Friday, June 28, 2013

Oceans Are Where You Look for Them

Earlier today, I mentioned having finished Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane to a friend. “I only read non-fiction,” was his response. So he does. I had forgotten. It was a perfectly legitimate response on the surface. We like what we like. However, I couldn’t help hearing a certain condescension in the tone – something indicating that reading fiction is for frivolous people. Perhaps it is. Perhaps the biographies of starlets and the (cough) nonfiction memoirs of politicians are the weightier tomes, but I’m not entirely convinced. A novelist can explore motives and the inner mind in a way that a responsible historian cannot. (I have a BA in history, for the record.) Sometimes these are what matter most. If those motives involve actions in a galaxy far far away, so much the better in my estimation. If you want to understand a time or culture, you can’t ignore its fiction, including its science fiction.

Gaiman is the last author I should recommend to my “just-the-facts” friend. The settings of Gaiman’s novels, stories, and comics, typically interface with our own world, but branch out beyond it in fantastical but oddly comprehensible ways. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane he uses these branches to elucidate the nature of childhood, the impact of one’s first real comprehension of mortality, and the difference of a child’s perspective from the perspective of an adult. The first person narrator (his name never is mentioned), unsettled by a funeral, drives to the country lane in Sussex where he lived as boy. At the end of the lane once lived a girl by a pond: both girl and pond were more than they seemed to be. If you don’t mind taking a left-turn into some very strange places, the book is worth a read.

Perhaps one reason for my unvoiced (but written) grumpiness about genres is that I’m currently retyping my first and only novel, a post-apocalyptic adventure tale titled Slog. I’ve written dozens of short stories (see and a couple novellas, but just this one full-length novel. (I’m not as ambitious, never mind as talented, as Neil.) Currently, it exists only in dead tree format (available on Amazon – or from me through Facebook). Slog, originally a short story, didn’t see initial publication until the 90s, but it came out of my typewriter much earlier – yes, I said “typewriter,” which gives a hint of how much earlier. In fact, Slog is one of my earliest stabs at fiction and, I think, both benefits and suffers for it: youthful exuberance balances the lack of polish. With all its faults, it has at least some redeeming qualities, and I’m fond of it.

Why revisit it now? When recently looking through my files (otherwise known as boxes), I discovered that my most up-to-date existing digital copy was in Word97 on a floppy. My oldest computer still reads floppies – but it couldn’t read this one. The disc had degraded. So, I’m retyping the whole of it into Word2013. In the process, I’m encountering my younger self, which is not an altogether comfortable experience; the two of us don’t share quite the same values, perspectives, or sense of humor.

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction comprise a surprisingly large and popular genre of its own. In fact, I plan to catch the next showing tonight of the movie This Is the End, a comedy about the end of the world, at a nearby theater. What are fictional apocalypses but metaphors for the certainty of personal mortality? Death is not a subject we generally like to discuss in a purely factual nuts-and-bolts way. We prefer it stylized as nostalgia, adventure, or comedy. Arguably, facing the end playfully in this manner is a brave way to do it. It’s certainly a human way.

I’m an advocate of non-fiction, too, of course. It is part of a balanced literary diet, but I don’t have much by my own pen to offer my single-food-group friend. (A few entries on my “short story” site are undisguisedly autobiographical, but only a few.) I’d have to dig out my old academic papers for anything lengthy. How about The Impact of a Vulnerable Grain Supply on the Imperialism of Fifth Century Athens? (Yes, that’s really the title of one.) There’s page-turner for him.

There even is a genre of apocalyptic tunes


  1. I should pick up Gaimen's newest. I seem to enjoy his short fiction a bit more than his longer stuff which can fee a bit unbalanced in places. Although I really enjoyed "Anansi Boys".

    Besides Gaimen loves mythology as much as I do, and he manages to do some really creative stuff with it.

    I revisit my own work from time to time, and sometimes rework elements. I've been thinking a lot about my old modern dark fantasy series I fleshed out. Modern was the late 1990s for that sucker. The internet was new and it's funny to read all the amazing properties I imbued it with. Seeing where it all ended up going now as opposed to where I hoped the information superhighway would lead us is amusing in itself.

    There are some great ideas and characters in there. The original work is very much a pastiche of what I enjoyed at the time, but I think I can make something a bit more unique and engaging. Just have to catch that final spark. It keeps eluding me.

  2. Gaiman targets different age groups with different books. "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" is definitely an an adult book, even though the narrator is recalling his childhood. I do recommend it. He does, as you say, love mythology. Yet, he said in an interview that he stopped reading Joseph Campbell after a few pages because he was worried about being too influenced by him -- that, intentionally or otherwise, he might end up modifying his plots to fit the theory. He said he preferred any correspondence to arise naturally in his writing.

    Changing technology has a way of pranking "near future" fictional settings, doesn't it? Tech never evolves quite the way even the most well-placed "experts" project. (Motorola would still be the dominant cell phone company if it did.) I'm sure you'll come up with the tweak you seek to give your series the something-extra you desire. Maybe you'll post a sneak peek for us on your blogsite at some point.