Here My Dear: Jeff Picks Up (and Picks At) The Ocean At The End of the Lane

March 29, 2015

(Insert the “hey, this isn’t a comic book!” joke of your choice here.)

If you’re a medium or long-term Wait, What? listener, you know I’m not much of a fan of Neil Gaiman.

I mean, I’m not not a fan: Pretty much every time he comes back to comics, I’m there to try an issue or two or three…but that may be because I almost always like the artists he collaborates with, usually more than what I like from him.  Gaiman’s whip-smart, he has an exceptionally strong grasp of what he’s good at, and I’d argue the politically savviest guy in comics (though whether more so than Dave Sim in his prime is an argument for armchair generals).  Actually, scratch that: he’s probably one of the more politically savvier guys in mainstream media today.  If he was a character in Game of Thrones–Gai of Tweethos or something–he’d still be around well into the later books, rich and beloved and seemingly without guile.

(More behind the jump due to mouthiness, inappropriate speculation, etc.)

But Gaiman’s lack of catharsis in his stories, whether you define that as something as primal as two superpowered dudes punching one another in the nose or something deeper and emotionally unsettling, has always bugged me.  (Although on this point, I will concede that some of Gaiman’s attempts at the latter, Mr. Punch and Signal To Noise, may not have worked for me because I think a lot of Dave McKean’s work doesn’t do much for me either.)  Thirty-some odd issues into Sandman I dropped out and never came back.

And then, a few years back, due to circumstances too byzantine to recount, I ended up reading Coraline and found it…mostly okay.  (Actually, I reviewed it at the Savage Critic and pronounced it Very Good, despite referring to Gaiman as “a tremendous puss of a storyteller” and “he seem[s] to regard the idea of catharsis the way a hemophiliac regards a rooomful of scissors.”  No wonder I’m almost never linked to!)  Yeah, there was a “just when you thought it was over, here comes a nightmarish return of the baddie” finale that was kind of charming in its “hmm, this is the kind of thing producers are always telling me my stories need” shamelessness.  But it may have been the first time I heard in Gaiman’s work what I think he wants everyone to hear:  a tone where the fantastic imagery, described in understated prose, suggests an inscrutability of intent that can be read as sinister or merely dryly, darkly humorous.  (What I always think of a Roald Dahl territory, although I’m not really well-read enough to know if that’s true.)

Happily enough, The Ocean at The End of The Lane—which I picked up in some holiday sale or wherever—is even better than Coraline and points, maybe, to a new place for Gaiman to go in his writing.

The Ocean at The End of The Lane (one of those titles you feel dumb typing twice in two paragraphs, to the point where you start wondering if you will overcome your dislike of long acronyms and just start calling the damn thing “TOATEOTL” by the end of your review) is told from the perspective of a middle-aged man returning for a funeral held the countryside where he grew up.  While there, he goes back to the area he spent his formative childhood years, and then out to a house at the end of his lane.  Looking at a lake, he finds himself remembering something that happened when he was seven, something he’d since forgotten and never thought of since.

That “something” initially involves a suicide, a sixpence pulled from the belly of a fish, and the friendly but mysterious Hempstocks, a grandmother, mother, and Lettie, an eleven year old who still remembers their life back in the old country.  And the story only grows more dark and uncanny from there, as a haunting creature from “the old country” manages to get its hooks in the young narrator, follow him back home, and start to destroy his life.

Why did I enjoy this as much I did considering the amount of Gaiman’s work that has meant next to nothing to me? For one thing, I’d have to say Ocean… has the perfect framework:  in having the story of young, bookish boy recounted by his older self on the day of a funeral of (probably) a parent, there’s finally a proper place at the table for all the terror and wisdom Gaiman wants to serve up, and his predilection for restraint—for maybe the first time—doesn’t read as something twee or anemic or even lazy, it seems like a natural extension of the narrator’s fragile state, past and present.   Similarly, the fantastic touches in Ocean… feel fitting: magic is a refuge for children afraid of life and adults afraid of life, and in this book we’ve got a character who is both.

Also, the sections where the protagonist is on the Hempstock farm (the only place he’s truly safe) are Miyazaki-esque as all hell— unsurprising, I guess, considering Gaiman did the adaptation of Princess Mononoke for the U.S. release, but I always think of that as an atypical work, and this is very much the Miyazaki of My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Spirited Away: a world where the fantasy is interwoven with nostalgia, a wonder at a vanished time, where the discovery of the magical recreates the child’s feeling of the magic of discovery.  (I never really felt that with Sandman except when libraries and books got involved.)

