Keepsakes and Treasures
from: Gaiman, Neil. Fragile Things. New York: William Morrow, 2006.
(Before we get started, I just want to draw your attention to this. If you've got an hour to kill -- I listened to it on my Smartphone while out walking one day -- I highly recommend it. It's terrific, and you'll get to hear Neil talk.)
If you had told me last week that I was going to encounter stories in this collection (which I'm reading for the R.I.P. Group Read) that I wouldn't like, I don't think I would have believed you. I now know I should have -- I think. You see, my problem is I can't say definitively that I didn't like those stories that I didn't, but boy, if I thought Closing Time made me uneasy (and, to tell the truth, the more I've read everyone else's reaction to that one the less I feel that way -- or the less I feel that the uneasiness is necessarily a bad thing), I was in for a bit of a shock. "Uneasy" doesn't begin to describe how I felt a good deal of the time this week. "Dirty" or "repulsed" might be better descriptions.
Still, this is Neil Gaiman we're talking about, so even when I'm repulsed, I can find redeeming qualities. Of course, it's only logical, given Gaiman's knowledge and use of fairy tales, that I turn into Beauty when faced with the beasts of his writing. I do have to wonder, though, if I were to read one of these stories in The New Yorker, say, and Gaiman had written it under a pseudonym, if I would be patient enough to try to redeem it. We'll never know, but I have a sneaky suspicion I might, because, unlike so much garbage put out these days that's meant to do nothing but shock and repulse, everything Gaiman writes does make me think.
So, here we go, my thoughts on this week's 4:
So far, we've gotten one poem each week, and this was it for week three. This was my favorite of the four pieces we read this week. Being big on nature and the color green, the Green Man is one of my favorite mythological characters (and if anyone's looking for a really good R.I.P read, you can't go wrong with Kingsley Amis's The Green Man, which is funny and over-the-top, and still scared me to death when I was reading it alone one night). I like the way Gaiman blended the notion of the Wodwo (a wild man of mythology) with the Green Man (a god-like figure usually represented by carving a man's face that looks like it's made out of leaves and branches). Of course, I wouldn't have known he'd done that if I hadn't read the Introduction and found out that this poem was written for a collection called The Green Man (which I now must find and read). I love this line,
...I'll stumble through the greenback to my roots and leaves and thornsand shiver. (p. 83)
You can just see the wild man's face, all leaves and thorns and buds.
This one was also fun, because I recently read Game of Thrones. That book features gods whose faces are found in trees. They brought to mind the Green Man while I was reading.
This is a zombie tale. I was never quite sure who was and who wasn't a zombie. I loved the connections Gaiman made here, though, between those of us who are basically "walking dead," emotionally, and zombies. It's a story that's confusing in the same way Closing Time was, and so I was left feeling a little uneasy again. Overall, however, I really liked it. Gaiman seems to like to use conferences as settings (my favorite is the serial killers conference in The Sandman comics), and the fact that he had an academic conference for anthropologists set in New Orleans was perfect. I've never been to New Orleans, but I'm sure that if I were to go, it would be very much the way Gaiman portrays it in this story -- full of odd characters and tourists and a feeling that something bad could happen to you, if you're not very careful, all covered in a light, supernatural blanket. Despite its being "The Big Easy," it might make me feel quite uneasy. That, as I noted above, is not necessarily a bad thing.
I have a question, though, before I leave my discussion of this one. Did Zora Neale Hurston really know F. Scott Fitzgerald and have any influence on The Great Gatsby? Wouldn't they have run in completely different circles? I can't figure out if it's true, or if Gaiman is playing with us and showing us how urban legends get spread: sometimes we believe facts that come merely from someone getting a name wrong.
This is the story I so want to hate, but I can't. It's extremely disturbing, but extremely disturbing in the way the movie A Clockwork Orange is disturbing. I still happen to think it's a great movie. I'm not sure I would describe this story as "great," but it may be close.
Part of the reason it's so disturbing is that I like to think of myself as someone who shies away from vengeance. Yet, while reading this story about a man who has to confront a demon who makes him confront all his demons, I found myself thinking, "Oh, yes. This is the sort of fate Hitler or Karl Rove ought to suffer -- people who think they're right and have it made and think only of themselves, while causing great suffering to others. They need to be introduced to their own personal hells." That's a disturbing thought for someone who likes to think that she rarely seeks revenge. Then again, it's easier to take if you read it that way, because what's also disturbing is that, even if you don't believe in hell as a place, which I don't, it's a difficult story to read without thinking, "What if?" Asking that question leads to, "Could this happen to me?" which, in turn, leads to "Don't all humans, in some way, deserve this for all the hurt and destruction they cause?" These questions are far more disturbing than discovering a hidden desire for vengeance.
Gaiman certainly knows how to tap into primal fears. These are not the sorts of fears I like to unleash. I'll take ghosts in a creepy house over a demon with a wall full of torture implements, a knowledge of all my faults, and thousands of years alone with me, thank you.
Keepsakes and Treasures
This one was like reading The Talented Mr. Ripley. As with that book, I felt like I needed a bath after reading it. How could I find myself sympathizing with such a despicable character, which our narrator certainly was? And yet, I did. I could understand why he murdered the people he did (well, except for that poor professor). I almost felt like saying, "Good for him." It takes talent to make a reader sympathize with a murderer. Still, despite the fact that the story has this classic line, "Heavens protect us from the dress sense of American academics." (p. 110) and that Gaiman wove his legendary Shahinai into a tale that, up until that point, was more British hard-boiled than dark fantasy, I don't think I liked it. True, those are redeeming qualities, but just not quite redeeming enough to get me past the despicable character with whom I've been sympathizing who eventually informs us that "his cup of tea" is pre-pubescent girls. I didn't need to know that, and the story would have been fine without the information, especially since we can't even be sure whether or not he's lying.
That's it for week 3. Let's hope week 4 is a little less disturbing.