Sunday, September 25, 2011

R.I.P. Group Read: Fragile Things 3

Going Wodwo

Bitter Grounds

Other People

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:

Going Wodwo
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 green
back to my roots and leaves and thorns
and 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.

Bitter Grounds
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.

Other People
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.


Anonymous said...

I was also rather disturbed by this week's readings, especially concerning Keepsakes and Treasures. My thoughts pretty much match up with yours. There were a few redeeming things about the story, but overall, it was just too... gratuitous, I guess. Sometimes Gaiman doesn't give us enough information in his short stories. But other times he gives way too much!

Kristen M. said...

Great thoughts! I'm definitely going to have to look more into the Green Man myth and I'll check out your recommendation. And I like your comparison of Other People to A Clockwork Orange. It's that feeling of repulsion and yet acknowledging brilliance at the same time. I didn't feel that with Keepsakes -- just repulsion. What a strange mixture this week!

litlove said...

Oh conferences, absolutely, couldn't be a better setting for mass murder, zombies and mayhem. A little of that would have livened up some of the ones I've had to attend no end. I certainly feel like a zombie when I'm in them!

Carl V. Anderson said...

I freely admit that my lack of connection with Going Wodwo is a fault of my own and not of Gaiman's. He has demonstrated to me over the years that he can write engaging poetry and I am a fan of the themes of this work. There was just something missing on my part that stopped me from making that magical connection.

I think the Zora part of Bitter Grounds was meant to show how people can make the wrong connections and how the narrator just didn't care enough to correct them.

For me Bitter Grounds didn't work because the connections between the various parts of the story are too tenuous. I don't mind doing a little work to figure out a story, but Bitter Grounds feels as if I would have to give it too much benefit of the doubt to proclaim that I like it, and I'm unwilling to do that. I know Gaiman can do better. There are brilliant elements to the story (as there are in practically all of Gaiman's work) but this one fell short for me.

I would describe Other People as a great story but one that I don't like. Which of course makes no sense unless you've read it. I think Gaiman demonstrates great skill in telling a disturbing though effective story. It just isn't a pleasant one to read.

By contrast Gaiman takes a step backwards with Keepsakes and Treasures by undermining his skill in creating disturbing characters by resorting to dirty, disgusting sexual imagery to get the job done. I think Gaiman could have accomplished the same results without going the shocking route and it would have been just as effective. I know this because he has done so before.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that Zora had nothing to do with Gatsby. Fitzgerald's wife was named Zelda, and the characters were all trying to impress each other while bsing about a variety of academic topics and pretending to be smarter than they are. However, Zora Neale Hurston was an influential anthropologist and did spend time in Haiti studying voodoo.

Overall, I think that Bitter Grounds was my favorite of the week.

Alexander said...

Great post – I’m going to Tweet about your blog.

Jodie Robson said...

I read all through your post nodding emphatically and saying, oh yes! Clockwork Orange (on my list of most hated movies of all time, but I told my son to watch it nonetheless - and I heard the book on the radio a while ago and enjoyed it, as I had when I first read it - challenging and original) and The Talented My Ripley, to which I had exactly the same reaction. And you're so right about Other People making you think "what if?" - that's just why I found it so very unsettling.

Don't you think, though, that we're told that Mr Smith's preference being for young girls is precisely intended to jolt us out of the half-sympathy we've felt towards him until then, to remind us that however ill-used he has been himself, there are no redeeming features and his evil path is really a matter of choice?

Emily Barton said...

Dooliterature, yes, sometimes he definitely gives us too much information!

Kristen, well, Keepsakes was quite repulsive, but a tiny bit of brilliance could be seen peeping through it, when I looked at it just the right way. I understand perfectly, though, why others just plain didn't like it.

Litlove, having attended many conferences myself, I can't agree more that they are perfect settings for zombies.

Carl, yes, there were so many details left out of Bitter Grounds and connections not made. It's odd that I liked it as much as I did. Other people as a great story you didn't like makes perfect sense to me! I suspect Gaiman himself would say he didn't expect people to like it, necessarily. In Keepsakes, he reminds me of the way Stephen King will resort to gratuitous violence when he absolutely doesn't need to. I, like you, much prefer when authors don't do that. It's not at all necessary in order to spook and shock people, especially when you're such a talented and imaginative writer.

Alexander, thanks so much! I'm not on Twitter, so I appreciate the publicity for my little blog.

GC, yes, your interpretation of Mr. Smith's preference for young girls is a good one, and if that was Gaiman's intention, it worked beautifully for me. I wasn't sure, though, if he wasn't just trying to shock the professor, since he hasn't set himself up to be the most trustworthy guy.