Friday, June 29, 2012

Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman, 1998

Benjamin Lassiter was coming to the unavoidable conclusion that the woman who had written A Walking Tour of the British Coastline, the book he was carrying in his backpack, had never been on a walking tour of any kind, and would probably not recognize the British coastline if it were to dance through her bedroom at the head of a marching band, singing "I'm the British Coastline" in a loud and cheerful voice while accompanying itself on the kazoo.

He had been following her advice for five days now and had little to show for it except blisters and a backache. All British seaside resorts contain a number of bed-and-breakfast establishments, who will be only too delighted to put you up in the "off-season" was one such piece of advice. Ben had crossed it out and written in the margin beside it: All British seaside resorts contain a number of bed-and-breakfast establishments, the owners of which take off to Spain or Provence or somewhere on the last day of September, locking the doors behind them as they go.

He had added a number of other marginal notes, too. Such as Do not repeat do not order fried eggs again in any roadside cafe and What is it with the fish-and-chips thing? and No they are not. That last was written beside a paragraph which claimed that, if there was one thing that the inhabitants of scenic villages on the British coastline were pleased to see, it was a young American tourist on a walking tour. ---- ("Shoggoth's Old Peculiar," pages 147-148)

As a general rule, I'm not a huge reader of short stories. My ideal reading experience is a nice hefty novel, not a series of insubstantial tales that oftentimes end up feeling like a series of unsatisfying nibbles. That said, there are a handful of authors whose short stories I really enjoy, Stephen King probably being foremost among them. King's tendency to ramble and take forever to get to the point is nicely curtailed by the short story format, and you could make an excellent argument that his short story collections represent his best work.

Neil Gaiman is a very different writer (and a better writer; sorry, Stephen), but his work is often similar to King's. Smoke and Mirrors resembles King's story collections in a lot of ways: it's a jumbled, quirky collection of stories, poems and experimental odd bits, most of them in some way related to fantasy or horror, with explanatory notes on each piece. Like all story collections, Smoke is sort of a mixed bag, the diversity of its offerings making it rather inconsistent, but it contains some truly fantastic stories and certainly more good than bad.

The stories run the gamut from comic to tragic, from amusing to terrifying. Gaiman's poetry is sometimes hair-raisingly haunting and sometimes a little thin. Every single piece, even the weaker ones, are imbued with Gaiman's particular brand of the bizarre and the gleefully wicked black comedy that is his trademark. Some of these stories are absolute gems and even the ones that aren't as good are at least entertaining.

The award-winning "Snow, Glass, Apples" is arguably the most well-known story in the collection, and it's definitely one of the finest. A razor-sharp retelling of the tale of Snow White, it's a great example of Gaiman's ability to find a unique way to tell old stories, as well as his tendency to find spine-tingling horror in the oddest places (seriously, if you don't shiver at least once while you read this story, there's something wrong). One of my other favorites, "Chivalry," is a complete contrast, a light and funny story that's actually a sneakily sad tale of loneliness. Whether it's emotional impact or a gruesome reveal, Gaiman is very good at narrative sleight-of-hand: keeping us focused on one idea or concept before pulling another one out of thin air.

Overall, Gaiman's prose is better than his poetry, although he is a pretty accomplished poet, too. A few of the poems, such as the haunting "The White Road" or the bizarre Beowulf-meets-Baywatch mashup "Baywolf" are highly memorable; whereas I could take or leave "Vampire Sestina" or "The Sea Change." In general, Gaiman is better at a more protracted narrative than a fleeting impression (this definitely holds true for his prose as well). His shorter pieces tend to be less interesting, and some of them feel a little half-baked.

Gaiman is unapologetic about the way that other authors and literary works have influenced him. "The Daughter of Owls" is a straight pastiche of John Aubrey's distinctive voice and "One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock" was originally published in an anthology of stories celebrating legendary fantasy author Michael Moorcock. Several stories bear the mark of Gaiman's love for H.P. Lovecraft. The best of them is "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar," a sly little satire with some really excellent jokes. "Only the End of the World Again" has some arresting imagery, but an esoteric and impossible to follow plot. "Mouse," which according to Gaiman is his attempt at a Raymond Carver story, is another of the weaker tales in the collection, despite an intriguing central metaphor.

The least successful stories in the anthology are probably the underwritten sci-fi fable "Changes," "Foreign Parts," an icky and somewhat puzzling story of an unusual disease, "Tastings," the least erotic piece of erotica imaginable and, perhaps most of all, "When We Went to See the End of the World by Dawnie Morningside, age 11¼," an utterly cloying and poorly done story of the Apocalypse. The first of these three all have to do with sex in some form, which is an indication that it's not Gaiman's strongest subject. The last story is definitely the worst in the entire book; I can't help but wonder if its inclusion is a practical joke of some kind.

But the good far outweighs the bad. "We Can Get Them For You Wholesale" is a diabolically brilliant little piece of black comedy. The long-form poem "Cold Colors" is an eye-popping journey through a world where Hieronymus Bosch meets the iPad. "The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories," an unusually long and non-fantasy story of a writer attempting to sell his novel to Hollywood, goes from a bitterly funny diatribe to a moving mediation on fame. When Gaiman is at the top of his form, he can knock a story or poem completely out of the park.

Perhaps my very favorite story in Smoke and Mirrors is "Murder Mysteries," a sprawling tale that goes from modern-day Los Angeles to the origin of the universe, when an angel committed the very first murder. Parts of the story are astonishingly brilliant, even if the frame story never quite comes together. Very few writers could come up with a concept as mind-bogglingly original and still fewer could execute the story with the grace, wit and thoughtfulness that Gaiman does. He is truly one of the most arresting writers working today, and probably one of the finest fantasy authors of all time. Smoke and Mirrors is not without its flaws and weak spots, but the overall impression is that of a master carefully crafting miniature versions of his longer works that sometimes pack just as much (or more) of a punch.

NEXT UP: Lee Child's Tripwire, because my Jack Reacher addiction is still ongoing.

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