Another angle on The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Well, I couldn’t let M. Otaku have all the say on this great book. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is my favorite novel by Neil Gaiman. (I also loved Coraline, so there are not any real disagreements here.) I want to push back a little bit, though, on the idea that Coraline is better because Coraline takes care of herself. In a way, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is more like a true fairy tale. Consider the following: 1) an ordinary boy sets off on an ordinary road and finds something very extraordinary; 2) the ordinary boy survives/ succeeds only by the direct assistance of other beings who are vastly more than they seem; 3) the boy comes home again, not really through his own effort, but by obeying the second weird rule having put himself in all the danger by breaking the first.

Point 1 applies to both Coraline and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but in 2 and 3 they diverge. In a way, Coraline may be considered a type of Superman who, through her own wit, strength, and will conquers the ‘other mother’. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the boy is a type of the Christian view a mankind, essentially powerless and under assault from evil forces far outside his ability to even comprehend; in need of a champion in the fight. The boy, through the instinct of his nature, disobeys the first of what we can call the ‘Dont eat the fruit of this one tree’ type commands. And, after being plagued by the repercussions of his disobedience, flees to those who can save him. Then, though sorely tempted, he obeys the second (to stay in the fairy ring) and is saved….

(As a side note, strange rule set for the protagonist by those assisting him is very very common in fairy tales. The two I am thinking of in The Ocean at the End of the Lane are even understandable in comparison.)

(( As a side note after the side note… I thought that The Ocean at the End of the Lane was more poetic and better wrought…))

Anyway, I guess I didn’t like that Coraline fixes everything on her own, it seemed so… impossible.

 

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Hawthorne the Sage

I recently picked up my collected works of Nathanial Hawthorn, only to be reminded of how brilliant he was, and how sad it is that top ten lists can only have ten items on them. In particular, I was reading ‘The Celestial Railroad’ which is available from Gutenberg Press.

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The story was written in 1843 (according to the date on the website for the story… I didn’t look it up anywhere J ). It is almost shocking how all of the roots of postmodern life are on full display in this story. I would say that the real humanistic modernism was already plunging headlong off the cliff, they just hadn’t hit the pavement yet (that would the World Wars in this brief but hopefully apt analogy.

Anyway, I will copy a few passages here so that you know what I was talking about.

The dreamer sets out in his dream (no dancing around the dreaming trope or the allegory in this story.) on the new railroad that has been built from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City from Pilgrim’s progress. (I have many issues with that book but that is for another time…) However Hawthorn’s story is what Bunyan’s should have been, showing the result of people depending on their own strength to get to heaven. On this railroad ride all the most powerful people from Destruction and their conversation is described such:

There was much pleasant conversation about the news of the day, topics of business, politics, or the lighter matters of amusement; while religion, though indubitably the main thing at heart, was thrown tastefully into the back-ground.

Here the burdens are kept for safekeeping in a baggage car, Apollyon is the chief conductor, and  gas from the Valley of Humiliation is piped into a system to be burnt to light the way.

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There is, in the place of the Giants at the exit of the Valley, a new resident whose description I thought hilarious:

He is a German by birth, and is called Giant Transcendentalist; but as to his form, his features, his substance, and his nature generally, it is the chief peculiarity of this huge miscreant, that either he for himself, nor anybody for him, has ever been able to describe them. As we rushed by the cavern’s mouth, we caught a hasty glimpse of him, looking somewhat like an ill-proportioned figure, but considerably more like a heap of fog and duskiness. He shouted after us but in so  strange a phraseology, that we knew not what he meant, nor whether to be encouraged or affrighted.

In Vanity Fair: “… the reverend clergy are nowhere held in higher respect than at Vanity Fair. And well do they deserve such honorable estimation; for the maxims of wisdom and virtue which fall from their lips, come from as deep a spiritual source, and tend to as lofty a religious aim, as those of the sagest philosophers of old.”

And what he writes about the education is so spookily similar to post-modern education, one would think that the post-moderns lived in the 19th century… that and the communilization (if that’s a word) of morals.

The labors of these eminent divines are aided by those of innumerable lecturers, who diffuse such a various profundity, in all subjects of human or celestial science, that any man may acquire an omnigenous erudition, without the trouble of even learning to read. Thus literature is etherealized by assuming for its medium the human voice; and knowledge, depositing all its heavier particles- except, doubtless, its gold- becomes exhaled into a sound, which forthwith steals into the ever-open ear of the community. These ingenious methods constitute a sort of machinery, by which thought and study are done to every person’s hand, without his putting himself to the slightest inconvenience in the matter. There is another species of machine for the wholesale manufacture of individual morality. This excellent result is effected by societies for all manner of virtuous purposes; with which a man has merely to connect himself, throwing, as it were, his quota of virtue into the common stock; and the president and directors will take care that the aggregate amount be well applied. All these, and other wonderful improvements in ethics, religion, and literature, being made plain to my comprehension, by the ingenious Mr. Smooth-it-away, inspired me with a vast admiration of Vanity Fair.