For those who’ve always dug the guy’s work, this’ll probably just be another piece of fiction that does the trick for them, but it’s been almost a month since I read it and I’m still surprised by how much I liked it.

There is one thing that is exceptionally odd in The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, though, and it’s something I’d like to be crass and bring up.  You know, just between you and me.

The creature that follows our protagonist back to his world (hidden inside his body as a worm) shows up, one very icky post-worm extraction scene later, as Ursula Monkton, the new live-in housekeeper for the protagonist and his sister.  Ursula Monkton is described as being “very pretty.  She had shortish honey-blond hair, huge gray-blue eyes, and pale lipstick.  She seemed tall, even for an adult.”

Ursula Monkton charms the mother and sister, seduces the father, and keeps the protagonist under essentially supernatural house arrest so he can’t get back to the Hempstocks for help. He is only able to escape by sneaking out on a stormy night.  As he does, he passes by the drawing room window and looking in he sees:

My father had Ursula Monkton pressed up against the side of the big fireplace in the far wall.  He had his back to me.  She did too, her hands pressed against the huge, high mantelpiece.  He was hugging her from behind.  Her midi skirt was hiked up around her waist.

Because Ursula Monkton is distracted, the protagonist is able to (barely) escape to the Hempstock farm and when he returns with his friend, the eternally eleven year old Lettie Hempstock, they find her lying on the bed nude. She announces she’s not leaving even though they’re to make her go back to where she came from.  She says:

“I only just got here.  I have a house, now.  I have pets—his father is just the sweetest thing.  I’m making people happy.  there is nothing like me anywhere in this whole world.  I was looking, just now when you came in.  I’m the only one there is.  They can’t defend themselves.  They don’t know how.  So this is the best place in the whole of creation.”

She smiled at us both, brightly.  She really was pretty, for a grown-up, but when you are seven, beauty is an abstraction, not an imperative.  I wonder what I would have done if she had smiled at me like that now, whether I would have handed my mind or my heart or my identity to her for the asking, as my father did.

And I should mention before they return, Ginnie Hempstock (Lettie’s mother, but of course also Lettie) says of Ursula Monkton:

“I don’t hate her.  She does what she does, according to her nature.  She was asleep, she woke up, she’s trying to give everyone what they want.”

So, yeah, Ursula Monkton (or as Gaiman puts it in the post-book interview with Joe Hill, “the thing that calls herself Ursula Monkton”) is the best thing in the book, the source of all the protagonist’s bad fortune, the monstrous creature that somehow isn’t quite a monster.  In that post-book interview, Gaiman refers to her as “a glorious and scary thing to write.”

And here we get to the crass bit.  Ursula Monkton: nude, sexy, short-haired, trying to give everyone what they want, and associated with a bad misuse of money.

I can’t be the only one who thinks of Amanda Palmer, right?

Of course, it can be pointed out that I’m cherry-picking the description: Amanda Palmer isn’t blond, is of pretty average height, doesn’t seem to favor pink and gray, and, as far as I know, is not an otherworldly denizen really named Skarthach of the Keep.  (No mention is made of Ursula Monkton’s eyebrows but no mention is made of their absence either, so one can assume they’re hanging around her face somewhere.)

Nevertheless, I feel like there’s something to this.  Her name is literally all over this book.  It’s dedicated to her, and it’s Gaiman’s first answer when Hill asks him if there’ve been women in Gaiman’s life especially prone to warping reality:

My wife, Amanda, is terribly good at warping reality.  She is like a bowling ball on a rubber sheet, and you find yourself living in her universe, doing things that are completely unexpected or unimaginable for you, but you blink and you’re up on a stage singing, or wearing a peculiar wig, or writing a book filled with feelings and emotion, or doing something equally as unlikely.

So is it my perversity to think Ursula Monkton is Amanda Palmer, or is it Gaiman’s?

I mean, of course it’s mine, but if it is also his, what does it mean? I come from passive-aggressive stock, but even I find it unlikely that when asked by their childhood was like by their newlywed wife, someone would go, “Here you go, my newlywed wife, here is a book answering your question and by the way you are the hero’s torturer, the destroyer of his family, and in the end you are ripped apart, shrieking, by the nameless carrion from outside time.  I love you!”

And Gaiman is a sharp dude, so I can’t imagine anything in the book is accidental, but even the best authors don’t always recognize what their subconscious is putting into the story until much, much later. Does Gaiman associate his new wife with the end of his old marriage with that in turn having an association with the dissolution of his parents’ marriage? Does the bookish boy at the heart of Gaiman’s writing feel a little more uncomfortable with doing the completely unexpected or unimaginable?

