I have recently suffered a very serious, Neil Gaiman-related disappointment.
The bad news?:
I may never get over it.
He’s giving a talk at the MFA (The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), nary an hour’s drive away from me, about “Myth, Magic, & Making Stuff Up,” — about everything I care most about — and it sold out before I could buy a ticket. Oh, my heart.
The good news?:
The disappointment was not his newest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Adult Fiction
Publisher: William Morrow & Company
Publication Date: June 18, 2013
Hardcover: 192 pages
Is There a Pooka In This Book?: No, but don’t hold that against it.
Pooka Rating: 5 out of 5 Nibbles
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman’s first novel for adults since the publication of his #1 bestseller Anansi Boys 8 years ago. Fortunately for me, I just discovered Neil Gaiman back in 2011, with the release of the Special Anniversary Edition of American Gods. It’s now one of my very favorite books. I’ve been steadily working my way through his works ever since. And they are legion, so I haven’t been at a loss. Regardless, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the moment when I’d get my paws on a copy of his newest book. The moment finally arrived and it took just that long — about a moment — for me to zip through it. But it was a glorious moment.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane chronicles the memories of a middle-aged man, as he visits the site of his childhood home. He’s returned to attend the funeral of an unnamed relative, and during the in-between time of grieving and more grieving, he finds himself inexplicably drawn not to his own house but to that of the one on the farm down the lane. He knows he was friends with the girl who lived there, Lettie Hempstock, but something has caused him to forget how close they were and how much she meant to him. As he sits in her backyard, staring into the pool of water that looks like a pond (which she called her “ocean”), he remembers. It’s a strange, gorgeous remembrance.
He met Lettie Hempstock when he was seven-years-old (she was eleven), right after finding the dead body of his parents’ tenant — a South African opal-miner who’d run over his kitten — in a car down the end of the lane. Suicide. Gambling debts.
As a crime-scene is not exactly the place for a seven-year old, Lettie proposes that he come with her back to the farm. He meets her mother and grandmother in the kitchen, and listens to the three women carry on a strange conversation about “seeing” and “nudging” and “knowing” impossible things. When he wakes up a few days later, choking on a coin in his throat, he figures that Lettie and her strange relatives might be the only ones he can tell about it, confident that they’ll believe him.
They do, and they’ve noticed money turning up in other inconvenient places, as well. It’s literally being shoved down people’s (and fish’s) throats. (I just had to google the plural possessive form of “fish.” Apparently, it can be either ” fish’s ” or ” fishes’.” You learn something new every day!) The responsible party is a magical being, summoned by the dead man before his untimely end. Lettie takes the young protagonist with her into the forest where the being dwells, intent on sending it back to its home where it can’t cause so much trouble. Unfortunately, they find that the thing doesn’t want to leave, and that it’s willing to do anything to stay – and to destroy those who threaten it. Through an unexpected series of transformations, the being begins to destroy the protagonist’s life, causing those closest to him to betray him – and each other. The bulk of the novel is dedicated to the developing relationship between Lettie and the boy, and their quest to vanquish the foe.
It ends as it begins, with the adult narrator, present-day.
What Made the Book Totally Worth Eating:
1. The Hempstock’s Kitchen.
When describing the Hempstock’s kitchen, Gaiman obviously set out to create a safe, warm, welcoming environment. A place unlike anywhere else in the novel – unlike anywhere else in the world, maybe, even. A place that feels like “home,” but like the best version of home you could possibly imagine. In TOATEOTL, the kitchen is a woman’s place but so is the forest, the ocean, and the battleground. It’s nothing to be ashamed of (“barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen”) or to break away from — it’s something to embrace and be proud of. The Hempstock’s kitchen is full of creamy milk; paper-thin pancakes topped with freshly-squeezed lemon and a dollop of plum jam; pie cooling on the windowsill; a smoldering hearth; and rich, warm soup drunk naked in the hot bath after a cold rain. It’s filled with daffodils and golden light; cooking, and cutting, and snipping, and sewing. But it’s also filled with discussions about electron decay and the state of the moon. In the kitchen, the boy is “as happy as [he has] ever been about anything,” and the reader feels the same way.
2. The Manta Wolf.
Before I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I read a book review that Neil’s wife, singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, had written about it. In it, she says, “Neil doesn’t usually write things that are so personal.” She compares art-making to using a blender. She says,
“We start off with all these fresh ingredients, recognizable (a heart, a finger, an eyeball, a glass of wine) and we throw them in the art-blender. I only let things mix very slightly. I keep my blender on 2 or 3. You can recognize the component parts: in the final art-soup, the finger might be severed and mangled, but you can peer into your bowl and see that it’s a finger, floating there, all human and bloody and finger-y. Neil puts his art-blender on 10. You wind up with a fantastic purée, but often you have no fucking idea where the experiences of his life wound up in the mix of his final product. If you see a finger, it’s not recognizable as a human one. and that’s part of what makes Neil Gaiman (capital N and G) work.”
