Fat Books & Thin Women

Fragile Things Readalong: Week 2
September 18, 2011, 4:51 pm
Filed under: Fragile Things Readalong | Tags: , , ,

For the next month or so I’ll be participating in the read of Neil Gaiman’s story and poem collection, Fragile Things, run by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. You can see links to other responses to this week’s reading by clicking here.

“The Hidden Chamber” is a gorgeous, sad poem that twists and reforms itself even as you’re reading, from a story about a haunted house that can hold neither mice nor dreams (“Apart from ghosts nothing lives here for long. No cats, / no mice, no flies, no dreams, no bats.”) to the narrator’s decisions regarding the décor of the house:

I’ve broken with tradition on some points. If there is
one locked room here, you’ll never know. You’ll not find
in the cellar’s fireplace old bones or hair. You’ll find no blood.
just tools, a washing machine, a dryer, a water heater, and a chain of keys.
Nothing that can alarm you. Nothing dark.

to the narrator’s love for the “you” of the poem, a love that includes within itself an urging for you to run away from the house and a sense of the narrator’s power when it comes to the house and its rare inhabitants in his consideration of whether to follow his love down the lane and bring her back, or wait in the house, light in the window “to light your way back home.” This is a poem to make haters of poetry fall in love with the form.

In “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire” Gaiman gives us a gothic story about a woman, Amelia Earnshawe, who has just inherited the family home and its accompanying curses. Gaiman alternates between this story and the framing narrative of a young man writing Amelia’s story; but as he tells everyone around him who will listen (including a speaking raven) he is tired of his story, of the realistic fiction he writes and the way he is unable to write anything that doesn’t devolve into slapstick.

Gaiman’s play here, making the gothic landscape of books like The Castle of Otronto the “real world”, is entertaining but occasionally feels unfocused; the joke is there, but is so drawn-out that the reward, at end, of finding that the “stock images of fantasy” are the average images of our day, “cars and stockbrokers and commuters, housewives and police, agony columns and commercials for soap, income tax and cheap restaurants, magazines and credit cards and streetlights and computers” doesn’t quite make up for the time devoted to this story that offers its reward only in a one-off joke rather than in a compelling narrative. When I wrote about “A Study in Emerald” last week it was with awe that Gaiman managed to succeed in a story that might have seemed cheap in the hands of another writer. In this case, the cleverness of Gaiman’s flipping of the fantasy/realistic novel isn’t enough to carry the whole of this lengthy and sometimes unfinished feeling story.

“The Flints of Memory Lane” is another story that plays, in its way, with the idea of stories and what makes a good story. The narrator opens by writing, “I like things to be story-shaped”; but of course, life isn’t story-shaped, and neither is his life. There’s some appeal to this idea, of “The Flints of Memory Lane” being not a story at all but an honest recollection, but Gaiman so strips his narrator of the ability to craft a narrative that there’s little of interest in the story. When in the second paragraph the narrator writes, “Recounting the strange is like telling one’s dreams: one can communicate the events of a dream but not the emotional content, the way that a dream can color one’s entire day” there seems to be some hope of an interesting back-and-forth on narration and how we are able to recount “the strange” of our lives, but at end this passage is simply a disclaimer for the story. The narrator recounts the events of his short ghost story, which is nothing more than an encounter with a ghost, an encounter that lasts the length of a smile, but there is no feeling behind it, no sense of emotional content behind the simple recollection.

“Closing Time”, I thought, made better use of the frame in its narrative, and did a better job with the childhood ghost story. The framing story sees four men in an after-hours club, the Diogenes, comparing ghost stories they were told as children and finding their falsities, until one tells a story from his own childhood. The facts of the story (playing with two older boys, exploring what they believe is an abandoned house, the story’s narrator’s seeming understanding of what has happened to the older boys, or at least that something has happened, uncolored by shock or horror) are basic enough, but Gaiman here gets the tone, the emotion, just right. Dealing with Gaiman’s framed narratives is teaching me that I’m not a fan of them, but here the device works well, with the framing close to the story adding to the central ghost story, amplifying it. And on both ends, that of the men being the last to leave a club, wrapped up in their stories and histories, and that of the child being initiated into a world’s inexplicable horrors, Gaiman gets the tone and the feel just right.

