Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

My first thought upon finishing Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane was “why isn’t this a short story?” It was oddly satisfying to find this in the acknowledgement section:

This novel began, although I did not know it was going to be a novel at the time, when Jonathan Strahan asked me to write him a short story. I started to tell the story of the opal miner and the Hempstock family (who have lived in the farm in my head for such a long time), and Jonathan was forgiving and kind when I finally admitted to myself and to him that this wasn’t a short story, and I let it become a novel instead.

I don’t usually begrudge Gaiman a few extra chapters because he has created many weird and beautiful images over the years, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane is thin. The unnamed narrator accompanies his neighbor, Lettie Hempstock, to dispel an otherworldly creature. After he disobeys Lettie’s instructions, the creature follows him home in the form of a beautiful (and super creepy) woman named Ursula Monkton. Because the story is told as a flashback, you know the narrator isn’t at risk of dying at age seven. There’s not much suspense in this story, no matter how menacing Ursula Monkton becomes.

Even when I don’t like his stories, I usually enjoy Gaiman’s light, magical tone. Here, though, it feels phoned in, like he’s ticking boxes. With the exception of the Hempstocks, everyone is flat and interchangeable. The narrator’s father, mother, and sister are generic and forgettable—they lack names and distinct qualities. I don’t feel right labeling this a weakness or drawback since it’s something Gaiman did intentionally:

Names do have power in this book, and naming things and people was something that fascinated me. None of his family have names, after all. They just have roles. (interview with Joe Hill)

Why is this desirable? There’s a moment when the narrator is hiding from creepy beings who assume the shape of his family to trick him out of hiding. Readers can’t always play along with little mysteries, but while I was trying to sort out whether the people were real or fake it occurred to me that I knew nothing about his family. Ultimately, the narrator only knows they aren’t his family because they can’t pass a magical boundary. He doesn’t evaluate their personalities or mannerisms, because they don’t have personalities or mannerisms. Similarly, the old version of the narrator that opens and closes the book is wishy-washy and undefined. Sure, there’s a nice dreamy vibe going on, but I want something to grab hold of.

Wishy-washiness can’t pass for magic. Consider this passage, where the narrator finally figures out the name of the adorable kitten who follows him around:

She had such unusual eyes. They made me think of the seaside, and so I called her Ocean, and could not have told you why. (236)

But you just told us why. You said her eyes reminded you of the seaside. A water-related name at this point is not a surprise. If Gaiman wants to imply that some soft impulse in the boy’s brain has finally comprehended the cat’s name, this passage should be something like, “She had such unusual eyes. They made me think of the seaside, and so I called her Table and could not have told you why.” This is why you should listen to Neil Gaiman’s stories instead of reading them. The way his wonderful voice would drag out this passage would make you imagine the adorable kitten finally revealing her name and you’d feel something. In print, though? Nothing.

There are some pretty passages about the magic of childhood, but—again—these would have worked in a short story. If you’d like to read a Gaiman book about the awkwardness of childhood and weird neighbors, I’d start with Coraline.

Overall: 2.5 (out of 5)  Two-point-something scores always look harsh, but this book felt well below average to me. If you’ve got ten minutes and would like to hear what Gaiman’s wonderful voice can do with one of his newer stories, turn off the lights and check out “Click Clack the Rattle Bag” right here.

Sunday Short: The Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

Previously On: “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster

Only one story in and I’m already rethinking my strategy for the year…
I decided on shorts from The New Yorker to easily find stories by authors I’d like to read more from (Munro, Wolff, Alexie, Smith…) and authors I’d like to try (Erdich, Meloy, Bolaño…). However—and I knew this going in—stories in The New Yorker can have more style than substance. There’s no guarantee that any of shorts on my list for the year will contain a proper story. Unfortunately, “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” by Danielle McLaughlin is the first to fit this bill.

“The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” begins in the middle of things. The McLaughlin stories I’ve read all have this in common and I love it. This style makes every character feel more real because their words and actions don’t feel contrived for the reader’s benefit. It’s as though I’m opening the book to find them doing whatever they would be doing if I weren’t looking over their shoulders.

After an aside that Kate (the narrator) and Colman (her husband) no longer sleep in the same bed, they discuss how to set up a room for their visiting grandchild:

“He’s six,” she said. “He’s not a baby anymore. I want things to be special. We see so little of him.” It was true, she thought, it was not a lie. And then, because he was staring at her, she said, “And I don’t want Emer asking about…” She paused, spread her arms wide to encompass the room. “About this.” For a moment he looked as if he were going to challenge her. It would be just like him, she thought, to decide to have this conversation today, today of all days, when he wouldn’t have it all year. But he picked up his pajamas and a pair of shoes she had missed beneath the bed and, saying nothing, heading across the landing. Later, she found his pajamas folded neatly on the pillow on his side of the bed, where he always used to keep them.

