Monday, September 24, 2018

The Ocean at the End of the Lane | Neil Gaiman


     "Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.
     There was a table laid with jellies and trifles, with a party hat beside each place, and a birthday cake with seven candles on it in the center of the table. The cake had a book drawn on it, in icing. My mother, who had organized the party, told me that the lady at the bakery said that they had never put a book on a birthday cake before, and that mostly for boys it was footballs or spaceships. I was their first book."

Published on June 18th, 2013, THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman is a literary masterpiece. It's been rated over 388,400 times on Goodreads with nearly 41,300 reviews; at this point, it's still maintained a 3.99 star rating, a rating considered quite high for a book rated by so many people with so many different tastes. It's a frame story about a middle-aged man who returns to his childhood home (which is, of course, no longer the same as it was when he was a boy) for a funeral. As if compelled by something hidden inside of him, the narrator drives to the end of the lane where his revered friend Lettie used to live. There, sitting beside the pond that she called an ocean, he reminisces about his days with her when he was seven.

The majority of the plot follows the events that take place after the narrator turns seven. No one comes to his birthday party, and it is with this near-friendlessness in mind that the story begins: he gets a kitten who is soon run over by the taxi that brings an opal miner who lodges in his old and now rented-out bedroom; the opal miner commits suicide in the family car atop the narrator's comic book because he'd lost money gambling; Lettie Hempstock vows to protect the narrator from the ensuing magical darkness that results from this suicide, so long as he keeps hold of her hand.

This is my second time reading this book. The first time, I had been craving something outside of my required course texts and stumbled upon THE OCEAN at Barnes and Noble. I remembered Neil Gaiman's name from my freshman English course about the apocalypse (we read GOOD OMENS) and have since fallen wholly in love with the author's works. (Beside the point, but I saw him walking down the street in London. Upon noticing my dropped jaw and shocked posture, he said hello back to me, and I had to pull my study abroad group over to the side of the walk so that I could burst into a shock of exaggerated emotion. The week before, I'd written his book down on a wall in New York City asking people about their favorite book. My handwriting is tiny and orange atop the spine of the large illustration of HIS DARK MATERIALS.)

This book is vastly, vastly readable. It's only 181 pages, so it's no great feat of length. This time around, I listened to the author-narrated audiobook and it lasted just about five hours. (I got the audiobook from my local library online, so it was free, which may be nice for an incoming class of poor college students.) The novel has been translated into several languages, which may be interesting to students whose langue maternelle is not English.

Though THE OCEAN is well-within the fantasy genre, it's not overtly fantastical. It's the type of fantasy propagated by a seven-year-old's imagination; it feels familiar and warm. There is one sex scene, but it's viewed by the child narrator and therefore isn't graphic (in this particular scene, the "evil" character is seducing the narrator's father, and the most intense this quick qualification becomes is that the seductress' skirts are hoisted above her waist). The element of suicide may be triggering, but again, it happens under the purview of a child and therefore isn't graphic or even perfectly legible. I think that an eleven-year-old could read this book just as easily as an incoming freshman, just as easily as a veritable adult.


     "It felt like a bad joke.
     I propped open the kitchen door, so the cat could get out. Then I went up to the bedroom, and lay on my bed, and cried for dead Fluffy. When my parents got home that evening, I do not think my kitten was even mentioned. 
     I missed Fluffy. I knew you could not simply replace something alive, but I dared not grumble to my parents about it. They would have been baffled at my upset: after all, if my kitten had been killed, it had also been replaced. The damage had been made up."

Quite plainly, this book is interesting. Beyond the obvious realm of it being a literary masterpiece (I've said that already, but it's worth reiterating), THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE crosses disciplines easier than Ursula Monkton leaves the Hempstock's farm. This book can be absolutely and delightfully picked apart by freshmen interested in child psychology, emotional trauma, and memory recovery, not to mention its narrative appeal for students in the humanities.

THE OCEAN is set in a frame of loss. Our narrator (perhaps called George, but we're never entirely sure) is just coming home for a funeral when the book begins. I always assumed it was the funeral of a parent, likely his father given the paternal attention the rest of the story pays. Within the story, the narrator's new kitten is run over, his parents' lodger commits suicide, his family turns against him, and of course, there is a sacrifice. There is so, so much to parse through psychologically and sociologically. This brief novel is laden with teachable, learnable content.


     "I was holding flesh. I was fifteen feet or more above the ground, as high as a tree.
     I was not holding flesh.
     I was holding old fabric, a perished, rotting canvas, and, beneath it, I could feel wood. Not good, solid wood, but the kind of old decayed wood I'd find where trees had crumbled, the kind that always felt wet, that I could pull apart with my fingers, soft wood with tiny beetles in it and woodlice, all filled with threadlike fungus."

Literal, veritable transformation! We have a semi-cloth monster who turns into a foot pain which turns into a nanny who turns into lightning and cloth again which turns back into the nanny who... 

Now, fantasy elements aside: there's physical transformation, sure, but there's psychological transformation as well. This narrator grows leaps and strides within the few days that the story takes place, and through the expansion of the frame he's able to experience his memories through his middle-aged self. While the Honors College may not like the fact that he doesn't become a cyborg and that Lettie uses a sort of old world magic instead of technological wizardry, there's enough in the sentiment of the transformations that do take place that I can't fault the book for not including AI.

This book knows what it's doing. 


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