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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Fragile egos


I've recently finished Neil Gaiman's latest anthology, FRAGILE THINGS. With one exception, I like the material in it well enough. (That one exception is unconscionably vile and fills me with sputtering, incoherent rage whenever I let my mind dwell on it for so much as an instant, but never mind, we'll get to that later.)

Still, while I like Gaiman's writing fine (for the most part) there's something about Gaiman himself, the man behind the prose, that irks me enormously. Or, at least, there's something about the way he presents himself in the lengthy introduction to this book, where he talks at length about all of the stories in it -- how he came to write them, what they mean to him, etc.

I can't quite put my finger on exactly what it is about Gaiman's self presentation in this introduction that annoys me so much, so while I'm thinking about that further, let me talk about some of my own short stories, and how they were written, and what they mean to me --

WITH A REBEL YELL, SHE CRIED 'MOE, MOE, MOE' -- Award winning writer and editor, and my closest closest friend for 30 years, Brian Aldiss, called me up out of the blue one fine Sunday a few years ago and said he was editing an anthology of stories in which the idea was to take famous pop culture figures and immerse them in some sort of equally famous, but utterly incongruous, fantasy settings. I wracked my brains and couldn't come up with a thing, until I was sitting up late one night in Wayne Knight's ski lodge at Aspen with my golden retriever Thoth-Crinagoras (in part named after one of my favorite classic Greek poets, Crinagoras of Mytilene, whose brilliance is easy to overlook if you've only ever read his work in English translation, which, of course, most of you only ever have, so I can understand if you disagree with me here, although you're wrong) and the phone jangled and it was my good good friend Jerry Bruckheimer calling for me. Jerry wanted to talk to me about directing my own screenplay adaptation of my best selling and award winning novel BUDDHA WAS A HINDU, AND A VERY GOOD ONE, TOO, and I was pitching this idea that had just come to me for a sequence where Abraham Lincoln would fall ill just before giving the Gettysburg Address and Buddha would have to put on a disguise to take his place, and there was a Three Stooges movie on the telly, and it all just jelled in my head. I typed the story up in fourteen minutes flat while Kylie Minogue knelt on the floor beneath my typing desk praising my evocative prose style in her sweet, breathy, husky neo-brogue. Intermittently.

And of course, that story won the Hugula Award for Best Science Fiction Fantasy Written While Being Serviced By A Semi-Obscure Australian Starlet for 2004.

Hmmmm. Okay, I'm thinking, and I'm thinking, and I still can't figure out what it is about Gaiman's short story introductions that I find so aggravating. Something in his tone... I can't quite pin it down. Well, fine, let's just talk about the stories, then.

A STUDY IN EMERALD is one of the coolest short stories I've ever read, no lie. If you're a Sherlock Holmes fan, or a follower of Lovecraft's Elder Deities mythos, you'll enjoy this story, and if you're an admirer of both fictional worlds, you'll just adore it. The ending comes as a real surprise, too, and, unlike most surprise endings, this is a very pleasant one.

THE FAIRY REEL - poem. ::shrug:: I don't read these things for poems. Sorry.

OCTOBER IN THE CHAIR - Nicely told, for what it is, which is, in the end, pretty pointless and anti-climactic rubbish.

THE HIDDEN CHAMBER - poem. Yawn.

FORBIDDEN BRIDES OF THE FACELESS SLAVES etc etc etc - Interesting. Nowhere near as funny as Gaiman thinks it is, though... pretty much endless, not particularly novel, and not very humorous, variations on the same tired schtick from start to finish. Fun to watch him play with the language, though. It nearly always is.

THE FLINTS OF MEMORY LANE - Um... boring?

CLOSING TIME - Um... weird. Interesting. I'm not sure the ending Gaiman puts on it can possibly work within the context of the story, however badly he wants it to.

GOING WODWO - I'm just not going to mention the poems any more.

BITTER GROUNDS - Very readable. Nonetheless, this is one of those stories that, along with several of Gaiman's SANDMAN arcs, really makes me think that what Gaiman wants to be, more than anything else, is one of those authors like James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon, that nobody can even remotely begin to understand ten consecutive words they've written, but everyone pretends they can and it's all quite brilliant, because they're afraid they'll be thought stupid otherwise. Gaiman's prose style is as lucid as ever, but you get to the end of this particular story and you haven't got more than a vague idea what the hell has happened, or how it ended, really, but it's all been presented in a way that's supposed to make you think you're the one who has the problem. Me, I read a piece of fiction I don't understand, I tend to blame the writer; communication is a writer's JOB. But I'm often surly; I admit it frankly.

OTHER PEOPLE - Gaiman seems to be of the opinion that this is some brilliant little self contained story thing like Fredric Brown might write. I think, um, well, the ending is entirely predictable from the form, and, as a bonus, makes no sense. I mean, sure, the guy shows up in Hell and there's this horrible demon who is going to torture him for all eternity and, after a while, the demon vanishes and he looks in the mirror and discovers that HE has become the demon, and then, the door opens and the original guy walks in again, but... sure, okay, so he gets tortured for eons and turns into his own torturer, and now he's been sent back in time to the start of the sequence and he's going to torture his original self for eons again, but then... when his original self turns into him again... where does 'he' go? Does he go back and start again as the original person, or... No. It doesn't make any sense. Sorry.

