Monday, May 18, 2015

Teetering on the Edge of Reality- The Novel Worlds of Neil Gaiman

Author Neil Gaiman, courtesy of
The New Yorker

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds... Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”

It is hard to describe English author, Neil Gaiman. He knew he would be an author when he was a child; he fanboys over Ray Bradbury; he is a beekeeper.  He is also is an award winning author (I lost count after 75) and has had several books conquer the bestseller list.  Gaiman cannot be pigeonholed into a single genre; he has written fantasy (Stardust), comedy (Good Omens, with late author, Terry Pratchett), graphic novels, collections of short stories (Trigger Warnings is his newest book, published February 2015), children's books (some of the books lovingly referred to as "Kid Goth"), screenplays, music, general fiction... you get the idea. He has become an almost cult-like figure in the literary world; fans wait for hours, in any weather conditions to meet Gaiman, who will sign autographs and chat with fans for hours on end; his books are wildly and highly anticipated; and he makes an effort to reach out to his audience through social media, book talks, and countless interviews. He has become a major champion of libraries, leading the crusade to stress importance of libraries to our society. He loves the arts and encourages people to explore their creative side; he is not afraid to discuss and embrace his own failures. He has become the poster boy for weird. And it is magnificent.

The thought above, taken from Gaiman's comic book series The Sandman, encapsulates the overall
Courtesy of
thread that pervades all of his works . His books, his comics, his screenplays, all of them revealing the secret worlds of Gaiman, worlds that teeter on the edge of reality and blur the lines between what is real and what is purely in our imagination. There is rarely a full blown mythical fantasy land in Gaiman's works. Yet, Gaiman writes of worlds that a reader can easily relate to. These are worlds that we live in day to day, but somehow, are twisted. People have magic, places are blurred between the here and other dimensions, animals are not what they seem, the dead are more alive than we think. Gaiman's classic style is to lull the reader into a sense of normalcy and then... the big reveal: things are not what they seem. Gaiman has the gift of making the seemingly ordinary- whether it be places, people, or things- become eerily otherworldly. This was perhaps best demonstrated in 2001's American Gods, which won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for Science Fiction. However, American Gods is not like any science fiction that you have ever read. In a nutshell, American Gods is a story about a recently released inmate, who continues to get slapped by life even after he gets out of prison. Shadow, the former inmate, stumbles into a conflict that has been raging for centuries on the borderline of reality. Surrounded by gods of old and new, Shadow (and the reader!) will wade through thousands of years of egos, battles, and the ultimate struggle to stay relevant. American Gods is arguably Gaiman's best novels. The research on mythology is intense and well-done; readers will be constantly Googling who is who (his sneaky way of making readers learn!). As with all his work, the prose is excellent; Gaiman truly has mastered the balance between dialogue (witty, subtle, and colorful) and description (thorough, elegant, and sparse.) American Gods was and is an instant classic. It's thought provoking premise is timeless and will make the reader reflect on modern society and the things we tend to leave behind in the name of progress.

Gaiman's children's books are also beautifully crafted and equally thought-provoking (even for an adult reader.) Winner of British Carnegie Medal and the American Newbery Medal for children's literature, The Graveyard Book is about an orphan who is raised by spirits that live in a nearby cemetery. Their powers keep him safe. Yet, there are forces at hand which are working
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against them, working to try to lure Nobody Owens out of his 'home' to attack him and finish the job that started with his murdered parents.  Coupled with stark illustrations that reminiscent of graphic novels, The Graveyard Book is children's storytelling in its best form.  It harks back to the Grimm's Fairy Tales, with darkish story lines; yet, Gaiman manages to keep the actions, dialogue and characters light, developing a sense of family and love in the cemetery and humor in the strange situation.  There is still action, which keeps the story going.  It is written beautifully, with the descriptions being succinct and the dialogue witty and filled with the heightened vocabulary readers have come to expect from Gaiman.

No matter your favorite genre, you cannot deny the exemplary vocabulary and prose that permeates Gaiman's work.  One of the best parts about reading his stories is that you are guaranteed to learn a word you did not previously know.  Gaiman makes writing seem easy.  The flow of the diction in his stories is lyrical and spell-binding.  Throughout all of his novels, comics, short stories, screenplays, etc., there is a sense of consistency.  One knows that when reading Gaiman, you are guaranteed a story that will be sharp witted, tight, informative descriptions, and excellent dialogue.  I have never read a Gaiman work that wandered or seemed lost in thought.  Every word he writes has a purpose and plays a part in the overall scheme of the story.  Whether the ending leaves you hanging or not, Gaiman's intended ending is always achieved.  If you are still thinking about the story days after you finished it, then the goal was achieved.