With The Ocean at the End of the Lane, she says that “Neil dialed his blender down a bit,” that he “mixes up reality and non-reality in a way that feels totally mundane.”
I have to admit… I was nervous. I was used to Neil on 10. I was used to the fantastical puree’. I loved the fantastical puree’. What if there was nothing extravagant and absurd to be found? Nothing to be read that was pure invention and beyond the ken (of mortal men)?
Having read it, I see where she was coming from. Having read it and having read her story about a rocky patch in their marriage, I can see him talking directly to her in some places. I recognize fingers and eyeballs and hearts. But I needn’t have worried. ‘Cause there’s also a manta wolf:
“Something came through the woods, above our heads. I glanced up, saw something brown and furry, but flat, like a huge rug, flapping and curling at the edges, and, at the front of the rug, a mouth filled with dozens of tiny sharp teeth, facing down. ‘What was that?’ I asked, my heart pounding so hard in my chest that I did not know if I would be able to stand again. “Manta wolf,” said Lettie. “We’ve already gone a bit further than I thought (38).
A manta. Wolf.
I need a plush, stuffed toy of that immediately. Not that Pookas play with toys…
It’d be very sophisticated home decor – to place next to my robot collection and my bust of Medusa.
3. The Power of Love
Part of the story’s message is that you can triumph over anything, as long as you don’t let go of your loved one’s hand — no matter what life throws at you. And that’s simple and beautiful.
4. Musings on adulthood, childhood, and story.
As much as it is anything else, The Ocean at the End of the Lane seems to me to be a working-out of the question of how to hang onto a child-like nature (wonder, awe, fear and bravery (in equal, limitless parts), hope, and play) while at the same time, growing up.
The foe that Lettie and the young protagonist fight is everything that’s wrong about grown-ups. It’s lust, and stubbornness, and greed, and manipulation.
“She was power incarnate, standing in the crackling air. She was the storm, she was the lightning, she was the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty. She winked at me” (86).
The protagonist comments on the nature of story, as it relates to adults and children, as well. As a child, he thinks,
“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were. Adult stories never made sense, and they were so slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?” (53).
And Lettie tells him, “Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside… Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world” (112).
From that, I gather that Neil thinks (and I agree) that the trick to being a good adult is knowing that. It’s not puffing yourself up to be something big, and serious, and unquestioning. It’s realizing that it’s okay to read and enjoy Narnia. (It’s okay. You can still read Henry James and Narnia and not have to sacrifice anything!) It’s opening yourself to love. It’s swimming in the ocean, but realizing when it’s time to get out (before you’re told).
Or maybe I’m just believing what I want to believe. What do I want more than stories, love, and to swim in the ocean? Nothing, actually. Absolutely nothing. It’s as Emerson said, “Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.”
5. The Ocean.
This is probably a good segue for the next reason I ate TOATEOTL right up.
Up until the very end of the book, there’s a lot of ambiguity surrounding what exactly the pool of water (I typed “what-er,” at first, accidentally. That’s appropriate and punny) in Lettie’s backyard is. Is it a pond? Is it the ocean? If it’s pond-sized, how could it possibly be an ocean? As the protagonist’s father says, “Ponds are pond-sized, lakes are lake-sized. Seas are seas and oceans are oceans. Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic. I think that’s all of the oceans there are” (24). When you find out what the water is, that wave’s gonna bowl you right over.
6. The writing, as always.
I know I’ve been quoting much more than I usually do in this lengthy review, but it’s hard not to. I was just about to quote my favorite piece of writing (or one of them! I can’t choose!) until I realized that it would have ruined a part of the plot for you, so instead of quoting it, I’m just going to give you a set of keywords so that you can recognize it when you come to it (or so that you can go back and read it if you have the book in your possession, or so that you can gush about it with me privately). Here they are: “from Egg to Rose” (Chapter XIII, p. 143). They’re kind-of akin to Buzz Lightyear’s “To Infinity, and Beyond!”
What I Wanted to Spit Back Out – But Didn’t:
1. The worm in the foot.
Many-a-book has interfered with my sleep. I can’t even begin to count the amount of times that I’ve stayed up reading instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour, so as to be fresh & ready for work the next morning. But I can’t remember the last time something fictional creeped me out so badly that I had trouble falling asleep. And I’ve read some doozies lately — some were even complete with illustrations (remember the feral, slathering giraffes from Un Lun Dun?!). But there’s a part of TOATEOTL where the protagonist has to pull a long, juicy, pinkish-grey worm out of a hole on the sole of his foot, and that was enough to do it for me. Sleep destroyed. That being said, the book wouldn’t have been the same without it, and that feeling of being utterly and completely disturbed was crucial to the reading experience. So I don’t wish it weren’t included. I just wish… I don’t know what I wish. Maybe I wish that pieces of the adult world weren’t like that worm in the first place.
