July 12, 2018
(++++) WORLDS FROM WORDS
Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders. By Neil Gaiman. William Morrow. $16.99.
The new edition of Neil Gaiman’s 2007 short-story-and-poetry collection, Fragile Things, has appeared for a strictly commercial reason – as a movie tie-in – but is worth celebrating despite any crassly financial rationale for bringing it out. That is because it offers another chance, or a first chance, for readers to explore a whole set (31!) of examples of Gaiman’s ever-enlarging and ever-vivid imaginary settings and characters. Yes, one story, running all of 15 pages, is “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” and yes, that story is being made into a film, and now that that is clear, readers can look at the rest of the 360 pages of the book and discover all sorts of wonders and delights – exploring them for the first time if they missed the book’s original appearance, or wandering through them and re-enjoying them if they first read the book more than a decade ago.
Gaiman wears well. He also wears various forms of communication well: The Graveyard Book became an excellent two-volume graphic novel, Coraline an intriguing movie, and Gaiman himself produces nonfiction and his own graphic novels (the Sandman series) as well as traditional-looking books in both long form and short. Actually, Fragile Things is only one collection of its type. There are also Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions (1998) and Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (2015). So Fragile Things is the midpoint of these collections to date – which matters very little in terms of its contents, which range, like all Gaiman’s writings, from the sensitive to the horrific, from the chilling to the warm, from the wonderful and wonder-filled to the mundane, or apparently mundane.
Really, nothing is ordinary in Gaiman’s worlds. He is quite capable of deceptive gentleness that barely covers pathos, as in the boy-meets-ghost story “October in the Chair,” and of utterly bizarre juxtapositions, as in the Doyle-meets-Lovecraft “A Study in Emerald.” He can write extremely short pieces, such as the 12 stories contained within “Strange Little Girls” and the one-page “In the End,” although he does not handle brevity in the captivatingly ironic manner of Fredric Brown. Gaiman is equally effective at novella length, as in “The Monarch of the Glen.” He intelligently, introspectively and engagingly reconsiders fairy tales, as in “Locks” and “Inventing Aladdin,” and the Narnia novels, as in “The Problem of Susan.” He does not possess the verbal-contortionist abilities and genuinely strange sensibilities of R.A. Lafferty, whom he admires, but when he writes a sort-of-Lafferty story such as “Sunbird,” he crafts something that is not Lafferty but could not have existed without him. Gaiman’s poetry is not very good and, for that matter, not very poetic, but is worth reading when it appears in Fragile Things because it provides some punctuation points and connective tissue among the prose narratives – which were originally published in a wide variety of places, but which come across as having an overarching if hard-to-pin-down theme as Gaiman has arranged them for this collection.
Actually, it may not be so hard to find a theme, or meta-theme: Gaiman’s stories are all about stories, about storytelling, about the art and importance of using stories to communicate from generation to generation and era to era, about the marvels that can be made with the simple (apparently simple) tools to which Gaiman himself pays tribute: the 26 shapes that we collectively call the alphabet, a smattering of commas and periods and question marks and such, and a soupçon (or, in Gaiman’s case, a heaping helping) of imagination and thoughtfulness. Whether his topic is punk and the 1970s (which is where “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” comes in) or the now-classic film The Matrix (“Goliath,” written before the movie came out, on the basis of reading its screenplay), Gaiman picks and pokes at the edges and interstices of topics until he finds the places where something weird peeks out – or can be inserted. The stories in Fragile Things date to various times and are written in a variety of styles, but their sensibilities are recognizably Gaiman’s, and that is what makes the reappearance of this collection just as welcome in 2018 as its original publication was in 2007.