Or is it simply that Gaiman, in writing about the magic of discovery, has included in the book the woman who made him discover magic?  Maybe she’s just too much of an outsider, too messy, too disruptive, to be able to be anything in the book but *the* outsider, the disrupter?

Dunno.  It’s a damn interesting thing, though.  I always thought any tale of imaginary books sitting on infinite bookshelves built on the tails of cats from outside time would never be as interesting as the stories Gaiman could tell about his early days as a British Jewish Scientologist, but he’s proven me wrong.  The guy may have some surprises up his sleeve yet.


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4 comments on “Here My Dear: Jeff Picks Up (and Picks At) The Ocean At The End of the Lane

  1. What I see happening here with the Ursula Monkton character is some standard sexist shit, wherein the character most associated with active and open female sexuality is presented as a monstrous demon. Now, Gaiman didn’t invent that, Gaiman is recycling some pretty standard mythological and folkloric tropes, as he always does – that’s Gaiman’s shtick, if you took away his copy of Grimm’s he’d shrivel up into a fetus and disappear – but it’s also Gaiman’s shtick to recycle those old tropes without subverting them in any meaningful way. And those old tropes are chock-ful of male terror of female sexuality. So here’s Gaiman with a story in which the villain is presented as a grown woman who has sex, and oh my god, she’s a fucking vampire demon soul-eater thing, oh my god, and really, the lesson here is not that Gaiman secretly hates his wife, it’s that Gaiman has gotten rich re-packaging old myths, and most of those old myths think that vaginas are horrible awful fascinating awful scary monster things.

    Now, I find it interesting that there’s the instinct to project Amanda Palmer in particular onto this character, because these two things – a deep and long-standing cultural animosity towards women, and Gaiman-fan reaction to Amanda Palmer – are not completely unrelated, now, are they? I mean, Amanda Palmer is not the only person in the world who’s shittily exploited unpaid work and/or talent, or who’s said dumb things on social media, or who has generally acted like an asshole. But by listening to the Gaiman-loving Twitterverse, you’d think that Neil Gaiman was unknowingly sleeping with the antichrist. And yet, we seem to see more people on the internet calling Amanda Palmer a “whore” for trying to get away without paying her opening acts than really seem to care about any of the hundreds of giant corporations that get free labor out of unpaid interns on a regular basis (“Ocean” was published by Harper Collins; how many unpaid interns do you think they burn through in a year?), to say nothing of corporations like Apple and Intel who literally work people to death making their products in factories.

    There is a distinct reaction to women who are perceived to be guilty of various slights – and a distinct sexualization of that guilt – which is completely separate from how any man who engages in anything similar gets treated. Neil Gaiman himself is clearly kind of an asshole himself (the entire MacFarlane/Angela thing played out like a reductio ad absurdum of the most narrow, legalistic interpretation of “creator’s rights,” capped off with Gaiman’s “eh, what the fuck” handover of the character to Marvel), but any criticism of the man and his work is distinctly un-sexualized in a way that criticism of Palmer rarely is.

    • Nate A. Mar 30, 2015

      To be fair, it could be both. That is, Gaiman might be scared of women in general and scared of his wife in particular, working through his by way of a hoary old story type featuring a character with powers of the sort he attributes to Palmer? Who knows, but I rather liked Jeff’s review and your response!

  2. And as my other comment awaits moderation, I’ll note that I think Gaiman’s most successful non-comics work (and maybe most successful work, period?) are his picture-book collaborations with McKean. Gaiman has a tendency to talk down to his audience, as well as a tendency to be overly precious; both of these can just kill any book intended for readers over the age of 12, but in a book like Wolves In The Wall, I read it and think, “ah, I get it now! Neil Gaiman is really supposed to be writing for kids!” And he really is – those are great books. Like, The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish is great. Not In The Night Kitchen great, but better than most of Sandman.

    • Abhay Apr 1, 2015

      Oh, I got “The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish” for my nephews, some years ago. That book is actually pretty solid, though I guess I’m much more of a sucker for McKean than Jeff. Gaiman also did a couple short stories I remember liking– one that was sort of a fanboy-y Sherlock Holmes riff(a Study in Emerald, which I think is onlien) and another called “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire” that was sort of a gag story… but like, I remember liking the details, how it was a kind of pile-up of gothic novel cliches.

      But yes: I’d put Goldfish ahead of those. That is a good one, though I’m no expert on children’s books, I can’t say.