What is “this conversation?” You can hazard a guess from the opening pages, but details are filled in slowly. In a lot of ways, this story feels more like just a character study. There are few plot points, but they seem largely symbolic—less about the thing that’s happening and more about what it could mean. The general idea is that Kate’s daughter (Emer) visits with her child and new boyfriend. Emer seems impulsive and her kid (Oisín) accidentally leaks that they’re moving to Australia. Boiled down, that’s the whole story.

That said, since it’s about the characters and not about moving to Australia, I wanted Kate’s reaction to be more than one sentence and I wanted to see what sort of conversations she had with her daughter. Her relationship with Colman also contains a lot of question marks. To fill in the blanks, I’d just be making assumptions. I’d feel like I was gossiping about people I don’t actually know, but who all seem to be annoyingly non-communicative.

The only characters who talk are Kate and Pavel, but it’s also the most unnatural scene in the whole story. When “[v]ery softly, he began to stroke her palm with his thumb,” this seems like an outsize reaction. Isn’t this strangely intimate for two people who have just met, regardless of what they’ve discussed?

As for the title, Colman shows Oisín an old poster:

The poster was wrinkled and torn at the edges but otherwise intact. [Kate] looked at the planets, pictured them spinning and turning for all those years beneath the stairs, their moons in quiet orbit.
“This is our man,” Colman said, pointing to the top left-hand corner. “This is the fellow that did for the dinosaurs.”
The boy, on tiptoe, touched a finger to the thing Colman had indicated, a flaming ball of rock trailing dust and comets. “Did it only hit planet Earth?”
“Yes,” his grandfather said. “Wasn’t that enough?”
“So there could still be dinosaurs on other planets?”
“No”

There’s nothing technically wrong with this story. The prose is lovely and even. The characters are interesting, but leave me cold. Any guesses I make about Kate, Colson, Emer, Pavel, or Oisín are largely influenced by other stories in the Dinosaurs on Other Planets collection. Much of the collection details characters struggling to live with mental illness or with their relatives who are (or might be) mentally ill. It’s hard not to slap an armchair diagnosis on Emer, to assume that the rift in the Kate/Colson marriage is somehow connected to their respective responses to their daughter’s illness (assuming she has one). There’s so much left unsaid that while it’s an interesting story, it’s hard for me to feel one way or the other about it.

Want to read it for yourself? “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” is available on The New Yorker‘s website here.

Next Up: “All Ahead of Them” by Tobias Wolff

Review: The Shining

a.k.a. I would like to officially retract every bad or unflattering thing I’ve ever said about Stephen King’s writing.

I’m not a fan of Kubrick’s film so there was little chance of my picking up the book… until I ran across King’s comments:

The character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all. When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr. Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know, then, that he’s crazy as a shit house rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change.

and:

[Wendy is] one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid. And that’s not the woman I wrote about.

Zing. Even though I hadn’t read the book at the time, King put his finger on why I’ve always disliked the film. Kubrick gets points for well-lit shots and nice camerawork, but the film never had any heart or emotional range: Jack is always crazy, Wendy is always beat-down, and Danny is always enigmatic. (I may have missed some subtleties; it puts me to sleep unless I watch it in the afternoon.) This isn’t some “the book is always better” knee-jerk reaction. I’d seen the movie a few times, never liked it, and only sought out the book when I thought it might be markedly different from the film.

But this is a book blog, so on to the book!

The premise is that Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic and aspiring writer, accepts a job as the off-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. He brings his wife, Wendy, and his son, Danny, to live in the hotel for the winter. This family desperately needs a reset. Jack’s alcoholism led him to break his son’s arm before costing him his job at a prestigious New England prep school. The bone-dry Overlook sounds like the perfect place to keep sober and write the play that’ll put him back on track. Though he and Wendy sometimes wonder how their 5-year-old son is so perceptive, they don’t know he can hear their thoughts and have visions. Danny’s psychic abilities allow him to see pieces of the Overlook’s past and seem to wake something malicious inside the hotel.

The Shining is definitely a horror story, but before the uneasy sense of dread gives way to full-on terror it’s about Jack, Wendy, and Danny trying to repair their family. Jack’s descent into alcoholism and subsequent recovery are brutally detailed; the tragedy comes when the reader realizes he truly loves his son for all his inability to stay sober. He spirals self-destructively and tries to keep it together for Danny, but Danny sees right through him even if he doesn’t understand what he sees. Likewise, Wendy is holding on for Danny’s sake. She has reached her limit, but she’s stronger and far more resourceful than her film version.

