The teeny little book that a friend gave me as I visited home, a thin hardcover that seemed bite-sized compared to the last four books I'd read, proclaimed itself A Novel under its big title and beautiful cover art. I gave a knowing little hm. Neil Gaiman was selling this book differently. I wondered why, a little, and then forwent the thinking about it and just read the darn thing.
Neil Gaiman gets by on many things, but the key is charisma. Tall, curly-haired, with a sort of knowing glint in his eyes, he draws an audience like a flea draws varmints--in multitudes, apparently. He is the Joss Whedon of fantasy writing, and it's little wonder.
Those caught up in the dank labyrinth of Game of Thrones love George R.R. Martin, but the enormously-bearded man is not a peerlike, inquisitive sage, but instead a crafty, devious storyteller who has it in for everyone in his stories--the bloodier, the better, especially if they get naked a few times beforehand. Supporters of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan are more like archaeologists than bookworms, and Brandon Sanderson lovers "really dig" the dude who writes such "awesome" stuff.
Fantasy writing has its nuances, just as any genre, and Neil Gaiman avoids a certain camp: the camp of making-up-your-own-names, inventing crazy new species, making a storyworld you could play D&D in. Gaiman pulls out of mythology, folklore, and the urban obscure. Besides Stardust, his major works are universally set in the modern day, with protagonists living normal lives presented with the delirium, confusion, and beauty of the Other world. And this is where he finds his niche, his charisma, and his magnetic draw:
Whereas other writers spin fantasies out of their dreams to amuse, startle, and teach, Gaiman always seems, just a little bit, to believe. His fiction shows the reader a world that lurks beneath their apartment building, or at the other end of the pond behind their house, and instead of a neat moral to tie things up, the final temptation always asks "Why don't you take a look?"
Considering this introduction, it's important to point out that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, essentially, a Neil Gaiman novel. It follows his patterns, reads in his understated, clearly enunciated voice, and charms and enraptures as he knows so well how to do.
But The Ocean at the End of the Lane is more.
The book tells the story of an Englishman coming home for a family member's funeral and, by a sort of driving autopilot coincidence, visiting the backyard of an old neighbor. Behind their house at the end of a long lane sits a pond. The neighbor in question, the long gone-away-to-Australia Lettie Hempstock, called their pond an ocean, and this memory triggers a leap back into the man's memories as a seven-year-old. His memories are the substance of the story.
The story of a young boy and his relationship with a family who turn out to be much, much more than they seem follows the same path as many fantasies. There are dark things at work in his town. One feels ripples in the water--ripples coming from Coraline, MirrorMask, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, an ebb pushing from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and a deep undercurrent from the tradition of English fairy folklore and other myths.
The story itself is a precious, well-hewn tale that walks down familiar paths with all the fear, wonder, and depth that we felt before, but where Neil Gaiman has spent his career as a jazz musician of folkore, improvising and riffing on what has already been told, Ocean draws it together. It connects all of the stories of its kind ever told, and what's more, it tries to explain them to us, through the eyes of a seven-year-old. For the first time, or at least in a new way as fresh as a homegrown tomato, Neil Gaiman hands his audience his heart and the reason that he tells the stories he does.
When facing off against a frightening aberration that is tormenting his family and now threatening to destroy him, our protagonist observes: "It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh. She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win."
Ocean is so obsessed with children & adults that at first I worried for its well-being. So many of those stories simply stop at "children are better than adults, they have that intuition thing" and it seems like a cop out to be escapist and displeased with growing up.
But that is not what the book is trying to do. Like a young religious seeker, Gaiman dives into a secretive world trying to find answers. Though seven-year-old eyes see the story, the man remembering them is middle-aged. He is trying to come to grips with a past that he only somewhat understands and remembers.
The beauty of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is how many answers he finds. This seven-year-old sees "the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty", and though he dreams of escaping to the world in Lettie's "ocean", what he eventually discovers is much deeper, much more real, and ultimately, amazing.
Note: (Added August 4th, 2014) Gaiman's book is not perfect; few are, and even perfectly-engineered books can seem silly. But the book has grown on me. There are passages here as powerful and mysterious as the Gospel of John, and just as the fourth gospel brings purpose to the story of Christ as the others cannot, so Ocean, I think, is telling the story of what nerds and geeks and dorks are really after. Less mature, emotional works can celebrate the educated elite that make up those demographics, showing the innovation and smarts and community grown out of it. But Gaiman looks past these things to the childlike sense that there are things beyond reality:
"I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.” There is fear and terror here. But beyond it there is purpose. When presented with a beautiful possibility of knowledge without hurt, a young witch tells the protagonist boy that knowing everything is no fun, because it means you can't play. "Play at what?" he responds.
This is the real quest of the nerd kingdom, whether they seek after it or not. And though it may perhaps sink into obscurity, Gaiman's work may become the Gospel of John of the Bible of Geekdom, and hopefully, of all those who choose to imagine.
I recommend The Ocean at The End of the Lane without reservation to any human being, fairy, hobgoblin, kobold, spirit, selkie, or shadow creature that might come across it, or that uses currency to purchase books. And more especially to those who do not read fantasy, I implore you: Read this book. Step into this ocean and see things a little differently. Or maybe a lot.