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What exactly does Gaiman mean to the literary world?  For starters, he is just the hero the book world needs.  He embraces change: this is evident in the dabbling in different genres, different audiences, different media, and embracing the social media world as a way to connect with his readers.  However, Gaiman also embodies what the book world also holds dear: a good story that will take you away from your world and into his.  He continues to write intoxicating books that transport readers into worlds of magic, morals, and the never ending fight between good and evil.  There is always a strange sense of justice in his stories- there is never a character who meets a fate that either the universe bestowed them with from their actions or a fate that they themselves purposely created. Gaiman believes in the power of words.  For evidence of this, you need not look any further than his own books.  Words are power, destiny, and a form of magic that a reader can make be whatever they want or need them to be.  This, in the end, is Gaiman's world: a world where words are power and can impact you in more ways than you know.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Art of a First Novel

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Literary critics are always looking for the next big novel; they're looking for the next Scarlet Letter, the next Great Expectations, the next To Kill a Mockingbird, even the next Harry Potter series.  Yet, it appears that critics are missing the point of literature.  They look for the weird factor, the shock factor in your face, the factor that makes a novel seem edgy and hip.  However, edgy is not always what a novel needs.  A classic is supposed to capture the feeling of the moment, to reveal to an audience a timeless concept, to resemble life and human error and triumph.  A masterpiece novel is supposed to make you think, to make you feel, to stay with you long after you have put the book down.  A reader will learn something without even realizing it; you will be slightly uncomfortable, but the pull of finishing the story is too great to ignore.  The Art of Fielding (2011) will make you slightly uncomfortable; but, in the end, it will make you think, it will make you feel, and you will not be able to put it down.  Rarely has a novel seemed so contrived, yet so beautiful.  It is difficult to classify The Art of Fielding into a genre; it mixes romance, drama, and baseball, which is the default Americana coming of age formula.  However, American author Chad Harbach manages to take this overdone motif and make it into something more.

The Art of Fielding, simply, is a story of self-discovery.  The main, twisted archetype is of self-discovery and the pains of trying to imagine yourself on a different life path.  The novel starts off with the audience meeting Henry Skirmshander, a poor, country kid who has an incredible talent for playing shortstop. He is recruited by (sheer luck) by Westish College's baseball captain, Mike Schwartz.  The Westish Harpooners flourish under Schwartz's lead and Skrimshander's brilliance.  The novel's main thread is about the, at times, parasitic, relationship between the two men.  Harbach does a wonderful job at contrasting the love and hate between the two; the reader can feel the adoring animosity between the two, the warring emotions of self-absorption and helping your friends.  Yet, just like in life, the story is not driven by the two alone.  Other characters come along, and their trials and triumphs are deeply intertwined with Henry and Mike, creating several threads of stories that weave into the culmination at the end.  The variety of characters, an estranged daughter, a lonely and conflicted college president, a confident lover, all collide on a path started by a single action of Henry's that changes all of theirs lives, good and bad.

The novel is written in a style that could be considered a near homage to baseball.  Baseball becomes another character in the novel, one that is lived for, revered, despised, and most of all, surviving.  The descriptions in the novel are sparsely written... unless its about the baseball games.  Then Harbach writes intricate, descriptive narratives about baseball, whether it be the practices or the games. Despite having the novel revolve around college baseball (something that most people do not experience intimately), Harbach manages to convey a story that is full of realistic human emotion and conflict.  Readers can easily relate to the characters; we have all been in a place of self-doubt, rebirth, rock bottom, and the hard journey to get back on your feet. Harbach propels the novel with realistic dialogue and mosaic character reflections.  His prose is elegant, but not highbrow. There is never a time where the reader is not learning something new about a character. This constant stream of revelations is at times overwhelming.  Yet, this in itself is reflective of life.  You cannot put life on hold because it is overwhelming; one must roll with the punches, just like the characters learn to do.
Author Chad Harbach

There was a lot of controversy from literary circles concerning this novel.  Some felt it had been too played up and received too much acclaim, that the accolades only stemmed from the fact that Harbach is a co-founder and editor of the literary magazine n+1.  Many criticized the perceived 'pointless' interactions between characters, saying they were not helpful to the plot and came off as almost purple prose-ish.  However, I do not buy into these arguments.  Many of the critical reviews harped on the fact that Harbach is a part of an elite literary circle, a fact that for some reason discredited him as an author to people.  Who he is as a person and an editor should not take away from this FANTASTIC novel.  It has all the elements of a classic: the emotions, the timeless struggle to be great, the sense of despondency and then triumph. Although perhaps not a masterpiece, The Art of Fielding should definitely be considered a great for this generation.  Harbach perfectly captured the sense of panic in college (and life) and worry of the future in all his characters, themes that definitely resonate with today's readers.  For a debut novel, The Art of Fielding is beautiful, haunting, and entertaining.    It is simply a story. The Art of Fielding, although revolving around baseball, is really all about living and how people have to make the choice to either embrace life and roll with it or be eaten alive by anxiety, pressure, and life itself.  And isn't that the story of life?