Thursday, February 26, 2015

Blackstone FSF: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Good, quick meeting on Neil Gaiman's "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" with the Blackstone Library's Fantasy & Science Fiction club on Monday. Some new (to me faces) at group, including occasional group-attender and author Shane Holbach, who actually is sharing a table of contents with Gaiman (and a slew of other fantastic authors) in a YA Speculative Fiction Anthology from Twelfth Planet.

For a surprising number of folks at the table, this was their first time with Gaiman, which is kind of interesting. "Ocean" is really good, lyrical, but it's an unusual starting place: not the tour de force of "American Gods" (2001), not a "Now A Feature Film!" like "Coraline" (2002) or "Stardust" (1999); at least in the circles I run in, the "Sandman" comics (1989-1996) are almost universally the entry-point.

I really, really like Gaiman's work at shorter lengths--"Smoke & Mirrors" (1998) and "Fragile Things" (2006) are highly recommended, and his latest collection, "Trigger Warning", just hit shelves. Additionally, his children's/YA-ish lit game is very strong, whether that's dark fairy-tales like "Coraline" (illustrated by Dave McKean) or playful illustrated works like "Fortunately, The Milk" (2013, ill. Skottie Young). "The Ocean at the End of the Lane", while not necessarily for younger readers, is told primarily from a child's perspective, has a sort of childish straight-forward prose style, and is quite short--close to the novella range, really--thus combining some of Gaiman's strengths. Indeed, despite the child's perspective, I think this is one of the most mature and measured I've seen Gaiman--there is a big dose of autobiographical material here, and the fantastic, alternating terrifying/comforting world of the child's story resonates very nicely with the larger framing narrative, the grown man remembering with some amount of melancholy.

The group had lots of praise for the style of the book, calling it a "prose poem" and noting how it's both "utter simplicity, but tremendously atmospheric".

One of the more spot-on comparison was to Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" (1962)--though very different in scope ("Wrinkle" is theo/philosophical space opera, essentially, while "Ocean" revolves around a relatively discrete, small-scale monster story) there are some interesting parallels in tone, in the child's perspective on large, fantastic, terrifying/wonderful things. I need to revisit L'Engle sometime--keeps coming up in discussions of both YA and SF/F with Christian themes.

One idea that kept coming up at group was that, not only is this "not a children's book" (which I'm okay with), but that reading this would cause a kid to "need therapy". In this specific instance, I'm assuming that's fairly hyperbolic (there's some sex, some body-horror here, but it's pretty low on the overall traumatizing literature scale). But the idea kept coming up in various formulations, and it's one I have...opinions about--the general notion that children will somehow be damaged by exposure to violence and sex in media. Indeed, it goes beyond violence and sex, to include mortality and bodies generally as somehow "dangerous" for young humans to be exposed to. It's a really strange, tangled, but generally-accepted theory, one that's not completely without merit, but one that has so many bad assumptions in it that it always sticks for me--even more so since reading Shulamith Firestone on the construction/myth of childhood in "The Dialectic of Sex" (1970).

(Cherryh makes some almost off-hand comments about the social construction of childhood in "40,000 in Gehenna", a work which I've written about in conjunction with Firestone; we didn't get much into children specifically but did talk about social construction at the Think Galactic meeting on "Gehenna". Also see some of the YA digressions in the notes from Think Galactic's "Wizard of Earthsea" discussion.)

Steve brought up the most moral-like part of the book, when our narrator steadfastly refuses to leave the fairy circle despite the temptations and threats he's faced with. It's on the one hand an important stage for children--being able to follow through on instructions, particularly ones involving patience and being still--and on the other a very classic mythical archetype: the injunction not to perform a specific action. Of course, many of those stories end tragically because the character's can't keep to the prohibition--Lot's wife, Pandora & her box (aka "The Girl with All the Gifts"), Orpheus (particular Gaiman resonance, there) walking out of Hades, whereas here in Gaiman his character actually does the smart thing. Sandy brought up the "marshmallow experiments" and the importance of self-control and delayed gratification. Steve also brought up the idea of "getting what you want" too easily as a moral element--it's a major element in the main villain--and likened it to the "What do you want?" question in Babylon 5 (where it is the sort of corrupting foot-in-the-door question of the Shadows and their agents).

An odd note in "Ocean" is how black-and-white it is--bad is clearly bad, good is clearly good. Indeed, my favorite moment is not when our character stays in the ring, but rather when he goes against the Hempstock's advice and tries to sacrifice himself to save the world--it's one of the only cases where he shows his own agency. I'm not critiquing the book, let me be clear--but Gaiman is elsewhere notable for his ambiguity & complexity, eschewing simple moral binaries in his characters. Here, however, the moral scheme is straight-up given to us: we don't have to judge that the Hempstocks are good and trustworthy, it's just presented as a fact.

The ambiguity/slipperiness of the tale is all in the unreliable narrator, who is partially remembering a childhood story that involves agents who can alter both time and memory--a fair amount of slipperiness, there! Indeed the adjective used at group in trying to explain how the ending might have really worked was "timey wimey" (incidentally, another Gaiman connection there).

We also talked for a bit about the Tolkien-like nostalgia for a pastoral Britain. It's nice to read about, and has its points, but I also try to keep its Luddite/invented/selective nature in my mind a bit.

All in all, a really great, strongly recommended book, like pretty much everything else Gaiman's done.

Next month's selection is also Neil Gaiman, and also Terry Pratchett, with their apocalyptic comedy--or comedic apocalypse--"Good Omens" (discussed by Chi-SF back at Windycon, incidentally). April's book will be the imposingly large "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss.

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