As stated earlier, I’m reading stories by Neil Gaiman this month. I chose a collection of short stories, poems, and non-classified odds and ends to kick this off.
But first things first: I became aware of Neil Gaiman’s writing by accident. I sometimes grab a random book at the newsstand in the airport before boarding a flight. My first pick as I boarded a plane for my first year of college happened to by Good Omens. I actually picked it up because Terry Pratchett’s name was also on the cover. Pratchett and Gaiman coauthored that novel. I had read Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters for a high school reading competition two years prior, and was hooked by the wit and hilarity present in his writing. After reading Good Omens, I made a mental note to check out some of Gaiman’s novels, but I promptly forgot amid the whirlwind of settling into college life in an unfamiliar country.
Several years later, I was back in the United States, with a different major at a different school, and I came across Neil Gaiman’s books again. I had a literature class in which the professor taught Coraline as part of the curriculum. (The class was called Literary Pirates, and examined adaptation in literature. Since Coraline is a book adapted to film, it was included.) I remembered how much I loved Good Omens, and I enjoyed Coraline, so I got a copy of Neverwhere (Gaiman’s first novel, according to the blurb) and I was not disappointed. So here I am now, reading all of his books, and sharing the highlights–hopefully without spoilers–as I go through them. I’ve already read three of the collected comics in the Sandman series. It’s an excellent graphic novel series. Although I won’t be touching on it this month, I highly recommend it.
I chose to start with Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders because it is an aptly titled collection, with both the title and content summing up the character of Gaiman’s writing. Each work in the collection is a delicate construction of the imagination from an author who frequently dreams up the fantastic and improbable. No one is better at suspending disbelief when it comes to storytelling. Even in the shorter of the stories, I found myself completely wrapped up in the world presented, often well before the end. I’ll share my impressions of a few of my favorites from the collection, although it will be hard to pick which ones to discuss.
“A Study in Emerald” is the first story, and won Gaiman a Hugo Award, both for good reason. It serves as the perfect introduction to the bizarre and intriguing tales found in the rest of the collection. I would liken reading this story to entering a house you once lived in, many years later, that the new occupants had completely redecorated in a manner you never imagined. You still recognize the shape of the room, and its location in the house–that has not been changed–but the arrangement of the furniture and the color of the walls is unexpected and slightly off-putting to your memories of how it was. Did I mention that it is a mash up of H. P. Lovecraft’s and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most iconic stories? The pieces are vaguely familiar, yet the resulting story is something wholly new.
“The Mapmaker” is actually buried in the Introduction, like a little jewel of fiction to break up the monotony of the stream of facts. It is a nice little story, with a great ending, and the explanation of its creation which precedes the story itself is quite interesting on its own.
“Harlequin Valentine” was a surprising story for me. The end was very clever and fitting for the subject. I do not think it could end another way, but I had no idea how it would end until the moment came. I think I learned more about commedia dell’arte from this one story than from anything else I’ve heard about it, which is not much, honestly. The events in this story actually inspired me to write a story. Mine will have a similar shape, but different subject matter.
“Sunbird” was a wonderful, whimsical retelling of the Phoenix (Sunbird) myth. This was one of the few stories where I could see the end coming before I was there, and found I was right in my guess, but I was not disappointed in the least. Sometimes a story can be satisfying when you can figure it out before the end. Take any Sherlock Holmes story, for example. Half the fun is trying to reason it out along with the great sleuth. It is the journey, not the conclusion, that is the best part. This was also one of the longer ones in the collection, but it had to be to work properly.
“Inventing Aladdin” is the only poem in my top five, but that was a tough choice. I enjoyed all of the poems, probably because I am a poet. The rhythm is musical, and the treatment of the subject matter–The 1001 Nights–is dead on to the feeling of the book which inspired the poem. There is just the right mix of invention and the exasperation of the inventor at the necessity of creating stories as a very real and difficult means of survival. The gist of the overarching theme of The 1001 Nights is beautifully re-imagined and rendered here.
That sums it up. I enjoyed most of the stories immensely. I love the whole collection and highly recommend it to anyone who likes the fantastic nestled up close to seemingly commonplace reality. Two more things worth mentioning before I finish: The Introduction is basically a list of blurbs explaining the origins of each story and poem, provided by the author. They are not apologies, they are appendices, or footnotes on the inspiration, and they can be just as funny or surprising as the stories they describe. Also, I did not read the last story in the collection, which is easily the longest, not because of the length, but because it is the continuing story of one of the characters from another Neil Gaiman novel, which I have not yet read.
I hope everyone who picks up this collection enjoys it as much as I did, or more. Happy reading in the New Year!