I didn’t love any of today’s stories as much as I did last week’s “A Study in Emerald.” But both the poem “The Hidden Chamber” and the story “Closing Time” mark what eerie depths of emotion Gaiman is capable of plumbing.

Click here to see other responses to week 2 of the Fragile Things read!

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I must admit that I liked the sparseness of The Flints of Memory Lane – my feeling was that what made it clever was what went on around it, rather than the story itself – the comments that it’s not story-shaped, and that it’s unsatisfactory. For me it works as part of an anthology, I’m not sure that I would have been very struck by it if I came across it out of the blue.
I also like the way that sharing our responses to these stories is making me think so hard about why some of them work for me!

Comment by GeraniumCat (@GeraniumCat)

Right, I understand those bits about the not-story shaped “story” being unsatisfactory; it WAS! I just wasn’t able to get over my unsatisfied feeling to appreciate the story; I think in a different context, one in which the reader (or listeners – this is really one I can imagine being read out loud) could respond with his or her own ghost stories, would have been a lot of fun. I agree with you that it wouldn’t work for me as a standalone story.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I had very similar thoughts on “The Flints of Memory Lane,” in fact, it’s the only story thus far in the groupread that I haven’t really cared for. It just seemed to feel incomplete. I mean, I know that that’s the point that he’s trying to make, but it was unsatisfying to read.

Comment by Grace

Kinda relieved that someone else feels the same way…I know that the point of the story is its incompleteness and the fact that it doesn’t have a “story shape,” but that Gaiman was going for those things doesn’t make me care for it any more.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

It’s so interesting to me to read all the different reactions. My feelings seem mostly to have been the exact opposite of yours. I usually love framing stories, but “Closing Time” didn’t really work for me. Meanwhile, I loved Forbidden Brides, which brought Terry Pratchett (among others) to mind and made me realize why he and Gaiman paired up so successfully to write Good Omens. But I absolutely agree that The Hidden Chamber is a poem to make haters of poetry fall in love with the form.

Comment by Emily Barton

I’m not a fan of poetry at all, but The Hidden Chamber does make me reconsider those feelings. If only all poems were written by Neil Gaiman. Haha.

I also had similar feelings about Forbidden Brides. It was way too long for what it was. :/ I think I could have done without maybe one section of “the story” and one section about the author trying to write the story, and then the switch to “fantasy,” or something, but the way it is now was way too long for me to relish the idea of our world being a fantasy at the end.

Comment by Anna D.

Right! I like imagining that if my high school English classes had thrown some of Gaiman’s poetry in there, I would have been a lot less resistant to the form.

I think I expected some more pay-out from Forbidden Brides, and the twist Gaiman throws in (fun as it is) wasn’t enough for me. I agree with you, I think I would have enjoyed it more if it’d been edited down.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I think what makes Flints of Memory Lane actually work really well is that Gaiman points out in the introduction that it actually is a true story. It isn’t just a storytelling device to say it is a true story, it is actually his only “haunted/ghost” experience and as he said is not “story shaped”. That is what makes it work because it is told simply, the way you would if you were just relating tales of “this happened to me when I was a kid” with your friends.

I’ve always liked the framing stories device although it isn’t always executed well. I think Gaiman does a good job of it with both of these stories, the first (October) leaving many of us wanting to spend more time with the members of the month and so in some ways it feels incomplete, or at least leaves us wanting more. In Closing Time we are allowed to see the characters disperse and are given a clue at the beginning of the story that the bar in question is no longer there and so it feels more complete but leaves the reader wondering, with an eerie feeling in the pit of his/her stomach what just happened.

I can see the criticism of Forbidden Brides going on too long, although I would actually like to spend more time in that creepy world. I think if all that is gained from reading it is the one-note joke then it is indeed a disappointing story. I liked it so much because I am such a big fan of all those gothic tropes, even when they are overblown. I’d love to know more about Amelia Earnshawe and the plight of her and others in the story.

Comment by Carl V.

