vision of such grandeur from the start. It's breathtaking to read, to watch the pieces fall into place; the final issue, The Tempest, ends the series perfectly, in a manner only Gaiman would have been capable of. If you have the inclination, you should read The Sandman.

The only flaw in The Sandman is its inconsistent art, with artists changing constantly. But the story telling, on Gaiman's part, is a master class. He has a gift for scope, for making a number of loose threads, each in their own right mesmerizing enough, and then snapping them into one tapestry, and tapestry is the best word; in Gaiman's mind, there is always a bigger picture, and everything he does helps to add to it. He distracts us with individual strands, before suddenly pushing us back so we see what he's seen the whole time. Obviously, I am not the first person to sing Gaiman's praises; indeed, he is old news at this point. But, as I am just now starting to delve deeper into his catalogue, and I am continually awed and impressed with what I find, while still being entertained on a gutteral level, I would be remiss if I didn't try to send the rest of you his way.

Joe and I were discussing Gaiman a few weeks ago, after I finished reading American Gods. He commented that Gaiman seems to be losing potency as he gets older, that he's settling into becoming somewhat fatherly, writing childrens' books and not tackling projects with the same scope he used to. This may be true, and Joe has a point; Gods came out in 2001, and since then Gaiman has written Fragile Things, a collection of short stories, Anansi Boys, which is, from my understanding, a sweet, charming novel (It's on the To Read list), two pieces of Young Adult Fiction with Coraline and The Graveyard Book, and a number of childrens' books with various illustrators. So, he's not writing the epics he used to, but I can't really blame him. For one thing, he's writing some brilliant YA material, stuff I can't wait to give to my kid. For another, once you've written one of the best comic series ever published (possibly THE best comic series ever published) and one of the best fantasy novels ever published (probably the best fantasy novel that doesn't take place in a world drastically different from our own), well, where do you go? He mastered comics, and epic fantasy novels, and moved on. What's frightening is he seemed to master them both on the first go. I can't wait to see where he goes next.

1 comment:

Joe said...

So I was going to comment on this when you posted it, but really I couldn't think of anything to say other than that I disagreed with calling Gaiman one of the best living writers.

I enjoy him, but I haven't read anything by him that has stuck me as significant literature. I suppose Sandman is for Graphic Novels but I can't comment.

Mostly with Gaiman I get the feeling that he never chooses the most interesting avenues for his stories. It's like he chooses the road through town- seeing the people is nice but it hardly has the best scenery. Not bad, not predicatable, just not the best.