Magical Realism: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

There’s a famous quote by Shakespeare that goes like this: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods.” This is from King Lear, but if you wanted to sum up every book or comic book by Gaiman that I’ve read so far, this does it. And it’s no wonder that Gaiman features Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in Sandman. The play has all the key elements that obsess Gaiman—mind control, illusion, delusion, and mortals who are subject to the whim of supernatural beings. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is essentially another Gaiman comic book in novel form where we are flies to wanton Gods. And like a comic book, the main character doesn’t “change” or, more precisely, there’s no character development while gods (or super/supernatural beings) run riot threatening to destroy not just Earth but the universe as well. And the fact that the world just about ended doesn’t change anyone. Says the main character:

“A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change. But I was seven when all of these things happened, and I was the same person at the end of it that I was at the beginning, wasn’t I? So was everyone else. They must have been. People don’t change.” [p. 163]

Besides Gaiman’s sometimes sloppy writing (is he saying that “everyone else” in the story was seven?), the problem isn’t that people don’t change, but that Gaiman’s “people” don’t change. This not only applies to Gaiman’s seven year old characters, but also, arguably, to the most powerful (according to some) and oldest being in the Marvel Universe—the Sandman— who (spoiler) sacrifices himself because he just can’t change. So apparently the kid’s age isn’t the issue. It’s more likely that Gaiman just doesn’t do character development.

I Have a Theory

And that’s because character development is hard to do when you’re just a fly batted around by wanton gods. And setting aside Sandman—which is nothing if not a collection of stories about flies (read mortals) batted around by wanton immortal and semi-immortal beings (read every manner of bugaboo set loose when the Sandman is imprisoned for a hundred years)—The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about a seven year old who finds himself smack dab in the middle a battle between (for lack of a better term) good gods and bad gods. Or super beings. Or thinly veiled super heroes and super villains. Or adults if it’s all a “dream”. The super heroes are three women—a grandmother, mother and “eleven” year old girl—who have actually been around since the creation of the Earth. It’s suggested that the grandmother has been around since before the Big Bang. (Because Gaiman has a seven year old’s instinct for upping the superhero ante, his have been around since before the Big Bang(!)—top that Batman!) In fact, she has apparently seen lots of Big Bangs. And yet the youngest of these super beings, the ostensibly eleven year old girl (who is at least several billion years old) doesn’t have the god-given sense not to take along a seven year old boy when confronting—what do we call it?—a super villain? And there’s nothing particularly clever about the Hempstocks (the good gods). They’re just more powerful than the villain. Geiman’s tale of their triumph is a dull and unimaginative tale of brute force.

What happens next is beyond any seven year old to grasp or fix, and so we end up with a plot-driven novel where the gods utterly mess up a seven year old’s life, then have to extricate him from the very mess they’ve made. The kid/narrator is just a fly.

On the Other Hand

Gaiman’s book has gotten over 15,000 reviews and they are largely 5 star reviews. Gaiman has a fierce and devoted following probably and largely because of Sandman. The thing about super-hero comic books is that they’re not about character development. Sure, more ambitious writers try their hand at it (including Gaiman), but that’s not what the genre is about, and the genre is as old as Greek gods. Comic books are about static, god-like beings (protagonists) with specific powers who use those powers to overcome equally static and powerful adversaries (antagonists) who usually want to rule the Earth and/or universe because—why think small?

And there’s nothing wrong with that—that’s the point of the genre after all.

If you’re a comic book reader, then Gaiman’s plot-driven super-being-tropes are nothing new and hardly a disappointment. It’s why you’re reading them. And I’ve noticed that many who criticize the book sound like they normally read fiction (like me) and find all of Gaiman’s comic-book tropes, his deus-ex-machina machinations, more than a little formulaic. But the god/super-hero genre comes with its own rules and expectations and I suppose expecting character development/complexity from an author so single-mindedly infatuated with the archetypal universal hero myth as Neil Gaiman, is like expecting romance from Stephen King, magical realism from Raymond Chandler or erotica from Hans Christian Andersen. But readers of comic books bring a whole set of expectations. They already know the hero’s history. They know the hero’s powers and limitations. They are familiar with the hero’s raft of villains and arch-nemeses. They are familiar with their hero’s archetype and with that hero’s archetypal stories. The best comic book writers know their archetypes and know their archetypical hero’s journey; and it’s for these “Hero’s Journeys” they’re read (and for the art of course, but many readers seem willing to let poor art slide if the story is exceptional). And when any expectations are dashed, there can be hell to pay. At it’s ugliest, you get the racist row over non-white elves and dwarves in Amazon’s “Ring of Power.” What I’m driving at is that the difference between a new work of fiction by a novelist verses a new comic book is that one reads the novelist for the whole story (to discover unknown characters and unexpected plots) while one comes to comic books with clear expectations as regards the characters and the plot (as one does with most genre literature). Jung writes:

