September 05, 2013
(++++) MEMORY AND BEYOND
The Ocean at the End of the Lane. By Neil Gaiman. William Morrow. $25.99.
Deaths unlock the past and its mysteries in Neil Gaiman’s elegantly written new fairytale for adults – decidedly for adults. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the fictional memoir of an unnamed middle-aged protagonist, and “unnamed” is important, since the characters whose names are given are quite different in type and in kind from those whose names are not. The narrator has returned to Sussex, where he lived as a child, to attend the funeral of an equally unnamed family member (there are hints that it is his father); and he finds himself wandering through childhood haunts – and haunting they do turn out to be. The story moves back, back, from the human death that sets it in motion to the death when the narrator was age seven of his beloved kitten, run over by a car driven by a lodger who then, for reasons not directly related to the kitten’s death, himself commits suicide.
Three deaths in 17 pages, and Gaiman is just getting started. There is also what many children would consider a fate worse than death in those first pages, a seventh birthday party to which no one comes – not one single person – although the narrator, a lonely child, is not deeply affected, taking the “boxed set of Narnia books” he receives as a gift upstairs to soothe and guide himself: “Books were safer than other people anyway.” But maybe not this book.
As an adult, the narrator – about whom, really, we learn remarkably little everyday information – does something relating somehow to art, and has no romantic attachments or, apparently, attachments of other sorts. “Memories were waiting at the edges of things, beckoning to me,” says the narrator early in the book, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about the memories of childhood, the things that happened and the ones that could not possibly have happened but nevertheless did. The narrator’s move from the mundane realities of adult life and a ceremony marking its end to a childhood fraught with possibility, beauty and terror happens so quickly and so subtly that readers will find themselves pulled in deeply – as into, yes, an ocean – almost before they realize that the tides have hold of them.
The “ocean” of the title is, on a mundane level, merely a duck pond, but it is indeed oceanic, not only through the magic with which the narrator is connected because of the girl who labels it “ocean,” 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock – whose name we do know, rather emphatically, and that is significant – but also in the sense of the oceanic depths unlocked within and around the narrator by his returning memories of his seven-year-old self and his onetime friend and guide. Where Lettie guides him is an important element of the book, as is how she does so. And the where and how become significant facets of a story in which Gaiman guides his readers and pulls them into the depths.
There is love in this little story – and it is little, quite easy to read in a single sitting and probably inevitably to be read that way, so involving does it quickly become. There is faith, too, the faith of childhood and the lost faith of the adult, perhaps recapturable to at least some extent through a visit to one’s past. There is something redemptive to the story as well, although not redemptive in any religious sense. The sense here is that we are all of us children inside, really, and that that is a good thing, a thing to be treasured, a thing that explains much about how the world works and where we all fit within it.
There is also danger here, old and magical danger in which a seven-year-old believes implicitly but which an adult, even one containing a seven-year-old’s sensibilities, must resolutely deny. Indeed, the gulf between childhood and the adult world is the underlying theme of this story – or one of the themes – because the narrator’s family’s unawareness of the danger is part of what makes the tale frightening. And it is frightening, on an existential level that laps over from the world of magic into that of space, time, black holes and the frontiers of scientific knowledge – which, when you come right down to it, have a great deal that is magical about them. “The reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger,” the narrator comes to realize, and thoughtful readers will realize this with him. It is not a particularly comforting realization.
In such works as Coraline and The Graveyard Book, Gaiman has again and again pulled back the shroud that keeps the perceptions of childhood separate from those of adults. Both those books, like The Ocean at the End of the Lane, draw deeply on myth and fairytale and the world of maybe. Maybe the duck pond really is an ocean. Maybe Lettie’s family really can see atoms, manipulate bacteria, make the moon full every night, remember the Big Bang. Maybe the narrator’s loneliness and fear in childhood (he tells us that he always slept with a light on and the door open) make him vulnerable to terrors that are not really there – or maybe they enable him to see and experience things that a less-sensitive child, or an adult, would miss. Certainly we know from the references to the Narnia books and to Lewis Carroll that the narrator is, or was, someone prone to losing himself, or perhaps finding himself, in fantasy, to finding it more appealing and somehow more “real” than reality. But this begs the question of where the one leaves off and the other begins – a question to which Gaiman returns again and again, in this book as in many others. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is by and large a serious story, its occasional glimmers of amusement coming across as somewhat unnecessary stylistic sparkles, for all their inherent attractiveness. It is ultimately a book about loss – but not so much the loss experienced through a funeral as the deeper and more profound loss, more profound because largely unacknowledged, of the ability to reach out and touch the extraordinary. That ability is what childhood has and adulthood lacks, Gaiman tells us – here and elsewhere. And it is a heartrending circumstance, made all the more so by our adult inability to perceive it. Unless, of course, we join Gaiman on a journey to reconnect with the child whom we all carry inside.