Until a few hours ago, I’ve always had a difficult relationship with the writer Neil Gaiman. Now, to start, I’ve never met him and probably never will. I’ve only read most, but not all, of his works, including his graphic novels and comics, and encountered some of his films. I’m just a reader like anyone else.
I initially didn’t like his writing: I found it boring, sometimes arbitrarily pretentious (did you really have to use a French word when an English one would do? Etc.). I don’t mind consistent pretentiousness: I read Salman Rushdie, William Faulkner and Christopher Hitchens, after all. He’s writing did little for me. Initially, I did not find this really a weakness, except where sometimes the writing obstructed the story. For the most part, his writing became bare branches that allowed the beauty of the story’s leaves to quiver, for the character’s voices to become a soft howl of wind between the words’ hollow trunks. I appreciate any writer willing to let the story come first or allow himself to become an authentic voice of characters. Faulkner was a genius at this, of course – anyone whose read The Sound and the Fury recognises this.
Yet, I’ve given him another chance due to my own sudden focus on comics and graphic novels. I don’t like superheroes, but I do love what the medium allows. I recognised this, as did most people, when a certain Alan Moore brought forth all manner of beauties. Is there anyone not in love with The Watchmen graphic novel? Anyway, one cannot explore comics or graphic novels for long before encountering the Sandman series.
But even these did not impress me, initially. I found the story slow-moving and strange. I was used to Gaiman’s fashionable, Gothkid darkness from Coraline and the genius that is American Gods; but this? I had no idea what this was. However, as the series has progressed, it has become one of the greatest stories ever-told. Having read something of literature and some of the official canon (not cannon, as in a gun), like Tolstoy, Faulkner, Homer, and so on, I say – without apology – that the Sandman series should be considered as part of our generation’s contribution to the humanity’s endless* creative canon. It’s massive cast, it’s beautiful themes, it’s contrast, it’s gambles, it’s portrayals of humanity’s strength and weaknesses. As someone who would one day like to be a writer – of both fiction and non – oI can only attempt to cover the bases Gaiman breathes into life as easily as he… well, breathes.
I’ve now going through his short-stories in Fragile Things (most beautiful cover by Jennie Vallis must be seen). I was unimpressed by the first story I read, which I did because the title was intriguing: ‘Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire’. I thought my suspicions confirmed: pretentious, boring, etc. But that was last year. I tried today, after a long period of not reading his comics and graphic novels.
I still don’t like the story. But I do like the other ones. Well, the ones that aren’t poetry because I hate almost all poetry (except TS Eliot and Wilfred Owen). And Gaiman seems to understand “cynics” like me – apparently you become a cynic the minute you hate poetry, dolphins and/or dogs – as he says in the introduction to Fragile Things: “you don’t have to read [the poems]”.
But I wanted to quote extensively to show how very wrong I was about him as writer. It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve read in some time. This is therefore an apology to Neil Gaiman (who will never know) and Gaiman-fans I’ve been mocking for a few years.
Consider the following mastery of elegance and subtlety. It’s like watching an amazing painting come to life with small strokes. Gaiman ends his introduction to Fragile Things with:
As I write this now, it occurs to me that the peculiarity of most things we think of as fragile is how tough they truly are. There were tricks we did with eggs, as children, to show how they were, in reality, tiny load-bearing marble halls; while the beat of the wings of a butterfly in the right place, we are told, can create a hurricane across an ocean. Hearts may break, but hearts are the toughest of muscles, able to pump for a lifetime, seventy times a minute, and scarcely falter along the way. Even dreams, the most delicate and intangible of things, we can prove remarkably difficult to kill.
Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds’ eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas – abstract, invisible, gone once they have been spoken – and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.
And while I do not believe that any of the stories in this volume will do that, it’s nice to collect them together, to find a home for them where they can be read, and remembered.
* for Sandman fans, this pun is completely intended.