2. The darkness plumbed.
There’s a scene replete with broken trust and domestic abuse that, although it didn’t give me nightmares, is much worse than the worm in the foot. It hurt and was awful, but sometimes things do and are. So it, too, was necessary.
3. The cat-love.
I’m allergic to cats. I know that sounds crazy — a powerful, mischief-making, shapeshifting rabbit being allergic to cats — but it’s true! As a result, I have kind of a weird relationship with them and attitude toward them. Cats are adorable. And kittens! Ugh! Kittens! I want to snuggle with them! And sometimes I can’t resist and I do just that – and then everything goes to shit. I get hives on the tops of my ears and on the tip of my wiggly nose. My eyes well up and spill over with tears at an alarming rate. I sneeze! Over, and over, and over… So I’ve tried to tell myself that I don’t like them. Cats are snobs. Without fail, they’ll wake you up from a long and peaceful slumber, way before you’re ready to rise. You can see their buttholes pretty much all of the time. Every other day, I manage to succeed in this self-delusion. I read Gaiman’s book over the course of several days.
I’m not saying I didn’t like the kitten field — I’m just saying it would’ve been better if it were a bunny field. There are more magical, charming options available. But there’s little – perhaps nothing, not even a Pooka – that’s more magical or charming than a Neil Gaiman book. So get out there, read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and come talk to me. Maybe you can help me answer my remaining questions:
1) If The Hempstock’s aren’t witches, what/who are they?
When the protagonist recites a rhyme from memory, “Rowanberry and red thread, stop a witch in her speed” (96), Lettie responds, “That’d work, and work well… if there were any witches involved in all this. But there’s not” (96). And she reacts defensively when the boy says that he doesn’t think they’re people. But it’s not an ordinary person who can alter the fabric of existence and, with a pair of scissors, snip a memory right out of a person’s mind. Or make a toothbrush incarnate from reading someone’s thoughts, just by seeing an image of it in their brain. Or remain eleven-years-old forever. It occurred to me that they might be the 3 Fates… but it’d be weird if that were the case, given that they’re three sisters, and the women in the story are such disparate ages: grandmother, mother and daughter. But then, looks can be deceiving (if anyone knows that, I do). Perhaps their physical manifestations don’t match their true identities. I also thought they might be the Triple Goddesses, the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone… but for some reason, until right this moment when I googled it, I thought that the Maiden, Mother & Crone were always one person. A maiden in the morning, mother in the day, and crone at night — and that they couldn’t exist simultaneously, but instead aged as the day aged. Reading up on it now, though, I think I was wrong and that’s who they were meant to be. In fact, the Wikipedia entry even says that each goddess has a corresponding phase of the moon, and that fits perfectly with the book. So nevermind. Unless you think I’m wrong. In that case, please correct me or debate with me.
2) Why does the protagonist remain unnamed?
Neither Lettie, nor Ginnie, nor Old Mrs. Hempstock, nor Ursula, nor his mother, nor his father, nor his sister, ever refer to him by name. The closest we get is when we learn that his father called him “Handsome George” as a silly pet name when he was a baby, complete with a song that went with it when he was bouncing him on his lap (135). But if I’ve learned anything from studying literature, it’s that “call me” doesn’t necessarily equal a name. His name could be George. Or it could be Ishmael. Or, that could be a musical reference that I didn’t catch… which is sort of what I assumed it was.
Why does he remain nameless? Is he supposed to be the Everyman? The Everychild? Are we meant to identify with him more closely if he remains a blank-ish slate? Are we meant to write our names on him?
Is it, as Amanda said, that this is the most personal of Neil Gaiman’s novels, the most autobiographical, but perhaps it felt wrong to call him “Neil,” and at the same time, wrong to call him anything else either?
Is it because The Ocean at the End of the Lane is categorized as “adult fiction” (though I think NG would prefer to label it “myth”), and adults aren’t to be trusted? When the two kids face off against the foe, it croons to Lettie, asking the protagonist’s name: “Little girl, little girl… who’s your friend?” She quickly warns him, “Don’t say nothing” (41). Does he remain unnamed because names are powerful, and it would be unwise to allow adult readers have any power over the child protagonist? I’d like to think that Neil knows that the adults who read his book aren’t Adults! We’re not equivalent to the foe! We’re the Narnia-reading kind! I think I speak for all of us (bookish Pookas and humans alike) when I say we can be trusted. He could’ve told us his name! We wouldn’t have abused that power, that trust.
If you’ve got any theories or opinions about my last question or about any of this, I’d love to hear them. And if you don’t know about the questions, but what you do know is that you need a good story, read The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s incredible.
Pooka Rating: 5 out of 5 Nibbles (though American Gods is still my favorite).