The depiction here of a society that pretends to be on a pilgrimage while going nowhere is so oddly in sync with the modern world. It is a strong reminder not to look wistfully at the past as if it was a better, or more Christian, or more moral time. Rather we must set our resolve and deal with that hallowed time where eternity touches us: the present. I imagine that there is much to learn from Hawthorne… also he is a high-class storyteller, so I plan to re-read him. (I think I have read nearly everything he wrote already, but it’s been a while…) I think you should too, or read for the first time.

Books for Non-Readers (and a small rant)

I published this over at my main blog, but it is good for this blog too. At the end of the rant (which doesn’t show up on the reblog) I list 5 books for youth and 5 for adults who might want to get back into reading. Disagreements, discussion (or people defending The Woman in White) will be fun in the comments. I am sure M. Otaku has some thoughts as well…

The Dusty Thanes

Go look at this list and before you give you my opinion: this list is mostly BS. It always strikes me as strange how it seems always to be women giving advice on ‘reading-reluctant boys’ or ‘how to be a gentleman’ I sometimes wonder if this isn’t because men don’t care; but rather because a lot of women are nosey-parkers who don’t feel right unless they are giving advice to males… Whew! that wasn’t very nice of me, was it…

Let me continue complaining for a bit: ‘reading reluctant boys’ is actually fairly offensive. To make up a euphemism for someone who doesn’t like to read, and then talk about it only for boys is, well, forgetting that girls don’t read anything either. (…and thrill-loving girls, says the sub-title.) It is also a bit dumb to imply that boys need anything other than a well written, interesting story which…

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American Gods

This is just one proof that I need to talk or at least communicate somehow with M. Otaku more often. I have been procrastinating writing about Neil Gaiman and specifically American Gods for quite a while now. Recently, as I was trying to explain to him the Neil Gaiman experience and the book American Gods in particular, a few utterly new thoughts occurred to me. Obviously, what follows is a bit of a ramble: I am in an Airport, and I should be planning for my interview tomorrow, but these ideas are too pressing to leave for later. You see, after reading American Gods, I could not bring myself to read any more Gaiman because, well, bleak does not begin to describe it…. captivating and bleak.

I found myself in serious conflict because this was the same author (and, at a similar time, according to the prologue) as the writer of Coraline which was my second Neil Gaiman experience, and the two books could not be less similar. Coraline is brave and hopeful.  American Gods is dank and pervaded by nihilism; although, dank is probably the best description. Coraline is brief and shining, American Gods rambles and everything that shines is fool’s gold.

So, which author is Gaiman? Obviously, that cannot be answered, and I am not sure that Gaiman knows. Coraline rises to the level of Narina, books that Gaiman obviously loves and cherishes. I thought, at least at first, that he has some traces of C.S. Lewis’ Christianity and that the ghosts of Christians past sort of haunt Neil Gaiman and his writing. In that case, the ‘Coraline’ would be just the story with the strongest haunting (as the West, now mostly deceased, is haunted by its belief and Christianity yet), while American Gods shows most clearly that desperate nihilism that the postmodern world abides in: the hopes of modernism having been smashed to bits starting 100 years ago this year.

There is a train of thought that I think binds together Coraline and American Gods in the same author. I know, of course, that this is mere speculation, but, having also just now read The Ocean at the End of the Lane (and previously, Anansi Boys), I think that Gaiman knows what he is doing. What he is doing is connected by a source that I would be very, very surprised if he did not know: (obviously, since I only really blog about one thing) “The Ballad of the White Horse.” (For which, I am very grateful to M. Otaku for introducing me.)

Gunthram, the King of the Danes says: “When he shall hunger without hope/ Even for evil gods.” Alfred responds decrying the despair and anger and nihilism of the pagan king, but that black dankness is the end of all beliefs that do not end in Christ:

Your lord sits high in the saddle,
A broken-hearted king,
But our king Alfred, lost from fame,
Fallen among foes or bonds of shame,
In I know not what mean trade or name,
Has still some song to sing;

Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;

Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.