The universal hero myth, for example, always refers to a powerful man or god-man who vanquishes evil in the form of dragons, serpents, monsters, demons, and so on, and who liberates his people from destruction and death.

These hero myths vary enormously in detail, but the more closely one examines them, the more one sees that structurally they are very similar. They have, that is to say, a universal pattern, even though they were developed by groups or individuals without any direct cultural contact with each other—by, for instance, tribes of Africans or North American Indians, or the Greeks, or the Incas of Peru. [The Archetypal story and how to keep it fresh]

With Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman fulfills all the expectations of the horror/hero’s-journey/fantasy readership—in this case the “child archetype”. If one thinks of the book as a comic book turned into a novel, then I get the novel’s appeal, but if one thinks of it as a novel first, then I find the book far too beholden to genre tropes. The author of the website above (from which the quote comes) goes on to write:

Our job in becoming highly original storytellers is to create a world and characters so rare, that the audience lives with a sense of constant wonder and discovery. We take our readers far beyond their usual hunting grounds and lead them into a world where the mundane falls away and everything is an adventure. Once we start them on this journey, we ground the reader by relating this exotic world to a universal human experience. The characters in our stories have lives so unlike ours (spies, superhumans, space explorers, etc.), yet they’re confronted with conflicts common to our everyday experience (guilt and redemption, change vs tradition, tribalism vs individualism, etc.).  Although these conflicts are being played out with life and death stakes, and in settings that are exotic and dangerous, the best stories will still have some connection to our psyches, to what makes humans ‘human.’

I read other reviewers who call his novel poignant and bewitching. Some are brought to tears. Not me. I was rolling my eyes. I found Gaiman’s story too cynical for any of that and too plot-driven for anything like a “universal human experience”. While the main character is seven years old, it’s the seven year old as a grown man who is narrating, and he is breathtakingly unreliable. The villain of the novel accuses the seven year old of being a liar and she’s right. Anyone who believes, for example, the narrator’s protestations that he didn’t notice the nudity of women, multiple times, is probably already the owner of several bridges in Brooklyn. But then who’s talking? The boy? The grown man? At any rate, anyone questioning the narrator’s obsession with women and their bodies need only observe that the antagonist, Ursula Monkton, is at her most threatening and dangerous when she descends out of the night sky like an avenging pole dancer until (as we find out later) she’s stark naked—and all while surrounded by rain, wind and lightning (strobed in glitter-like rainfall and “writhing” lightning) because, you know, there’s nothing more terrifying, powerful or corrupt than a grown, naked woman (and not that the narrator put all this symbolism together on purpose or anything):

I had been running from her though the darkness for, what, half an hour? An hour? I wished I had stayed on the lane and not tried to cut across the fields. I would have been at the Hempstocks’ farm by now. Instead, I was lost and I was trapped.

Ursula Monkton came lower. Her pink blouse was open and unbuttoned. She wore a white bra. Her midi skirt flapped in the wind, revealing her calves. She did not appear to be wet, despite the storm. Her clothes, her face, her hair, were perfectly dry. ¶ She was floating above me, now, and she reached out her hands. ¶ Every move she made, everything she did, was strobed by the tame lightnings that flickered and writhed about her. [p. 81]

