Fat Books & Thin Women

Fragile Things Readalong: Week 2
September 18, 2011, 4:51 pm
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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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Fragile Things Readalong: Week 1

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. This should be a fun read: just four stories or poems a week, with posts on those stories going up every Sunday. I may occasionally write about a Gaiman story I’ve read for my Story Sunday post as well, but I’ll keep the two posts separate, with the short story post going up later in the day.

One of the things I most like about Fragile Things so far is Gaiman’s introduction. While you can occasionally find an author writing about the process of writing a story (the literary magazine Glimmer Train and the annual Best American Short Stories anthologies come to mind), it’s rare to have such an extended look at an author’s writing process. Gaiman is such a personable guy that I couldn’t even get worked up over the fact that nearly all his short stories are written in response to requests from magazines and anthologies. Man! Some people have all the luck! (Disregarding the years Gaiman has put into his writing career, and his obvious talent.) He also hides a short story in here, one that is more a fable than a story and works well hidden between Gaiman’s writing on his writing process.

The first story in Fragile Things is “A Study in Emerald.” Gaiman’s narrator is a recently returned veteran from a war in Afghanistan, badly injured in his shoulder, seeking someone with whom he can share lodgings. He ends up with a “consulting detective” of remarkable skill, eventually accompanying the detective on one of the cases he’s helping with. Gaiman is able to infuse this slightly off-kilter version of the world, in which England is renamed Albion and the blood of the gods is physically evident in royalty (who 700 years ago defeated humanity, and have ruled over them since, with the gods being Lovecraftian sorts of creatures), with a Sherlock Holmesian devotion to deductive reasoning. The narrator and the detective seek the murderer of a German royal visiting Albion. I am not sure how Gaiman manages it, but this story is clever and weird and somehow does bring together aspects of Sherlock Holmes with this alternate world. And though the narrator repeatedly proclaims that he is no writer and is merely doing the best he can with the story, his voice is in a perfect place between the narrator unschooled in writing and the professional author, as when he looks back on his earlier self while headed to the palace to see the Queen:

I put a hand in my pocket, pulled out a handful of coins – brown and silver, black and copper-green. I stared at the portrait stamped on each of them of our Queen, and felt both patriotic pride and stark dread. I told myself I had once been a military man and a stranger to fear, and I could remember when this had been the plain truth. For a moment I remembered a time when I had been a crack-shot – even, I liked to think, something of a marksman – but my right hand shook as if it were palsied, and the coins jingled and chinked, and I felt only regret.

At end, when we learn that the villians of this story are Holmes and Watson, that we’ve been reading about and sympathizing with the “bad guys” of Conan Doyle’s writing…well, from a lesser writer this might have seemed like a cheap and easy twist. From Gaiman it is perfect, a surprising way of looking at these characters who are such a part of our culture. I can’t help wondering what my reading of the story would have been if I were more familiar with Sherlock Holmes stories, or even with Lovecraft – if being more familiar with the characters would have made this reimagining of them even more fun.

The only problem with “A Study in Emerald”? It is such an extraordinary one that the following poem and story cannot approach its heights. “The Faery Reel” is a short poem about a self split between our world and the faery world, where a fairy lass keeps the narrator’s heart:

Until one day she’d tire of it, all bored with it and done with it
She’d leave it by a burning brook, and off brown boys would run with it.
They’d take it and have fun with it and stretch it lone and cruel and thin,
They’d slice it into four and then they’d string with it a violin.

A poem with some gorgeous images and suffused with regret and that will instantly recall, to anyone who’s read it, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

The collection’s third story, “October in the Chair,” is framed by a meeting of the seasons. October is in the chair this meeting, and so has the right to tell the final story of the night. Each story told somehow represents an aspect of the month doing the telling, and for October this means a story about a boy named The Runt who runs away, one day befriends and plays with a dead boy, and then must make a decision about whether to continue his traveling or to remain behind with his new friend, joining him in death. At story’s end the boy is about to enter a house, and not knowing what’s in it…that is what makes this story so scary, but when we come back to the seasons sitting around, preparing to disperse for another month, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed to come back to what I saw, then, as a frame distracting from the exceptionally creepy center of the story.

I’ve only read a few pieces by Gaiman but in each I’m amazed by the quality of his voice; his writing is never over-elaborate, but is able to take on the strangest worlds and situations with little apparent strain. Still, though, “October in the Chair” pales in comparison to “A Study in Emerald.” This is, and will always be, my problem with short story collections: I find one I love so much that no story in its vicinity can approach its heights, at least in my mind. Still, I’m excited to see what stories are next in Fragile Things. The only thematic constant in Gaiman’s writing seems to be a level of oddity and other-worldliness which makes his stories far more fun to read, and far more rewarding, than most.

Click here to see other responses to week 1 of the Fragile Things read!

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