Forever young, sadly
It's billed as a mature work but Neil Gaiman is happier depicting youth than grown-ups in his latest novel, writes James Kidd
Over the past two decades, Neil Gaiman has won a reputation for telling tales that excite, provoke and cross genres with ease: graphic novels, children’s writing, fantasy, screenplays, science and literary fiction.
Gaiman’s persona also combines mystery and accessibility. He embraced social media when most of his peers were still tapping away at their typewriters. His tally of two million Twitter followers far exceeds that of many A-list celebrities. In short, Gaiman is the model of a modern bestselling author. Which leads us to his new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. A fairy tale that is two parts bildungsroman to one part adult reverie, the reader is offered frequent insights into Gaiman’s imagination.
Towards the end, our hero, an unnamed young boy, experiences a vision that is both terrifying (“a thin layer of birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger”) and ecstatic (“I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the water of the ocean filled me. Everything whispered inside me. Everything spoke to everything, and I knew it all.”)
It’s easy to suspect these final words are intended as the conclusion to a portrait of the artist as a young Neil Gaiman – how a childhood marked by loneliness, rare but intense relationships, and the mysterious behaviour of adults moulds an imagination prone to fantasy and escapism. “I knew it all” signals a young boy whose need to be in control inspires him to create his own moral and aesthetic universe when all around is falling to pieces: his parents argue about money and work; his father seems to be conducting an affair with a nasty, demonic nanny; and our narrator is picked on at school by boys who will one day ask him to sign their copies of American Gods. Sadly, “I knew it all” also hints at a sickly-sweet, over-confident, adolescent self-obsession that underlies the story.
Perhaps lines shouldn’t be drawn between children’s writing and adult fiction, but does that mean there are no differences at all?
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is keen to be taken seriously. “It has been eight years since his last novel for adults, the Sunday Times bestseller Anansi Boys,” Gaiman’s publishers are trumpeting. The story’s self-consciously mature and sombre mood backs this up. Our narrator, unnamed although “Neil Gaiman” might suffice, carries whiffs of maturity. He appears, Hamlet-like, in mourning weeds, grieving a loss also unnamed: a parent, perhaps?
He is a father, a divorcee, and an artist, although again the narrative isn’t telling about any of these: “I make art, sometimes I make true art, and sometimes it fills the empty places in my life. Some of them. Not all.” However, like so much else in the novel, this gives the impression of profundity without really saying anything at all. Instead of clarity we get a patented Gaimanesque dying fall. Instead of showing us character, we receive sound and fury signifying, well, not very much.
This intimation of grown-up crisis quickly dissipates as we are transported briskly towards the novel’s real business. Revisiting the pastoral idyll of his youth, the narrator recalls in sudden, perfect detail a phantasmagorical summer set in Sussex during the 1960s (also the place and time of Gaiman’s childhood).
The urgency quickens considerably, as if Gaiman feels safe exploring the unconstrained extremes of childhood. One minute we are in Arthur Ransome territory. The lonely, bookish seven-year-old spends much of the plot holding hands with 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock, who combines sentimentalised fairy-godmother/fairy-girlfriend roles. There are fond reminiscences as Lettie makes pancakes à la Enid Blyton: she would “plop a blob of plum jam into the centre”. The next moment, all hell breaks loose. In the novel’s most visceral passage, the boy’s father tries to drown him in bathwater. The parent has been bewitched by Ursula Monkton, a highly sexed, capitalist, demon nanny whose hobbies include nakedness and flying over the local fields.
While Gaiman’s interrogation of his childhood – the consolations and pitfalls of his art-in-waiting – is to be applauded, the novel itself never quite earns the right to explore these in their full complexity. The writing is a massive drawback. While Gaiman is capable of visionary purple prose (“Every blade of grass glowed and glimmered, every leaf on every tree”), his diction often seems tutored at the “cat sat on the mat” school: “The old lady gave me a cup of creamy milk from Bessie the cow.” He is especially fond of the one-sentence paragraph: and repetition which falls heavy with easily won significance. The reader can almost hear a sigh following sentences such as “I remembered that, and, remembering that, remembered everything.”
But arguably the greatest weakness is the framing device. We return full circle to a sadder, wiser middle-aged narrator, but he remains a flimsy sketch when compared to his youthful self. So inventive when describing how children create myths to explain their parents’ lives, Gaiman retreats in the face of actual grown-up concerns: he is especially hard on poor old money, for example. Three vibrant paragraphs are required to describe his youthful savouring of “spotted dick with thick yellow custard”. His children, ex-wife and art hardly warrant three sentences.
The story attempts to find a balance: “Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside … They look just like they always have … The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups.” But isn’t “we’re all kids at heart” a little too easy – not least for the “adult” book his publishers are promoting so vociferously?
A clue is offered by the finale of that vivid visionary experience. The boy asks to stay frozen in the moment of supreme transcendental revelation but Lettie tells him this would lead to his destruction: “You wouldn’t die in here, nothing ever dies in here, but if you stayed here for too long, just a little of you would exist everywhere, all spread out.”
Gaiman has described adult fiction as writing that leaves life’s “boring” bits in. But the mere fact that he views the everyday, the mundane and the grown-up as boring exposes the immaturity of his creative impulses. The reader can almost imagine him reading Jane Austen and skimming the passages about money and marriage as being too dull to command his attention. Gaiman’s novel, by contrast, seems to suffer from a form of ADHD. Its refusal to be anything other than thrilling becomes tiring and eventually annoying.
Perhaps lines shouldn’t be drawn between children’s writing and adult fiction, but does that mean there are no differences at all? Are the terms now merely marketing tools? Gaiman’s work deserves serious attention; The Ocean at the End of the Lane demands it. But he offered a far more assured, capacious and moving depiction of childhood calamity in The Graveyard Book, his superb novella for younger readers. Interestingly, his Twitter autobiography announces that: “He will eventually grow up and get a real job. Until then, [he] will keep making things up and writing them down.” Please don’t grow up too much, Neil. You’re fine as you are.