KEEPSAKES AND TREASURES - I liked this story quite a bit. You pity the main character, and loathe him, all at the same time. And the central narrative itself is interesting, too. It's kind of like SANDMAN meets, I don't know, LAYER CAKE.

GOOD BOYS DESERVE FAVORS seems rather pointless.

THE FACTS IN THE DEPARTURE OF MISS FINCH is... well... fun to read, I guess, but anyone who is surprised by anything that happens at any point in the story hasn't read much Gaiman, or fantasy in general, prior to this. But it does give Gaiman a chance to go one some more about how important a writer he is and how much in demand his work is, in Hollywood, and, you know, throughout the world, a bit at the start, so that's all right.

STRANGE LITTLE GIRLS - Well, it's all well written, and it accomplishes the task of letting Gaiman tell us just how wonderfully close his friendship with some pop star is, but, again, while it's all very evocative and wonderful, I prefer an actual story.

HARLEQUIN VALENTINE - It... I... um... I don't know what to say about this one. The reversal in the middle seems forced, and honestly, the story just doesn't work for me very well. But this may be a case where the flaw really is in me. Gaiman seems to like these stories where characters abruptly shift identities right in the middle, and the rest of the world shifts right along with them without ever noticing that things have ever been different, as if all of life is just a dream, and there is no objective reality. I understand that's an interesting basis for some good (as well as some spectacularly bad) fiction, but I've never been fond of the notion. I'm an objective truth kind of guy.

Also, as a writer and a reader, I'm very wary of undefined characters with strange, dreamlike powers that can do whatever the plot requires at any given moment, but who can somehow never seem to do anything that would be inconvenient to the writer, ever, under any circumstances at al. Gaiman is very fond of these characters, and it's a flaw and a weakness and he should give it up but he won't. He's much better at writing stories about these kind of characters than, say, Chris Claremont is, but that's because Chris Claremont writes like a man who is getting hit on the head with a hammer over and over again while trapped in an aquarium that is slowly filling with overused motor oil, and Gaiman writes like a very talented, if unfortunately somewhat lazy, writer.

THE PROBLEM OF SUSAN -- If you love THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA even a tiny little bit, even the merest fraction of how much I love THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, then you mustn't read this story, because if you do, you will want to find Neil Gaiman and trap him in an aquarium slowly filling with overused motor oil while hitting him over the head again and again and again with a large hammer. Or, better, a small hammer; one just large enough to hurt quite a lot without actually knocking him unconscious or killing him. That way he stays alive in constant pain until the distilled petroleum product slowly fills his lungs and he drowns horribly with much the same smell in his nostrils and taste in his throat as dinosaurs floundering down into tar pits did, and for writing this piece of vile and abominable insect shit he deserves to, too. I have never really understood, on an emotional level, the concept of 'blasphemy' until I read this story, and now, I can also understand the Spanish Inquisition, and not the one with the comfy chair, either.

HOW DO YOU THINK IT FEELS? is an oddly satisfying little story where everything fits together very well. You can't really feel sorry for the narrator, who is actually quite an appalling fellow, or his paramour, who isn't much better.

MY LIFE is much, much funnier than that whole FORBIDDEN BRIDES mess.

FIFTEEN PAINTED CARDS FROM A VAMPIRE TAROT is every bit as pretentious and, you know, trying SOOOOOO hard to impress Goth chicks, dude, as it sounds, but, I admit, much more fun to read than I expected, for all of that. Still, I like a story to have a story in it, if you know what I mean.

FEEDERS AND EATERS is a genuine horror story. Not some nasty, brutal, witless Clive Barker thing that isn't about anything except a grisly central image, but a genuine horror story, like people used to write, when other people actually bought horror.

DISEASEMAKER'S CROUP and IN THE END both exasperated me, but sometimes I'm a bit dull.

GOLIATH is, actually, a very cool story, if, ultimately, an entirely depressing one. It's sad when someone actually finds out the objective truth, and the objective truth sucks pretty hard.

PAGES FROM A JOURNAL etc etc etc is... um... well... there's not much to it. I found it disappointing. But I'm like that, really.

HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES is one of those maddening stories where something extremely cool and important happens and the narrator of the story didn't see it and can only hint at whatever it is and the author never gives you any more information than that and it's just fucking AGGRAVATING. Because without the really cool thing that probably even the author doesn't really know anything about, the whole thing is just this lengthy description of an interesting party where nothing much goes on.

Still, as a wannabe myself, it's nice to know that you can get away with shit like this, once you're famous enough.

THE DAY THE SAUCERS CAME is a poem I'll mention, because I really enjoyed it.

SUNBIRD is very interesting, but, again, if you can't figure out how it ends a hundred words into it, you're just not trying very hard.