Now to tell you about American Gods. (This post wanders like the book, and is therefore fitting 🙂 ) If you care about spoilers–tough. The really good stories don’t depend on petty little secrets. The core idea is that people made the gods, but nevertheless, the gods are real. They have some real power, more real the more they are worshiped obviously. However, when people immigrated to America, they brought the gods with them, and America is a harsh place for the gods. They scrabble by, and Oden doesn’t like that. (Obviously…) (And if you whine about me letting the cat out that it was Oden, all I have to say is: the character calls himself Wednesday, its not like its a secret.) He gathers together the old gods to do battle with the new, and hopefully win their places back against the gods of the modern world. (Like the CIA spooks that everyone knows exists etc.) The main character is shadow, and he sees what he sees. Gaiman keeps what I think is a fundamental rule. He allows his characters their privacy, only telling us stuff when we need it.

Obviously, I enjoyed the fact that a lot took place in Wisconsin, and Neil Gaiman. has obviously been there for at least one winter. But the gods, the gods are dismal, and their depredations ranging from petty to horrifying, their origins following similar pattern. Although one is so tragic, and yet so believable, you will (or should) at least weep internally. Oden’s plan eventually falls apart, but nothing is really changed, nor is there any joy in the story.

But, thus is the face of the real world without including Christ. Thus was the ancient pagan world and thus is the modern pagan world. There is nothing for people except nothingness and to forget death for an hour in battle like Gunthram. It is remarkable that Jesus is never seen, nor mentioned. Only the old, squabbling, evil, petty gods, shown for themselves, not as they pretend. Wormwood in tights so to speak. It is entirely possible that Gaiman left Jesus out for the main reason that He is real, and not a figment of peoples imagination powered by people’s minds. I see no other good reason to leave out of America the defining belief of at least half of its people.

My conclusion, Neil Gaiman is a spy, a very good one. And I recommend, in order, Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Anansi Boys, American Gods, and Neverwhere. (The last one falls so far down only because it rambles without reason , American Gods rambles for good reason–ever driven anywhere in American on back roads?)

Sometime, I might well write about one of those specifically, but, for now, you at least know how I sorted out the enigma of Neil Gaiman.

#8 Tolkien

Tolkien: I dont think anyone reading this would dispute the placement of Tolkien in the top ten. I know that M. Otaku will likely argue against his placement below the likes of Clarke and Wells. I believe that he is so adamant that Tolkien be higher because he agrees with Tolkien. M. Otaku agrees with Tolkien’s worldview, with Tolkien’s Christianity, and especially with his Catholicism. But I believe that while all the best novelists wrote in English 😉 M. Otaku seems to believe that all the best novelist must agree with him. I personally find that (unfortunately) some excellent novelists are not Christian, not even in mindset. But that does not rob them of their ability nor weaken the strength of their canon of novels. So, I will defend Wells and Clarke later, for now I will write briefly to explain why Tolkien is in the top ten, which novels are the real gems, and why he doesn’t rank higher for all the excellent philosophy and important conversations his characters have.

OK, I lied, I wont take much time to explain why he fits the top ten category. Anyone who writes such incredible novels as the lord of the rings, that even after being tortured and somewhat disfigured by a screenwriter comes out to be such incredible movies that everyone reading this has seen, undoubtedly has a place in any top ten list.

But, that said, his best novels are not the ones that he wrote to invent worlds to accompany the languages he made up. Not the ones that everyone know. Actually, his best are the ones that have nothing to do with middle-earth. There is a simple beauty to ‘Smith of Wooton Major’ that is, not absent, but dimmer in the LOTR trilogy proper. That and there is a high tragedy about the Silmarillion that falters in LOTR. In fact, even ‘The Hobbit’ does better on this score.

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Yes, I am complaining about the fact that every major character lives in LOTR, even though they should, by rights, die. (No, I am not really counting Boromir, Denethor, Theoden, or Saruman…) I believe that this happens because Tolkien loved them too much and kept them around. To me, this is almost like keeping them around as undead. Also, having Frodo and Sam being rescued by Gandalf lowers Gandalf to a Deus ex Machina. No great battles were ever fought where everyone lives, something that Tolkien knew horribly well. In this he has done an injustice to his characters that he does not do in The Hobbit or the Silmarillion. Doing this minimizes the sacrifices of the people who actually did die (now I sound like all this really happened…) and makes all the individuals feel a bit like expendable riff-raff in retrospect.

