Warning: This is less of a review and more of an outright attempt to process. As such, here be spoilers. And here be memories. And here be perhaps more than you bargained for.
I believe Neil Gaiman to be one of our finest living authors. He is my favorite, certainly. I’ve read and enjoyed his books and comics since just after I graduated from high school. That’s over twenty years of unapologetic fandom. And I’ve met him twice.
For the first time, I’m not sure entirely how I feel about a Gaiman novel.
I think I just did not care for the steady reminder that this story (compelling, beautiful, horrifying in parts, ranging from micro to macro in focus) was all fluid, all a memory, that no matter the risk and danger to our unnamed protagonist, we were bearing witness to a reverie colored entirely by interpretation from a place of maturity. And at that same time, there is a sense that either Gaiman created little to no rules to be followed for this lore, or he decided that the lore was not as valuable as the way it was presented.
And as our protagonist is telling tales of his 7-year-old self, maybe this is all well and good. Perhaps to a child, answers are not as needed. Things don’t need names, histories can be incomplete, reasons are not as important as intents.
As the story goes, this novel was a short story that became a novella, than became a novel. It was accidental, a book written out of Gaiman’s sadness in missing his wife on the other side of the planet.
Taken for that, it is a beautiful love letter.
But I don’t know if it is a good Neil Gaiman Novel.
That said, Neil is saying wonderful things that need to be said. He says them through Lettie, the protagonist’s friend and protector. Things I need to hear.
“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.”
But with all of this wisdom (and there is so much to be had), there is no true resolve. There was no returning.
Here’s the spoiler: The protagonist falls and is saved (or returned from death) through Lettie’s sacrifice. The story is being told by an adult who has found himself back at the titular Ocean, remembering Lettie and her family. And she is not there.
Unless, of course, we’re to believe that Lettie returned in some other manner.
There is a concept introduced in the novel. Snip and stitch. The name doesn’t spoil the idea. Not entirely.
And while the concept is so good I wish it were possible, the convenience of the contrivance seems just too much in the denouement. Either Lettie takes the hit for the boy, or the boy dies outright and is brought back through stitching. To do both seems just a way to solidify the loss and heartbreaks that haunts our protagonist.
I appreciate the idea, introduced late, that this visit isn’t the first. Our protagonist comes back time after time and he doesn’t remember, but surely this time, the time captured in this novel, there would be some kind of answer, some salve to his still broken / missing / longing heart?
But no, it’s just as it ever is and he will be drawn there again and again.
And perhaps I am simply projecting my own needs on the text, as this novel has been received as Gaiman’s best yet. As a book of tremendous worth and emotional weight. There’s no denying it is full of potency and wisdom.
I’m just not sure I know how to process it and take it in.
And the irony is that I too process loss through revisiting. Just as the protagonist does. I sift through what’s gone on before and look for something I can use, I can apply, I can cherish.
I’m an admitted nostalgia addict.
When I graduated from high school, I made a habit of coming back to those halls after each semester of college. After the third or fourth of these, my most oft visited teacher, Ms Duffy, she asked me point blank: “What are you doing?”
I’m visiting, I said.
Because I miss this place, I replied. A little defensive.
Because I didn’t miss the school. Not really. I was a skinny, nerdy boy with braces and glasses too big for my face. High school was far from a paradise.
Instead, I missed a place where I struggled so hard to be understood and succeeded with establishing myself in the eyes of a handful of adults and other students. I’d created an area of relative safety in the middle of antagonism.
And yet …
I lied to my parents about my performance in that school from the second semester I was there.
I came within a semester of failing out completely, had a compassionate teacher not outed my actions to my parents in my junior year. It is one thing to misrepresent report cards. It would’ve been another thing altogether to invite friends and family to a graduation that I wouldn’t be attending.
When I was revisiting, I was looking for the person I was. For the boy I’d was, who made few friends until my senior year, who spent all of his time drawing cartoons in the margins of college-ruled paper, who spent so much time inventing success that he didn’t notice how easy success could’ve been through application.
Maybe I wanted to speak to him. Warn him. And I still do.
It hits me from time to time that I’m still haunted by the kid who tried too hard. That no matter what I’ve done and accomplished, I owe that boy some kind of explanation, some justification. And as that kid had so few precise examples of success, of strange and curious children that felt as alien as he, his worries color occasionally my own interactions with others. I try too hard with the people I believe to be smarter or better than I.
Because of that boy, success looks like those people.
Perhaps I needed a Lettie of my own.
But look where I am now. I shut my eyes, casting my mind into the past. Sunlight through silver maple and hickory trees. I’m standing by a small creek at the foot of a sloping green and brown hill. There’s a tiny bridge over the creek and to my right, a pond my Grandfather and Uncle kept full of just enough fish to keep one particular visiting Aunt entertained. We called my Grandfather’s place “The Country” (as in, let’s go out to “The Country”), though it was just a simple home atop a tall hill on Jenkins Road. Originally, a log cabin, I knew it as a box of four rooms and a bathroom, needed by an oil heater and smelling of good tobacco.
That pond was my ocean. It was offering answers, though I paid only the rarest of attentions.
And I’ve still so many questions. I’m still lacking a resolve of my own.
It would appear my own story has as little closure as Neil’s.
But then, it isn’t finished.
Perhaps they’ve both much farther to go.