I stumbled into the novels (invariably identified with “for adults” by reviewers and critics) of Neil Gaiman in a way that, upon looking back, the intersection now seems inevitable, not stumbling at all.
Browsing as I often do along the center aisle of Barnes and Noble, over several visits I picked up American Gods, a hefty novel labeled by the publisher as the tenth anniversary edition. I have always tended to shun enormous novels, in part as a result of my teacher self recognizing how often students struggled with big books, but I also found myself both avoiding Gaiman’s most celebrated work and always taking it into my hands each time I saw it. In the way that books can, American Gods kept calling out to me (as the author’s preferred text did more recently).
The day I acquiesced to Gaiman the novelist (I had always known him as a comic book/graphic novel creator), I experienced a second disorientation: The publisher labels American Gods “science fiction.” Not long after slipping with glee into Gaiman’s other worlds, I had a similar experience with Haruki Murakami, whose 1Q84 is also marked “science fiction.”
Before Gaiman and Murakami, I counted myself among those dedicated to science fiction but stubbornly opposed to fantasy. No Hobbits for me! And Harry Potter? No way.
Gaiman represents my crisis of genre that would carry through into Murakami’s universe(s). I could not find a thing in American Gods I would call science fiction, but I also felt “fantasy” failed the work. The best I could ever do was think of Gaiman’s narrative as “contemporary mythology”—not Leda and the swan, but the gods right now in my time of existence.
Regardless, of course, all that mattered for me was that I loved Gaiman’s novels “for adults” and joined millions awaiting his most recent, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Gaiman’s Mythical Folding of Childhood into Adulthood
The best works of fiction reach into my chest, grab my heart, and squeeze until I cry because I love the characters in ways that I often fail to satisfy in this real world.
In Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven,” I experience that feeling every time I read it aloud to my students, and the central moment when I love eleven-year-old Rachel the deepest is also the most harrowing: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”
“Eleven” is a sad and wonderful narrative of school and childhood crashing into adulthood. And that story, especially that passage, lept to mind as I reached the middle of Gaiman’s Ocean:
Ursula Monkton smiled, and the lightnings wreathed and writhed about her. She was power incarnate, standing in the crackling air. She was the storm, she was the lightning, she was the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty….
Ursula Monkton was an adult. It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh. She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win. (pp. 86-87)
Gaiman’s slight of hand, his gift of contemporary mythology, achieves the sort of folding over into itself expressed by Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorian view of time:
The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the we way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another, like beads on a strong, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever. (p. 34)
Ocean explores many things, but for me, Gaiman folds childhood into adulthood with a craft and care that makes the short novel speak to the collective, and far too often closed, heart of being fully human.
Ursula Monkton as adulthood’s “foolish casual cruelty” chills me to the bone in the way that the insensitivity of the teacher in Cisneros’s story leaves me angry at adults.
The magic of Gaiman’s Ocean is the seamless alchemy of turning adulthood into childhood by creating a narrative in which an adult approaching middle age recalls (and narrates for the reader like an Ancient Mariner or Marlow’s journey into the heart of darkness or Harold Crick listening to his life as narration) his own childhood confrontation with adulthood.
Ocean is often adult as only a seven-year-old can express it: His father’s adultery signalled by his lifting Ursula’s skirt from behind is both essentially innocent and stunningly graphic: “I was not sure what I was looking at….He was hugging her from behind. Her midi skirt was hiked up around her waist” (p. 79).
There are many assorted terrors in this novel, ones that remain with me in a vividness unlike any terrors I have experienced in real life. But the most disturbing message Gaiman offers is about this real world.
Ursula Monkton is a twist on the Evil Stepmother or Wicked Witch archetype, and the Hempstock family—three females like generational Muses or fairies (Russian nesting dolls, of sorts, personified)—offer a triumphant message of the possibilities of kindness and other-world guardian angels.
While Gaiman doesn’t stoop to simplistic idealizing of females, men haunt the world of childhood throughout the novel—although I think more as the embodiment of a belittling human compulsion toward harshness aimed at children than any direct indictment of men (Ursula, the father, and the opal miner share the specter of “adulthood,” not gender).
Why, I am compelled to ask, are adults so angry and unforgiving with children, with childhood?
Like the teacher in “Eleven” and the adult world in Ocean, the assistant principal in Uncle Buck represents not only adult antagonism for children, for childhood, but how that drives the schooling of children:
While Cisneros’s math teacher’s insensitivity to Rachel, John Hughs’s warted assistant principal, and Gaiman’s Ursula Monkton speak as vivid creations of the imagination, the terrors of childhood remain quite real—and too often those terrors are connected with adults, and far too often those terrors are connected with schools.
When I set down Ocean after finishing this wonderful journey that reached into my chest, grabbed my heart, and squeezed until I cried because I love the characters in ways that I often fail to satisfy in this real world, I found myself thinking of the political, media, and public fascination with a very real-world Evil Stepmother, Wicked Witch, Assistant Principal Anita Hogarth:
No child asks to be brought into this world, and there remains no excuse for adults looming in quick and relentless judgment and anger over children.
Why must a child look to the other world for a hand held in unwavering kindness? Shouldn’t the very real home, parents, and schools where children also never choose to be offer always a hand gesturing comfort and safety?
Gaiman knows the answer and offers Lettie, an eternal eleven-year-old embodying the kindness of strangers:
I said, “I’m sorry I let go of your hand, Lettie.”
“Oh, hush,” she said. “It’s always too late for sorries, but I appreciate the sentiment. And next time, you’ll keep hold of my hand no matter what she throws at us.”
I nodded. The ice chip in my heart seemed to warm then, and melt, and I began to feel whole and safe once more. (p. 103)
Thank you, Neil Gaiman, for bringing Lettie to my world because I now love her as I do eleven-year-old Rachel and Uncle Buck. As I love childhood as the one true thing we must cling to as humans:
children guessed(but only a few/and down they forgot as up they grew
Here’s to never forgetting that we all are children—and, thus, they are all out children.