The other reason I have put Tolkien so low was that, without the three LOTR, which he wanted to be one book, you have to scrounge for more novels that might elevate Tolkien further up. The Sillmarillion? Well, not really a novel, more like a collection of loosely related short stories… The Hobbit, yes. Smith of Wooton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham, though fantastic, both fit into a book the size of ‘The Dawn Treader’ so yes, the other part of my argument  is the scarcity of novels.

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Now, if we consider ‘The Lay of the Children of Húrin’ ‘ The Lay of Leithian’ (both unfinished) and all the assorted poetry in all his writings, I believe we could put Tolkien in the top 5 English poets. (Donne, Chesterton and (duh) Shakespeare would beat him, but Chesterton only by a hair.)

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(Lastly, I think Tolkien would be horrified to hear of his novels being mutilated into straight up allegory… sorry M. Otaku when we make it through the list, we need to start in on these disagreements we have, they could be lots of fun…)

#9 Andrew Klavan

Here is an author that has every chance to move up the list, since he is still alive, writing, and producing novels like ‘A Killer in the Wind’ and ‘Agnes Mallory’ as well as his past contributions to the true crime genre such as ‘The Scarred Man’ and his excellent thriller-type novels Dynamite Road, Shotgun Alley and Damnation Street . These novels fit very well into my criteria for good and great novels. The language flows, he doesn’t write down to the reader. The plots are powerful. I think good book plots should be like a feast of steak and garlic and olives, maybe some cumin: strong flavors and bright colors. Leave out the drab everydayness of most authors.

All the ingredients of a good novel (From Wiki Commons)

All the ingredients of a good novel (From Wiki Commons)

Now, Kipling, the other #9 in discussion and much praised by Medieval Otaku, is certainly an author of note. As you read that post, keep in mind that the author, praising Kipling so much, has not even touched a book by Klavan. Now I grant that the two story Barns and Noble is impressive, but the fact that they are missing Klavan is not.  There is a reason that big bookstore chains are going out of business… They only provide bad copies of old authors and massive numbers of copies of the standard pulp writers that they feel safe with. Klavan is a controversial author to most publishers and booksellers (and libraries) because he is unabashedly conservative and Christian (and almost entirely politically incorrect. Before I move on and briefly mention two books by Klavan that I thought were great, I do want to mention that of the two of us, Medieval Otaku and I, I am the only one who has read both Kipling and Klavan. Kipling is often a lot like oatmeal, healthy, strong and filling, but bland. Try to read any of his little known stories like ‘The Light that Failed’ and you will see why Kipling does not rank on my list. His only really common story that people know is The Jungle Book, and they know a mutilated Disney version… Klavan, on the other hand, generally serves powerfully flavored foods that are also healthy. Some of his books are certainly dessert, but none are gruel.

There are two novels that stand out in my mind, the first partly because it was the first book by Klavan I ever read (The Uncanny) and the second he mentioned as one of his favorites. Despite the fact that most authors are really crappy about picking their best works, Agnes Mallory definitely is one of his best. I won’t say the best, because I always hope for better. I want to move him up the list sometime.

The Uncanny: Other than being a wild and uncanny ride, it is difficult to write something engrossing and valuable at the same time, and yet, in this novel Klavan succeeds. (He does it in Agnes Mallory as well.) I will copy something I wrote for The Dusty Thanes about the Uncanny. One of the characters has a medieval document who’s author writes about damnation and salvation.

This character [the author from above] writes … very poignantly about damnation. In his writing, essentially his last words, he reveals his knowledge that he is damned, and also his knowledge that with repentance, Christ’s sacrifice and love would redeem him despite his horrible crimes (and believe me, they are vile) and he rejects salvation through pride and fear and loathing of God, and willfully chooses damnation. This scene shakes the reader, makes the reader tremble with the awfulness of damnation, and effortlessly shows the orthodox Christian understanding that humans damn themselves.

Agnes Mallory: The only story that dealt with madness anywhere nearly as well was Stephen Kings ‘N’. However, Agnes Mallory has a serious advantage. One of Andrew Klavan’s consistent themes is the importance of people’s past, and culture’s past, to their present and their futures.  King’s constant theme is the futility of human action, and the difference is clear.

The last point I would like to make for Klavan is that he is one of the few good Christian novelists currently working. Klavan is fighting the cultural fight that so desperately needs fought. A common mistake that Christians make is to excuse their lack of excellence in something by saying ‘well, its for God, so the heart is what matters.’ This is absolutely not the case with Klavan, perhaps because he was an author before he was a Christian: and that is a sad assessment of the state of Christian authorship.

In any case, I am greatly looking forward to ‘Nightmare City’ out soon…