Sunday, 25 September 2011

RIP VI Fragile Things - week 3

I had been going to say that this was a slightly less satisfactory week for me, and that I was going to be reading other people's responses avidly, because I wanted to be persuaded that I was wrong. But, as happened in weeks one and two, the more I thought about the stories, the more I was convinced of their quality and, in the end, there was only one I had real reservations about.

'Going wodwo'
I always feel that I should like this poem more than I do: the subject matter is one that I feel most strongly about, having spent many years studying (in a non-formal way) the Green Man and associated legends. It's probably the aspect of British and European mythology closest to my heart, emerging from my childhood love of the Arthurian cycle and legends of the wildwood. Maybe that's why the poem doesn't work for me, because it's simply not intense enough - I feel that if anyone can express that visceral connection with land and forest, then Gaiman ought to be able to. And he does in American Gods, in prose. But sadly, not here, and although I like the final image which juxtaposes silence and language, my main emotion when I read it is disappointment. I shall be very interested to see what other people make of it.

'Bitter Grounds'
This could have been one of the incidental stories in American Gods, since it deals, like that novel, with the gods that people brought with them to America. I don't know a great deal about Haitian legends - somehow Vodun didn't get into the Arthur Mee Children's Encyclopaedia stories from other nations pages, and the Larousse World Mythology has an embarrassingly slender section on African legends, with nothing on the Caribbean at all. But it seems to have the right "feel", and it's one you can get your teeth into. The subheadings include quotes from Louis MacNeice and Philip Larkin, too - that's got to be good! As usual with Gaiman's stories, there are question marks - for instance, two men disappear: what happened to them? It's kind of a perfectly-formed mini road narrative, which is very cool indeed. I really like this one.

'Other People'
In the Introduction Gaiman calls this a "Mobius" story, which is a good description. It's pretty bleak, and unsettling both because it's about torture and also about all the bad things we don't like to think about: self-deception, the harm we do to other people, and both deliberate and inadvertent wrongdoing. It's effective and well-crafted, but it's never going to go on my list of favourite stories.

'Keepsakes and Treasures'
At the Edinburgh Book Festival this year Gaiman was asked about his characters - did they ever dictate the action? He answered that many of them seem to have independent existences which he just looks in on from time to time (this might be a function, I suppose, of writing a longterm graphic novel like The Sandman, or it might be why he was disposed to embark on such a project in the first place). This story is one of those occasions, because it introduces two characters who appear later in 'Monarch of the Glen', which is in turn about Shadow from American Gods...I love that he does this, and I am really hoping that he meant it when he said he planned to write more about Shadow. The two characters here, Smith and Mr Alice, are really very nasty indeed, and it's a dark story full of death, described dispassionately by a very cold-blooded killer.

I just want to add, here, that it's going to be a very busy couple of weeks for me, with lots of travelling and meetings, and I shan't have much time for reading and commenting. I'm enjoying our shared reading very much, though, so I will do my best to read everyone else's posts - it just may take me all week to do it! Fortunately, I'm going to be at home both weekends, so I can always catch up then.


  1. Ahh, see I've read Monarch of the Glen, but years ago in the Legends anthology and didn't put the characters from keepsakes and treasures together with it.
    It makes more sense as sort of a character study in something larger, I can see that now. But when I read it and wrote about it I didn't know they tied in to anything bigger and so seemed to be horrible just for horribleness's sake, so I didn't enjoy it all!

  2. I think that's really interesting that Going Wodwo wasn't emotional enough for you. I can totally see that. In fact, by being in the character's mind, it was really about his thoughts about going wild and not his feelings at all except for a bit of nervousness and doubt.

    And I'm looking forward to reading more about Shadow but certainly not Smith or Mr. Alice. Strangely, I had no problem with Smith being a mass murderer -- just that he abused girls. Do you know who Mr. Alice is, by the way? I couldn't figure that out.

  3. So it sounds like I need to learn a little more about the Green Man stories but not "too" much more and then maybe I'll have more of an emotional connection with "Going Wodwo". Ha!

    Love what you say about "Other People":

    "It's effective and well-crafted, but it's never going to go on my list of favourite stories."

    I could not agree more. That is exactly the way I feel in a nutshell.

    My problem with "Bitter Grounds" is that it feels like it is incomplete or lacking, especially when compared to parts of the story that I think are highly effective. I like the narrator's voice in the story. I am fascinated by the little mysteries, like the disappearing men, and I don't mind that they are left a mystery. I think the idea of the narrator putting on another man's life like a suit of cloths is excellent and I think that part of the story is executed very effectively. But the magical elements never quite work with the story and I think that is because they are just alluded to and not given the time to develop and merge cohesively with the story. It isn't one that I hate, but I find the story largely dissatisfying.

    I like the idea of short stories developing aspects of characters that live in larger works of fiction. But I find "Keepsakes and Treasures" to be wholly unnecessary largely because it seems like an exercise in catering to prurient interests. Gaiman has proven time and again that he can write terrifying and evil characters without resorting to graphic sex and violence and yet once in awhile he cranks out a story like this and I never like them. Whatever skillful elements are present in those stories (and they are there) are undermined by his need to show humanity at its worst with graphic descriptions. He and other writers, film makers, etc. also produce characters who commit atrocities or are victims of them and they can effectively convey those while creatively showing more and telling less. When Gaiman doesn't do that and chooses to just have his characters be degrading or disgusting then I give them a miss.

  4. I've been behind this week as well, so I just got my post up today. :D

    I really enjoyed "Bitter Grounds," which was neat because I just finished reading an Isabel Allende book set in Haiti, and the characters kept mentioning zombies. I also just finished reading some of Hurston's work and some background on her, so it was neat that everything I'd been reading about lately showed up together in a story. There was a lot of mystery and ambiguity, but I didn't mind that. Gaiman name-dropped academic references like most people would drop pop-culture references, which made me laugh.

  5. I, like you, thought I was going to be writing about how I didn't like this week's selections, until I had time to think about them (they improved a bit when I listened to them after reading them. However, can I attribute that to the stories themselves or to Gaiman's reading voice?). I suppose you can not like something and still think it's a great piece of writing. I like your assessment of Other People, which describes perfectly what I mean.

  6. "I suppose you can not like something and still think it's a great piece of writing."

    I certainly think that is the case. I would point to Audrey Niffenegger's latest novel, Her Fearful Symmetry as an example. I think the book demonstrates a tremendous writing skill, but I didn't like the decisions characters made and ultimately didn't like the book.

    And that is certainly true with some of Neil's stories.

  7. Carl, I felt exactly the same way about Niffeneger's latest (and I was so disappointed after falling head over heels in love with Time Traveler's Wife.

  8. Me too! TTW made my expectations for HFS sky high.

  9. Shall visit and reply to everyone tomorrow - but had to laugh because it was exactly the other way round for me, I liked HFS and had been horribly disappointed by TTW. But yes, I can think of quite a few instances where I think the writing is good but don't like it: The Handmaid's Tale, for instance. Brilliant writing and I hate it.