At A Pilgrim in Narnia, we have an occasional feature called “Throwback Thursday.” By raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s, I find an article or review from the past and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.
Since Tuesday’s post was about Neil Gaiman, I thought that for today’s Throwback Thursday I would return to my first review of one of his works. I still remember the feeling of listening to The Graveyard Book on CD during a family trip and thinking, “I could have thought of this, and I have had thoughts like this, but Gaiman got there first. And I could have done it … but could I have done it so well?” In one of those soul-searching inspirations, I wrote this original, somewhat saucy, and marginally bitter review. I think it still works–though it seems to me that moralistic tale-telling is on the rise again seven years later.
I continue to read and think about Neil Gaiman’s work. Last week, I published another somewhat saucy-but-thoughtful article on the Marvel Comics adaptation of The Screwtape Letters, and followed it up with Neil Gaiman’s preface to that work–a set of literary finds that will be new to many. I’ve written a short piece on Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett on friendship, linking an early life-discovery by C.S. Lewis. And I have posted the blog post, “Neil Gaiman on Discovering the Author in Narnia (and a note on beards),” which I still quite like. I still have not read the full Sandman graphic novel, and I still eagerly await whatever this mad genius has for us next–another book from the author who, in American Gods, has penned what I believe to be the most important non-horror American fantasy novel. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this review from the vault!
Neil Gaiman is a jerk.
Well, I don’t really mean that. But honestly, how many beautiful ideas is a guy allowed to have in a lifetime? There’s Coroline and American Gods, not to mention an incredible array of short stories, and practically inventing a genre of literature with Sandman. And now I’ve heard that his recent The Ocean at the End of the Lane was voted best book in the universe or something. I mean, seriously?
All deep-rooted bitterness aside, The Graveyard Book—you may remember I’m writing a review here—The Graveyard Book is based on a pretty elegant premise. An orphaned toddler wanders into a graveyard, and it is up to the dead people who live there to raise him. Brilliant.
The Mowgli character in this liminal fantasy is “Nobody Owens,” raised by the disembodied spirits of various centuries under the protection of the graveyard. Needless to say, his education is eclectic. Because of his unique neighbourhood, he is able to speak the English of a hundred generation and has a very particular and narrow understanding of history. He learns to read English and Latin from the epitaphs on tombstones, but he also learns the particularly ghastly gifts of fading from view, dreamwalking, and haunting. It is a very clever book, able to draw in our cultural imagination of graveyards into a single bittersweet tale.
This is one of those great books that can work at various “layers.” I know, I know. Books that are tinged with meaning, moral, or symbolism are terribly unfashionable right now. But The Graveyard Book does what good books should. I am always looking for a story that will capture the sense of alienation and loneliness I had when I was child. What could be better than a boy named “Nobody” who is practically invisible to humans and lives in a place that doesn’t exist? Moreover, parents reading this book are going to be left with the haunting feeling—see what I did there?—that they are in some danger of over-protecting their children.
These morals emerge naturally from the narrative; none of them are forced. Critics of layered stories are missing the point, I think. Anyone reading Harry Potter would be a dangerously narrow reader if they didn’t see the social implications. Yet they read because the Harry Potter books are good literature that are great fun to read. The Graveyard Book is exactly that type of book, on a much smaller scale.
I’m not surprised it’s good. As soon as I heard the premise I knew that it would be. It is not a perfectly shaped book. Gaiman is a short story writer at his best, so the book is episodic, filled with flashes of Nobody’s life as he grows. They are great episodes, but, at times, the plotline is really going nowhere. Nobody’s life has a particular direction, as readers slowly come to understand. Some of that sense of destiny is lost in the triptych style of storytelling, so a little bit of the payoff for the climax is missing too. It is not only the retelling of Kipling’s classic, nor is it simply an orphan tale. It is a messianic story, laced with prophecy that crosses many millennia and a few dimensions. I think that this particular element fades too much to the background as the story continues.
But these are granular criticisms within a heap of praise. My real complaint is that Neil Gaiman is a jerk. And greedy too. The Graveyard Book won not only the Newbery Medal, but it also won the Carnegie Medal (a first double win, I believe). If that wasn’t enough, Gaiman took home the Hugo and Locus awards. How are other writer’s supposed to build a career when this guy is sitting down to a computer with his elegant premises, whimsical hair, and friendships with amazing illustrators (in this case, Dave McKean)?
Anyway, readers may note a touch of bitterness. I would hate for my grave feelings about Gaiman at the moment to overshadow what is a very great book. But don’t buy it. That will just help his cause. Read it in the aisle at the bookstore or over someone’s shoulder on the bus. If you can make yourself invisible like Nobody, no one will find that creepy at all.