It’s all there, including the strobe lighting, the writhing, and the glitter-like rain that doesn’t make her wet. (The narrator mentions more than once that she doesn’t “get wet” in the rain. Maybe a naked woman “getting wet” was an insinuation too far—even for Gaiman—but the fact that he harps on this begins to sound sinister in and of itself, making her sexuality sociopathic—as if a woman’s sexuality were wholly about power and manipulation.) And there’s no escape. Not that the seven year old boy is so terrified, so convinced that death is imminent, that he doesn’t notice or can’t remember the color of Monkton’s bra and her revealing calves. This mature woman’s disrobing follows the seven year old boy wherever he runs. Kind of like life, isn’t it? It’s all downhill from there and at the bottom of the hill is Youporn. Meanwhile, the super-hero protagonist of the story, who steps in to save the doomed narrator (in the nick of deus-ex-machina), is Lettie Hempstock, a non/asexual eleven year old girl who essentially (and conveniently) sacrifices her life (Gaiman is vague) to save the main character. (She’s been eleven for over a billion years?) Thankfully, I’m guessing, the narrator never has to experience Lettie as a grown woman. His memory of her can remain pure. The narrator’s younger sister, meanwhile, seems just as adept (as the grown woman/monster who is Ursula Monkton) at manipulating the sole surviving man in the story. The narrator’s sister skates through the story utterly unharmed and oblivious, among the other females, as she gleefully assists in making the boy’s life miserable. (Such is the murderous, mind-controlling, sexual power of the corrupt female in Gaiman’s imagination that the father is almost made to murder the boy. The other “gods” in the story, the Hempstocks, consider him “mind-controlled”—along with his utterly absent wife.) And don’t forget that it was all women—women, women, women—who got the little boy/narrator into this mess—and that includes the Hempstocks. But you know how it is, can’t live with’em, can’t live without’em…

And then, to crown it all, Gaiman finishes the novel hinting at the telenovela maybe-it-was-all-just-a-dream trope; and all the super-beings were just an archetypal coping mechanism (think Life of Pi). The narrator does hint at this at the novel’s outset too, writing: “…I was an imaginative child, prone to nightmares…” [p. 17] But that doesn’t change my main disappointment with the novel—that everything about it was plot driven, the characters static, and the good vs. evil battle too stale for a novel published in 2013. That ship has sailed. If I ever see another movie or read another story where a super-being saves the Earth yet again, it will be too soon. And stories featuring mind-control (and to say that Gaiman’s stories are full of it is an understatement) quickly lose my interest. Nothing kills character development or “the universal human experience” more dead than wanton gods exercising mind control—as if swatting the flies weren’t enough. At that point you’ve truly entered the oxygen-thin realm of genre-driven fiction.

But some like it that way.

That said…

Of the writers I’ve read since beginning these posts, Gaiman is hands down the most evocative. His descriptions of the food served by the Hempstocks make the mouth water. It’s clear that he can construct and inhabit the worlds of his imagination and with minute detail; and it’s no wonder that he makes such an effective comic book writer—where the writer must retain an awareness that comic books are also a visual art. Sandman is illustrated by a number of artists and, according to what I’ve read, Gaiman was detailed as concerns the world he wanted them to illustrate—panel by panel. I believe it. This goes a long way toward making the world of The Ocean at the End of the Lane as real and concrete as any book I’ve read. Credit where credit is due. And if you accept Gaiman as the plot-driven genre writer that he is, he writes first rate plots that make for compelling reading. The portion of the novel in which the narrator runs from a murderous Ursula Monkton is a page turner. I’m almost inclined to call Gaiman a first rate writer as well, even though I wouldn’t consider him a stylist (there’s nothing exceptional in his use of language or imagery), but for one strange and inexplicable affectation: his weird refusal to use contractions. And so you get supremely awkward sentences like this:

I do not know why I did not ask an adult about it. I do not remember asking adults about anything… [p. 46]

And then, just a few pages later, and for no discernible reason whatsoever, Gaiman remembers that a contraction is a thing:

I don’t know what I said in reply, or if I even said anything. [p. 53]

But that’s the exception. For the most part, Gaiman’s arbitrary affectation makes his prose feel wooden and stiff. The same finicky avoidance of contractions is to be found in Sandman and, in my opinion, makes the dialog equally wooden.

But is it magical realism?

It depends on how you read the novel, to an extent. If you think it was all just a dream, then a hard maybe? But even then, given that Gaiman spends the lion’s share of the narrative in an alternate world or in a world heavily manipulated by magic, I’m more apt to call it Fantasy.

So, my search for true magical realism continues. I should probably get back to reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

upinVermont | September 25 2022

2 responses

  1. Please do not use “that said” it grates and corrodes my intellect when I hear those words almost as painfully as “wrap my head around it”-overused cliches.


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