Neil Gaiman: "Crossover Artist" or simply a good "Storyteller"?

@neilhimself
@neilhimself

Neil Gaiman – made popular by the macabre comics The Sandman but who has said that he really began writing with picturebooks that never got published – is a self-professed “crossover artist”. With textual works that vary from adult fiction/fantasy like American Gods to the Carnegie and Newbery Award winning The Graveyard Book. Pushing even farther into crossover Gaiman wrote Coraline the text that inspired a stop-motion animation film, he has written episodes of Dr. Who and, he co-wrote the script for that oddity of a film Beowulf and, yes, ALSO Batman comics!

Whew. Need a breathe. I’m sure I’m missing things…

Gaiman, as evidenced by the above paragraph, has inspired many a post here on The Bookwars and all four of us are fans of his works and, though this impressive resume could inspire a many more a post (“many a more post” ?), I think that Gaiman belongs quite perfectly here in Crossover Month.

Last year the other book warriors and I had the pleasure of going to see Gaiman on his tour for Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was being hailed as his first book for adults in 8 years. Once at the venue, what I noticed was that, well, the audience was mostly adult. I mean, the venue served alcohol, and began at 7 and Neil (bless him!) signed items until after 1 am!, but there were some young folk (under age 20?) there as well. So, after Gaiman has presented his ostensible “adult” title (we’ll get to that in a few), he unashamedly and without excuse began to talk about and read from his upcoming middle grade (Roal Dahl-esque) book Fortunately, the Milk. I was, first of all, simply grateful and awed and overjoyed that he didn’t explain or justify or defend the title or his wont to read it to whatever audience was in front of him. And the audience was hushed in awe and roaring with laughter throughout the reading and I thought to myself, why shouldn’t they be? Just because they are adults doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy a great story. 

Well, that’s just it isn’t it? Humans are drawn, have always been drawn, to good story-telling. Children’s literature, it has been argued, only arose with Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocketbook in 1744, however, Children and young people had been claiming stories written and intended for adults long before this – including Fables (Aesop’s among them), Fairy Tales, Myths, Legends, Lore and books like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (an Odyssean sort of speculative and religious type story). Adults had stories, and Children craved and claimed them. I think there is more to this, back then childhood was short-lived, children started working at a young age and these stories gave them an escape. Interesting that our contemporary moment is experiencing an inversion of this phenomenon, where childhood is extended and there are, therefore, many stories for children that adults are craving and claiming.

Indeed, perhaps what’s happening now is that Children have stories, and adults are the ones left wanting. That is not to bash contemporary adult fiction writers at all (some are quite brilliant!) – I just mean that a good story is a good story that anyone will, and should be able to enjoy. And, perhaps, the lesson here really is that there should always be enough time for “story,” whatever your age.

Ocean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane_US_Cover

This is the framework within which Gaiman’s “adult” novella The Ocean at the End of the Lane works. The story begins within the point of view of a man, we get the impression that he is a visitor to England where he is attending (or supposed to be attending) a funeral (it’s never mentioned but I think it’s the funeral of his father). Instead, he is driving across the countryside in escape of said funeral (but mostly his family), and his life (hints at divorce, kids, stresses of impossible accomplishments) and the dreary conversation he imagines about remembering the dead and talking about what was. He winds up driving to his childhood home:

The little country lane of my childhood had become a black tarmac road that served as a buffer between two sprawling estates. I drove further down it, away from the town, which was not the way I should have been travelling, and it felt good. (4)

Our protagonist flees adult expectations and retreats into childhood, which is found in the ocean at the end of the lane. He visits his childhood neighbour (where the story begins to dip into the mythological and fantastical) and we submerge in the man’s memories of himself as a child, living in England with his family. The story of the child protagonist is truly traumatic, but there is an escape for our child hero, the magic of the world and the friendship and accepted fantasy of other children. The moment that the adult character is living is one of closure for some of the traumatic childhood experiences, but with the closure on that trauma is also a sealing away of a little piece of his childhood – the little piece that we get to read in this text.

I thought about adults. I wondered if that was true: if they were all really children wrapped in adult bodies, like children’s books hidden in the middle of dull, long adult books, the kind with no pictures or conversations.

“I love my ocean,” Lettie said, and I knew out time by the pond was done.”

“It’s just pretending, though,” I told her, feeling like I was letting childhood down by admitting it. “Your pond. It’s not an ocean. It can’t be. Oceans are bigger that seas. Your pond is just a pond.” (113)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a magical moment in childhood and one returned to by the adult narrator because he needs that magic, that fantasy, in order to survive. The tension is that he, his child self and now his adult self, must let go of this fantasy in order to survive.

Well, again, that’s just it, isn’t it? Humans, adults and children alike, are drawn to good stories as a form of enjoyment, but also as an escape as a way of coping.

I’ve never thought much of “intended audience,” though I see it’s usefulness. For me, a text (in whatever format) that is crossover is simply a good story. A story that appeals to human nature and offers a magical moment as something that we enjoy but also something with which we can vicariously cope with reality in order to live through reality – whatever that reality might be.