October 12, 2006


Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders. By Neil Gaiman. William Morrow. $26.95.

Coraline. By Neil Gaiman. Illustrations by Dave McKean. HarperCollins. $15.99.

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. By Neil Gaiman. Pictures by Dave McKean. HarperTrophy. $7.99.

     Neil Gaiman is a continuing astonishment.  Not fully satisfied with producing super-successful novels, such as Anansi Boys and American Gods, he persists in creating marvelous short stories and poems as well.  Fragile Things is his latest gift to readers – and the particular astonishment here is how much strength Gaiman finds within the notion of fragility.  He tells readers so: “The peculiarity of most things we think of as fragile is how very strong they are.”  But more importantly, this amazing tale spinner shows readers the strength that underlies delicacy.

     True, this is not a new concept.  Ask any scientist familiar with eggs, and he or she will point out that these containers of life are really amazingly tough in their own way.  Or listen to Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, which gives the lie to the notion of the easily breakable human heart: “Hearts do not break – they sting and ache.”  Yet Gaiman demonstrates again and again, in works from the emotional to the sarcastic to the science-fictional to the indescribable, that apparent fragility is by no means the same as actual fragility.

     Sometimes the protection of what is fragile comes at a cost, as in “How Do You Think It Feels?” – in which a gargoyle is created to protect a man’s heart rather than a cathedral, and does so somewhat too successfully.  Sometimes the heart’s fragility is merely the flip side of its durability, as in the very strange “Harlequin Valentine,” where reality and commedia dell’arte intersect through a peculiar form of cannibalism.  Cannibalism in the flesh appears in this book, too, in “Feeders and Eaters,” which originated as one of Gaiman’s nightmares and shows how thoroughly the author’s own fears can be transmissible to readers.  Gaiman has other nightmares in Fragile Things, too: “Other People” is a snake-eating-its-tail story of Hell, in the Fredric Brown mode; “The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch” is both a horror story and a highly unusual abduction tale, if “abduction” is the right word; “The Problem of Susan” is a sensitive but still horrific reconsideration of a significant flaw in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books; and “Keepsakes and Treasures” is violent and deeply disturbing on multiple levels.

     Gaiman is a fluid stylist with the rare talent of creating empathy for his characters even in a very short tale.  He also has a seriously skewed imagination that can unite the most unlikely themes: “A Study in Emerald,” the lead story in Fragile Things, would be a masterpiece of its kind if it were possible to figure out what its kind is.  It is no less than a joining of the ultra-rational world of the Sherlock Holmes stories with the tales of gibbering, utterly irrational fear from beyond the stars created by H.P. Lovecraft.

     Rather oddly, some works in Fragile Things are for children, or occasioned by Gaiman’s relationship with his own kids: “Locks,” a retelling of a retelling of the Goldilocks story, and “Instructions,” which tells you what to do if you ever find yourself inside a fairy tale.  It seems worthwhile to remember that what Gaiman considers appropriate for children is not necessarily what most parents would want to give their kids.  Think, for example, of Coraline, a creepily scary 2002 novel that Gaiman said could be read by kids as young as eight.  Hmm.  Probably not.  This is a book in which the young title character innocently enters a chilling world of otherness in which a being claiming to be her “other mother” insists she stay – and have her eyes replaced with buttons, as the other being’s eyes are.  Coraline’s parents disappear, the “other mother” turns out to have engineered several successful entrapments before going after Coraline, and the whole scenario – abetted by Dave McKean’s ghoulish illustrations – plays out as something scary enough to give most younger children nightmares lasting well into adolescence.

     Yet it is worth noting that Gaiman and McKean can collaborate on an amusing, offbeat book that is thoroughly appropriate for kids as young as five – and has only a hint of darkness at the end.  That would be The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, first published in 1997 and now available in a new paperback edition.  This book shows Gaiman filtering autobiographical elements (which he explains at the end) through the unique distorting lens of his mind.  It’s a simple enough story, and an amusing one: a boy trades his father (who never pays much attention to anything) for two goldfish, but when his mother insists he reverse the trade, it turns out his father has already been traded for something else, and then for yet another thing, and so on.  The boy, dogged by his little sister, has to walk farther and farther to reverse all the exchanges and try to get his father back.  The siblings have several adventures along the way, with the little sister usually getting the better of her older brother – a state of affairs that leads to a final McKean illustration that is the only piece of looming fright in the book.  Elsewhere, the illustrations are harmless but downright strange – stranger than the story, in fact.  They spill over into each other, and the words flop from picture to picture, and tiny bits of realistic drawing keep encountering outright absurdity (such as the Queen of Melanesia, who makes a cameo appearance wearing an entire sailing ship).  This book is about as close as Gaiman and McKean are ever likely to get to a romp.

     The bottom line to all this is simply enough stated: Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller – 31 times in Fragile Things, many times in earlier books, and certainly (one can confidently predict) in the books he has yet to write.

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