Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fragile Things

by Neil Gaiman

The non fiction books I spent most of last year reading were fascinating, but man did it take me a long time to get through them. However as soon as I finished them I quickly breezed through Neil Gaiman's latest short story collection in a couple of days. I didn't enjoy it quite as much as Smoke and Mirrors, but it's still a fine read.

In the years since the last collection came out Gaiman's style has changed very little. All the stories are fantasy (or maybe sci-fi) but with a solid real world grounding (and sometimes the fantasy elements are a pretty light touch), although this time around the stories are less clever or whimsical and more sinister.

The first story is 'A Study in Emerald', which is an original mashup of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos and Sherlock Holmes. In most writers hands this would be a terrible idea but Gaiman of course infuses it with wry wit and makes it the best idea in the world.

In 'October in the Chair' the months of the year sit around and tell stories. It's a typically Neil sort of story idea, and it gets mentioned in most reviews of the book as one of the best, but I didn't like it. It possibly had something to do with the attributes of the months being the opposite to what I think they should be.

'Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire' is just as cute and self-referential as the title suggests but is fairly amusing all the same. It's followed by a selection of ghost stories, all of which are very effective. 'Closing Time' has that classic ghost story kind of creepy imagery that lingers in the mind, but 'The Flints of Memory Lane' is scarier, probably because Gaiman claims that it's a true story from his childhood, and despite the lack of anything truly supernatural or dangerous, the detail evokes memories of those times when, as a child, you find yourself completely spooked by something for reasons you can't explain. 'Bitter Grounds' is another weird one. Gaiman's short stories sometimes have a way of hitting you with an random event at the end, and then sitting back and looking smugly at you as if to say “What's the matter? Don't you get it?” while the reader scratches his head and says “Yeah kind of, but it just doesn't quite fit...” I have yet to determine if this is because (a) I am dumb, (b) Neil isn't quite as clever as he thinks he is or (c) it's meant to be like that because Neil just likes to leave the reader with a sensation of dissatisfaction that they can't quite articulate the reason behind. I'm leaning towards (c).

'The Problem of Susan' is also noteworthy, for it's nasty, disturbing take on C.S. Lewis' high school chaplain approved Narnia series. As unpleasant as it was to read, I have to admit getting a good deal of satisfaction out of seeing an areligious counterargument to Lewis' books, which have always pissed me off. Thanks for ruining a perfectly good fantasy series with your stinky fucking religion, jackass.

The highlights of the collection are 'How to Talk to Girls at Parties' and 'The Day the Saucers Came'. The former does the standard post-modern fantasy story thing and takes an everyday cliché (in this case that to an adolescent boy girls may as well be from another planet) and makes it literal. It made me wish that I could meet some girls who were actually from another planet. 'The Day the Saucers Came' is a short poem that merges wit and poignancy flawlessly.

Not every story is a winner, I thought 'Diseasemaker's Croup' was a bit boring and stupid, but the rest of the book ranges from good too brilliant. The last story in the collection is 'Monarch of the Glen', which is a kind of sequel to American Gods, checking up on its protagonist Shadow a few years after the end of the novel, although it's more about Scotland than Shadow, who doesn't really do much in this story. It's still a much better sequel than Anansi Boys though.

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