Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On "Fragile Things" by Neil Gaiman ***

Neil Gaiman has been haunting me for years. A reading copy of one of his books was given to me years ago when I worked at a bookstore (a coworker read the thing and bragged about how good it was--the subject matter didn't appeal to me, however). Another coworker was a huge fan of the Sandman series. Still other friends through time have told me how good that series is--not being a graphic novel aficionado, I've avoided it. But now his writing is winning awards too--most recently one of the kids' book awards given out each year. He was calling me. I was determined, thus, to have his name on my list of fantasy reading. At least then I could say I knew what the hoopla was about.

That I placed him on the list was a good thing. Gaiman is a very good writer. His talent is evident throughout Fragile Things. But as I've suspected all along, his particular choice of subjects isn't what naturally appeals to me. I take, as a case in point, a story called "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire." Great title. The story is one in which a writer wishing to be successful keeps being told that he should give up literature and write fantasy. In this case, though, the "fantasy" world is one very much like our own, with people eating breakfast and arguing over mundanities like who gets which part of the newspaper or who makes breakfast. The "real" world is one with knights and sword fights and strange creatures. I found myself pulled toward the "fantasy" world (i.e., the real/literary world)--more of this, I wanted to say, but Gaiman gives us mostly a world of the fantastic, a world that most of the time is less interesting to me. Beyond that, the collection as a whole seems like a hodge-podge of things that didn't fit elsewhere. In a sense, it's a great way, probably, to get a feel for Gaiman's whole arsenal, but it also feels like a bit of a jumble.

My favorite piece in the collection is one called "Bitter Grounds," the story of a man who is "dead," metaphorically at least (he's been dumped by a woman he loves), who runs into a stranger in New Orleans and eventually finds the stranger missing--and also the stranger's academic paper on zombies (zombie coffee girls, to be more specific) to be presented at an anthropology conference later that week. The man takes it upon himself to assume the stranger's identity and to present the paper himself. The momentary change of personality does him well, but only for a time, only until the conference draws to its end and he's back to being love starved. Nice story, notably with only a little fantasy.

Other favorites include "The Facts of the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch," a story about a crazy circus that comes to town and that somehow Miss Finch ends up a part of, never to return. "Instructions" and "Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot" offer interesting pieces of writing, though I'm not sure how much they qualify as stories. "The Monarch of the Glen" is the final novella and works pretty well, especially in its set up: an American comes to a remote part of Scotland and is offered a job too good to be true--over one thousand dollars for a single weekend of work as a security guard. Lots appears to be ominous, and those fears build for forty pages, and then somewhat disappointingly, the ominous elements come true--I say disappointingly because again there is a turn toward fantasy that doesn't seem in keeping with the rest of the tale. Were this more my genre, I'm sure I'd have been wholly satisfied. "Goliath," a Matrix-like of alternate worlds, is also a good one.

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