Saturday, October 4, 2008

sketching worlds larger than ourselves

One of the reasons I so appreciate Neil Gaiman as a writer is the depth and breadth of the worlds that he builds. They're bizarre, multi-tentacled things, and there's always the indication of much more beyond the edges of the page. They reflect reality that way--there's more here than any one of us can understand. Too many fantasies fall into the trap of wanting to explain everything. Of wanting their characters and readers to understand how it all fits together. But when an author contracts her story-world into something that I can understand, with nice neat squared off corners and no messy remainders, it rings hollow to me. This "ordinary" world is already boundless. If you're going to add in magic, fantastical creatures, futuristic technology, and the like, why should it shrink? I like that Gaiman's characters neither know it all, or expect to know it all. That we as the readers tend to know rather more than any of the characters, but still get the sense that there is much, much more that we do not know.

Gaiman's newest book is The Graveyard Book. It's an homage of sorts, to the Jungle Book, about a boy whose family is murdered, who is taken in by the ghosts of the local graveyard and raised with a somewhat different understanding of reality than most of us have. It is much less macabre and horrifying than such a descripton makes it sound. Gaiman's dry, observant humor and keen insight of human nature and of children and how they go about life make for a great read or listen. Neil Gaiman is currently touring the U.S., promoting the book, reading a chapter each evening which is being recorded and posted. There are currently four chapters up. You can listen to them here.

In chapter 2, (around the 11-13 minute mark), Gaiman neatly reminds us of how much of what we take as fact, we in fact take on faith. (Bod is the boy, Scarlet his new friend)
Bod would introduce Scarlet to some of his other friends. That she
could not seem them did not seem to matter. She had already been told
firmly by her parents that Bod was imaginary, and that there was nothing at
all wrong with that
. . . . So it came as no surprise to her that Bod also
had imaginary friends. He would pass on their comments to her.
"Bartleby says that 'Thou dost have a face like unto a squished plum.' . . .
Scarlet was happy. She was a bright, lonely child, whose mother worked for
a distant university teaching people she never met face to face, grading English
papers sent to her over the computer, sending messages of advice or
encouragement back. Her father taught particle physics. But there
were, Scarlet told Bod, too many people who wanted to teach particle physics,
and not enough people who wanted to learn it. So Scarlet's family had to
keep moving to different university towns, and in each town her father would
hope for a permanent teaching position, which never came.
"What's particle physics?" asked Bod.
Scarlet shrugged. "Well," she said, "there's atoms, which is
things that is too small to see. That's what we're all made of. And
there's things that's smaller than atoms, and that's particle physics."
Bod nodded and decided that Scarlet's father was probably interested
in imaginary things.

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