Because the cast is so small (completely opposite IT), King has time to develop Jack, Wendy, and Danny inside and out. Though The Shining is written in third-person, King alters his word choice and tone depending on which character he’s following at the time. When Danny overhears words that he doesn’t know in his parents’ minds, they’re picked out in caps: DIVORCE. At the Overlook, he calls the Presidential Suite the Presidential Sweet. These little touches and a whole host of creepy details create a rich and nuanced story. There is some repetition when events are seen through Jack’s, Wendy’s, and Danny’s eyes, but each view adds a new layer. Other details and character tics are mentioned repeatedly, but always at the right time to build tension.

The Torrances are trapped. On one side, the Overlook is growing supernaturally monstrous, but from the other sides come a series of everyday woes: trouble finding work, not enough money, family strife, and substance abuse. The Overlook’s ghosts are pretty mundane at first. They’re the kinds of things the Torrances tell themselves aren’t really there. All horror stories have a moment when the reader/viewer yells at the book/television: JUST LEAVE ALREADY. But King anticipates this and makes the reader understand that the family has no other option or any place else to go. When Jack finally considers escape on a snowmobile, things get even more complicated:

It should work. No reason why not. No reason at all except that it was part of the Overlook and the Overlook really didn’t want them out of here. Not at all. The Overlook was having one hell of a good time. There was a little boy to terrorize, a man and his woman to set one against the other, and if it played its cards right they could end up flitting through the Overlook’s halls like insubstantial shades in a Shirley Jackson novel, whatever walked in Hill House walked alone, but you wouldn’t be alone in the Overlook, oh no, there would be plenty of company here. But there was really no reason why the snowmobile shouldn’t start. Except of course
(Except he still didn’t really want to go.)
yes, except for that. (414)

And then the snows come…

Overall: 4.9 (out of 5.0) I’d have liked some of the Overlook’s history (which Jack finds in a scrapbook) to have had more of a payoff, but that’s the only negative. Some readers say the beginning is slow, but there’s never any doubt that the book is building towards something intense and horrific. I can’t say which scene (spoilers) but this book contains the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read. I stopped reading for a moment because I had to look away. There was another moment that made me cry (and it’s a rare book that makes me cry!). Again, spoilers, but I was surprised that The Shining was simultaneously capable of bringing horror and the feels.

Sunday Short: The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

This is a more of a novella (12,000 words) than a short story, but E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” made me want to read more short fiction this year, so here we are.

The timing of this story is the most interesting thing about it. If it hadn’t originally been published in 1909, it would be just another story about the hazards of social media and virtual reality. Instead, it feels eerily prophetic.

In Forster’s world, humans live in tiny underground cells inside the Machine. There’s no need to see anyone in person or leave one’s room when the Machine responds to every need. People exchange ideas, but their ideas are based on third- or fourth-hand experience. Direct experience and direct speech are considered base. Alone, Vashti sits in her little room:

Imagine, if you can, a small room hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk—that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh—a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

Vashti can contact everyone she knows from this room—several thousand people!—with the touch of a button. Most recognizable is her plate (iPad) that allows her to contact (Facetime) her son. Sometimes stories set far in the future are difficult to read because of their technobabble and new parameters for what’s possible, but there’s little mystery here. Vashti’s devices are recognizable even when carried to an extreme. At times, they’re a little too recognizable… If Vashti needs a moment to herself, she can block all communications and be bombarded with notifications when she comes back online:

Vashti’s next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one’s own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date?

Though Vashti’s life seems sterile and lonely, she’s comfortable. She trusts the Machine in all things. When her son, Kuno, asks her for a visit she can’t understand why he needs to see her in person instead of through the Machine. To Vashti, there’s no difference, but Kuno wants to have a face-to-face conversation about his desire to see the surface of the earth:

“…The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.”

Vashti’s journey to her son is one of the more affecting parts of the story. She has been holed up in her room for so long that small things shock and upset her. There’s a whole new etiquette for personal interactions and Forster’s brave new world morphs into something bizarre when it becomes clear how much of the human experience Vashti’s society has given over to the Machine. Her fear of “direct experience” is mentioned a couple of times and makes the point well. I can write-off some mechanics of Forster’s future world as impossible or ludicrous, but there’s no denying that the Internet’s anonymity makes some experiences easier. It’s not hard to imagine people retreating farther and farther into an online world, even if no one ever builds a giant underground honeycomb.

There are so many clever details as the story winds to its conclusion that I spent most of the time marveling that it was written in 1909. “The Machine Stops” isn’t subtle in the least, but its incredible relevance more than 100 years after its writing boosts it over some other staples of dystopian lit—Brave New World, for example, which seemed to be aging badly the last time I picked it up.

If you’d like to read the full story, here’s a link to the first chapter (out of three). It’s a quick read, but it’ll require you to spend more time on the Internet. As long as you talk to one person irl afterwards or step outside, everything should be alright.

Next up: “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” by Danielle McLaughlin