Thanks for pointing that out about the intro. Since I don’t have a bookstore where I could buy Fragile Things I’m reading it on my kindle, making the sort of flipping back to the intro I’d normally do impossible. Well, not impossible – but a huge pain. I still don’t care for the story, non-story, as it’s presented in the collection, but as I wrote in my response to GeraniumCat, I can imagine loving this story if it were presented differently. Either in a forum that allowed for the sort of interaction you mention (because it is presented as something you can imagine a friend saying), or at the least hearing it narrated much like a friend would narrate a ghost story of his or her own.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I’m doing something similar since I am listening to this on audio. I keep going back and grabbing the book so I can re-read certain sections of the introduction.

Comment by Carl V.

I agree whole-heartedly with Emily, that one of the best parts of this read-a-long is hearing what everybody else thinks of the stories! I also seem to feel quite differently than you did, especially concerning both “The Hidden Chamber” and “Flints”. I mean, to call “The Hidden Chamber” “a poem to make haters of poetry fall in love with the form” is quite the statement! I’m glad to see that you loved it as much as you did, thought, because I think every poem and stories needs lovers, and I sure wasn’t as enamored with it as you were!

I also think that what you call a ‘lack of interest’ due to a lack of crafting the narrative in “Flints” is actually an effort to play with what a “story” is, and how one can perceive their own life as a story, whether it follows a narrative outline or not. Additionally, the fact that the narrator is so innocent, and that it may be the only ‘true’ ghost story of Neil Gaiman’s life (this is what he tells us, but he is Neil Gaiman so I agree with Carl, that it wouldn’t be past him to say that it’s true just to have it not be, to mess with us and with the concept of ‘story’) means that there is a lot more personal significance there, for me, than otherwise. I mean, this story could very well be one told by any child or teenager, a memory sticking with them long in to adulthood.

Whether I agree with them or not, I loved reading your thoughts and such well-done analysis of this week’s reads. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say next week!

Comment by Chelsea

As I read your comment Chelsea I was reminded of how much I love what Anne Fadiman calls the “personal essay”, and I think I subconsciously approach The Flints of Memory Lane, as if it is an essay of a brief event in a real person’s life and so I am not reading it as fiction and I see it through different eyes. The way I look at it is, if it was a blog post any of us had written we would probably all be praising the writer and sharing our own haunted ghost stories, even if they seemed insignificant. That is what is fun about that story.

Comment by Carl V.

Haha, I think what I most liked about the poem was that it’s so simple, the language is so clear, there’s a recognizable narrative to the thing, is that I can imagine someone who has never cared for poetry reading it and realizing that poetry isn’t all fluff and incomprehensible strings of words we’ve got to parse for their symbolic meaning. I think some of Gaiman’s poetry would be fantastic in a high school English class…give it to some kids who say they hate poetry, see what happens.

I do understand what Gaiman was going for in terms of playing with the idea of what makes a story, how we can perceive our own lives as stories, in “Flints.” I just didn’t think it was done particularly well or effectively; it’s not an author’s intentions that make a story notable, but to what degree he succeeds in realizing those intentions.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

“I do understand what Gaiman was going for in terms of playing with the idea of what makes a story, how we can perceive our own lives as stories, in “Flints.” I just didn’t think it was done particularly well or effectively; it’s not an author’s intentions that make a story notable, but to what degree he succeeds in realizing those intentions.”

I understand where you are coming from and agree, with the exception that “Flints” seems to have a pretty divided opinion as some, myself included, think it was done effectively and that he did succeed and others who don’t. And I find that interesting because no matter what side of that fence one is on “Flints” is a very simple story that obviously resonates with some people and not with others. And I for one am happy about that because it makes for some really interesting discussion.

Comment by Carl V.

I’m enjoying all the back and forth too. Although there are some wide divisions in how people are reacting to each story, the discussion is just a fantastic opportunity for me to, in some cases, better understand the story and gaiman as a writer, and in other cases to see where people are coming from in their reading of the stories. It’s a lot of fun.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I found this week’s readings less compelling than last week’s as well. I like what you say about the poem, though it just didn’t work for me, and I love what you said about “Flints” – I did a poor job articulating my thoughts on it but you were spot on. It’s almost like the narrator makes excuses for the story. Great post.

Comment by Jennifer Maurer

Oh, I wish I would have known about this earlier! Well, maybe I don’t, since my plate’s pretty full, but I have been meaning to read this collection for ages. I’m glad you’re enjoying it & will delve into your thoughts more after I get a chance to read it.

Comment by zeteticat

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