August 25, 2013

Review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

When I learned a year or so ago that Neil Gaiman’s first novel for adults since 2005’s Anansi Boys, I was thrilled. Sure, that last novel didn’t do much for me, nor did most of his subsequent writing for children, but I’m a lifetime Gaimanophile—I’ll read pretty much anything the British expatriate puts out. This is because he established such a solid early track record for me with NeverwhereStardust, and especially American Gods.

Enter The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a whimsically evocative title that itself encapsulates much of what I love about Gaiman. The tale is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, looking back on a defining period in his childhood. The young boy, whose name we never learn, witnesses a suicide that unleashes some strange, powerful cosmic forces in rural Sussex, where the novel takes place. The child is aided in the conflict by the enigmatic and archetypal Hempstock family. Bizarre events ensue.

As with any Neil Gaiman work, the writing is top-notch. Description, dialog, and action all shimmer off the page. When shit gets weird, pardon my French, the events are still grounded in vivid, expressive language that makes it feel as though we might encounter them in our own backyards. The characters, particularly the Hempstock trio, also deserve high praise. To me they evoke the best traits of Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. In the descrepancy of their age (at least their apparent age), they also allude to the Fates of Greek mythology or the Norns of the Old Norse cosmos.

If I had never read a Gaiman novel before, I may have written an unbridled encomium for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as indeed most high-profile book critics and publishing reviews seem to have done. The problem is that I’ve read this Neil Gaiman book before. I’ve read parts of it in Stardust and found splinters of it in his short stories. And from plot to tone to motifs, many elements of the novel have appeared in Gaiman’s fiction for children and young adults.

This perhaps is my biggest qualm with the book. When the book was announced and I read the phrase “first novel for adults,” visions of the deep, nuanced character development of American Gods, or at least the slightly grimier, lived-in setting of Neverwhere, danced through my head. With the exception of a suicide early on, though, I challenge you to find much in Ocean that couldn’t be digested by high school readers. To be fair, marketing may be more at fault than Gaiman himself, but the result is the same. I came away from the book feeling as though I had been duped.

The plot also feels rather thin, “like butter scraped over too mcuh bread” as Bilbo famously said. The story begins with promise: cosmic powers in conflict with nothing less than reality at stake. But the stakes are never really raised, at least not for the world at large. Sure, the main characters undergo their own crises and transformations requisite in good literature, but the scope of the threat is never fully illustrated. Part of my objections to the novel’s plotting may come down to personal taste, but at least some of them, I think, are justified.

In a Tor.com article, Leah Schnelbach recounts that, at an event, Gaiman explained that the story was originall intended as a novella.

I told my publishers there was a novella on the way, but then I did a word count at the end, and realized I just wrote a novel by accident! […] It wasn’t plotted. Things kept taking me by surprise. It’s not making things up, it’s getting into what did actually happen.

Gaiman’s approach to the creative process is beautiful, but in the case of Ocean, it just didn’t work. I might have enjoyed this story in a Gaiman collection, but by the end of a full-length novel edition I confess I was weary.

In the usual “crap sandwich” style of my reviews, I will conclude with more praise. I “read” this book in audio form, narrated by Gaiman himself. Most authors lack the voice acting chops to narrate their own work, though many still try, but Gaiman’s mellifluous rhythms and upturned sentence endings fit the charming, surreal tone of this novel particularly well. With the possible exception of Stardust, the audio edition of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is perhaps the finest specimen of the author’s narration you’ll find. Oh, except for his reading of his poem “Instructions”.

September 14, 2011
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I just ousted Kelly T. as the mayor of Apple Store on @foursquare! http://t.co/joMi3Xc

September 8, 2011

RT @julieacrisp: Sad news - Douglas Adams’ widow Jane Belson passed away yesterday. http://t.co/9qNSjrP

September 6, 2011

RT @Greenspeak: Bravo to @comiXology for a truly great redesign of an already great app. Much prettier, friendlier, easier to use. Thumb …

September 4, 2011
September 3, 2011

Making Space - I’ve found myself very busy lately, between work, social engagements, family… http://t.co/S8fnhBt

September 2, 2011

"Creativity when not used turns to depression." - Henri Reiman http://t.co/tWlcx6x

August 5, 2011

I just ousted @maadbiker as the mayor of Infuzion Cafe on @foursquare! http://4sq.com/9Y7Nik

August 3, 2011

Downtown Santa Monica with friends… Good times. @ Sonoma Wine Garden http://instagr.am/p/JNqiU/

July 29, 2011

Holy hell GHOST STORY is good so far. Jim Butcher (@longshotauthor) has done it again.

April 28, 2010

Guide Dogs, er, Gay Dogs Not Allowed??? http://bit.ly/bYW00A /cc @GDB_info

April 27, 2010

Yay! It’s Moominweek on @tordotcom. @EMacleodD got me hooked on these cute lil guys http://bit.ly/bSPF1D