THE MONARCH OF THE GLEN is a novella featuring Shadow from AMERICAN GODS. I was very disappointed in AMERICAN GODS, and I guess I like this novella a little bit better, but Shadow is still kind of a whiney jerk.

I should note that for all my bitching above, I very much enjoyed reading this anthology while I was reading it. I found many of the stories in it ultimately disappointing, but Gaiman is always fun to read, and, well, I read for pleasure, so, there you are.

I just expect better from Gaiman, because, well, he's capable of it, and when he's just dicking around pointlessly as he does for most of this volume, it's always a disappointment, and, pretty much, a waste of talent.

And he seems rather full of himself. A toady would rush in at this moment to say, well, if anyone deserves to be full of himself, it's Neil Gaiman, but in all honesty, that just doesn't work for me. Hubris is always ugly, and arrogance is never merited. I'm sure it's very nice to be Neil Gaiman, so sure, in fact, that I don't need to have him tell me, over and over and over again.

Addendum: I meant to mention this the whole time I was writing the above entry, and then I got to the end and the kids were clamoring to get on the computer and I had to get ready for work and I just hit PUBLISH POST and forgot about it -- "With a rebel yell, she cried Moe! Moe! Moe!" is the brilliant work of the brilliant Mike Norton; I saw it on his HC Realms profile right before I wrote this thing and laughed uproariously at it (he has a picture of Moe Howard, and under it, in italics, that particular legend) and it was indelibly imprinted on my brain at the time I was typing this thing, and I really really did mean to credit Mr. Norton, and then I didn't, and I'm very very sorry.

8 Comments:

At 11:50 AM , Anonymous Always_Esteemed_Scott said...

And he seems rather full of himself.

Bingo.
My biggest problem with AMERICAN GODS (and I think I may have mentioned this to you way back) is how Gaiman obviously thinks he's being very clever in (for example) naming his "mysterious" guy with an eye patch "Mr. Wednesday". Like no one reading a book called AMERICAN GODS is going to immediately say "hey, Odin. When's Thor going to show up?".
There's a smug quality ("I'm Neil Gaiman and you're not!) to his writing that grates on my nerves from time to time.

He's a fabulous writer, but not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

 
At 4:47 PM , Blogger AaA said...

You like Gaiman more than me. Then again, I only ever read one of his fantasies, something about an English hill with some sort of connection to a fantasy reality/Other Side-Unseelie Court deal. It wasn't memorable, and I'm not sure I even finished it.

So, basically, I'm willing to accept what you said, especially the part about him wanting to be one of Those Authors that everyone claims to love and noone actually understands, at face value.

 
At 5:10 PM , Blogger MJ Norton said...

Almost completely off base, but I haven't read this collection and so can't comment on that. I haven't read any of his prose in several years.

For a moment - the perils of high-speed skimming -- I was disappointed that someone seeing the avatar and text below it that I've been using on HCRealms, playing out a punning turn on Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell" - might think that I lifted this from Gaiman. It's a song I never really cared for but one couldn't get out of the mid-80s without hearing a hundred times or more. The substitution had come to mind almost immediately as his "more! more! more!" was slurred as "Moe! Moe! Moe!" Flash forward 23 years and I finally used it.

I've always enjoyed Gaiman's short fiction more than his long, so I may check the library for this sometime.

 
At 12:23 AM , Blogger The Bunnyman said...

Scott,

My biggest problem with AMERICAN GODS was that I'd already read all of it, with a much better protagonist, in SANDMAN.

aaa,

You failed to finish reading STARDUST, and shame on you.

MJ,

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Please see the addendum I've just added to the entry for more explication.

 
At 12:35 PM , Blogger MJ Norton said...

No, not at all necessary -- after posting the comment I felt like a credit hog.

I'd started to write the comment in a flash of minor panic when I'd momentarily imagined people reading the intro to a Gaiman book and some small section of them thereafter thinking I'd lifted it from him. Once I realized (ie stopped to read the piece) I saw I was mistaken and should have 86ed most of my comment... but it was written, I'm a packrat, and I had to run anyway.

Ah, the kids of summer, eh? So many demands on time.

 
At 3:53 PM , Blogger AaA said...

"Stardust" sounds right.

It was good? Maybe I'll give it another shot if it's still in my stacks...

 
At 10:57 AM , Anonymous Always Esteemed Scott said...

My biggest problem with AMERICAN GODS was that I'd already read all of it, with a much better protagonist, in SANDMAN.

Hmm. I read AMERICAN GODS before I'd ever read a SANDMAN comic, so that particular comparison wouldn't have occurred to me; GODS reminded me of Douglas Adams' THE LONG, DARK TEA-TIME OF THE SOUL, only not as funny.
Not funny at all, if I remember correctly.

I do remember liking NEVERWHERE a lot though.

 
At 10:27 PM , Blogger AaA said...

Ok, I finished Stardust (just now, actually), and it was ok. If he was going for Grimm Fairy Tales, or Hans Christian Andersen, then bravo and bully for him, he succeeded. With his tig, his tag, his long leather bag, with all the gold and silver he'd earned since he was a maid.

Now, I did like Neverwhere, I just didn't remember it being his.

 

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