Simple ≠ Simplistic – Literary Critique: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publishe: Headline Fiction
Year of publication: 2013

Cover of the US editon
Cover of the US editon


Synopsis:

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.


Critique:

The mistake that so many people make that if a book is written in a simple style, without flourish, embellishment or wankery, it is therefore a simplistic tale & not worthy of comment. This a basic flaw in the logic of the self-appointed Literati who wish to be gatekeepers of all that is “true & good” in literature. This means that so many genres -such as Fantasy, Science Fiction, Magical Realism & Young Adult Fiction– are often dismissed because they do not “speak to the higher truths of Art & human spirit”. Often, nothing can be further from the truth because the aforementioned genres too often speak to the truth of humanity & the human condition. So even if they are done in a simple, minimalist fashion that does not strip them of soul or intent.

Upon this liminal precipice of the Simple & the Complex is where authors such as Neil Gaiman so comfortable dances & his 2013 work, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is proof of this convergence of styles, ideals & themes that the self-appointed Gatekeepers so willing dismiss.

On its surface, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story about a man remembering a time when he was a boy when the world suddenly changed & he was exposed to both the dangers of adulthood & the supernatural. It can so easier be read as another example of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces as a boy struggles to confront the task in front of him before things return to the status quo of a more settled time yet that does not truly express what this narrative is about. It speaks of the liminal time in a young person’s life when they are beginning to realise not only the inherent dangers of the world around them but also the dangers & mysteries of adulthood & the realisation that once things change they can no longer return to the better state that they were in before.

The story seems imbued with biographical aspects of Gaiman’s own childhood, in evoking the sense of time & play that our unnamed narrator finds himself remembering. They speak of truth of a geographical location as well as the mentality of not only a child but of the adult suddenly remembering what it felt like to be a child beset by forces beyond childish knowledge -all of which are gleamed from books & television.

The story itself begins with our unnamed narrator returning to his childhood home in Sussex for a funeral &, wishing to escape the pressure of dealing with so many faces he has not seen in years, heads for his old home -which has long since been demolished. As he the place where his old family home stood, he recalls the mysterious girl -Lettie Hempstock- who lived down the end of the lane & all her fanciful claims -such as their pond is The Ocean & her grandmother was old enough to have seen the moon being born. Venturing down to the Hempstock farm to see what happened to the girl all those years ago, our narrator begins to remember the events of when he was seven years old & the world began to change.

There is an saying that goes: “childhood ends the moment that you realise that all things must die” & it is that which becomes the catalyst which eventually beset our unnamed narrator. When his parents are affected by an economic downturn, they are forced to rent out the narrators former bedroom -with its perfect child-sized sink- to a number of lodgers. It is the South African opal miner who triggers the first calamities, when he commits suicide in the narrator’s family car -a Mini (which gives a sense of time & place in the past)- because he had stolen money from various people. Having found the body, our narrator is taken in by the Hempstock family -Lettie, her mother & her grandmother- & begins to question the nature of the world as he notices the odd things that the Hempstocks seem to know & say.

One could argue that it is this confrontation with mortality -especially in the form of suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning– that opens our narrator’s eyes to the otherworldly around him. His contact with the eternally 11 year old Lettie & her family is but the first step to his awareness of the wider world that haunts our mundane plane of existence. Yet would he still be granted this awareness of or be affected by these otherworldly forces if he had not encountered the Hempstocks? That is hard to say, because the death of the Opal Miner helped to summon something into the world that does not belong. Something that thinks that it is doing good by making people happy yet has no concept of human happiness or humanity itself. & this is seen by how it forces money -mainly small coins- onto people. Our protagonist finds himself afflicted by it when he awake choking on a coin that has been placed in his throat by some supernatural means. This event of course sends him to seek the aid of Lettie, because he knows that she will have some knowledge of it. On the surface, this could just be the actions of a 7 year old boy seeking reassurance from an older neighbour when he is too scared to speak to his own family yet that does not fit the narrative mould &, even if the supernatural is not implicit in the narrator’s knowledge, he is armed with enough education from his various books that if there is an otherworldly cause there must therefore be an otherworldly solution & his only connection with the otherworldly is Lettie & her family.

Wishing to discover the source of this mysterious money appearing all over town, Lettie insists that the boy accompany her, telling him that he must not let go of her hand no matter. This sets up an interesting dilemma & contradiction within the tale -as Lettie has no need for our narrator to go with her into the depths of the pocket worlds beneath our own. So why does she wish to bring him along?

One could make an argument that it is simply for the sake of creating the narrative & plot drive -for without this journey the story could not progress- yet that is not the entirety of it.

Lettie has a need for the boy that goes beyond simple narrative imperative.

As an eternal child, maybe she is seeking a brief companion to lighten her burden of loneliness? Maybe she simply wishes to have an audience to show off to, proving that she’s every bit as capable as her Grandmother in dealing with these otherworldly intruders? Or does she simply want someone with her to ease her own worries despite her own goddess-esque level of power & knowledge?

The story never explicitly states an answer yet I feel that it is that she wishes for both companionship & an audience. She, like so many children on the cusp of puberty (yet she’s been that way for thousands of years), she wants to stand in the shoes of the adults & prove that she’s just as capable as they are. To further this she needs an audience to prove herself too but she also needs a companion to give her the confidence that she can make a place for herself in an adult world. & who gives greater devotion than an awestruck 7 year old?

Yet, this is not the entirety of the narrator nor is it the central theme of story. That actually belongs the unnamed narrator as he is forced to understand the nuances of the adult world & adult relationships as well as the horror that lies in the heart of the human world -even when it isn’t beset by otherworldly forces.

This is all pushed to the fore by Lettie & our narrator encounter the “flea” (parasite) that is creating the coins. Lettie attempts to bind it but doesn’t know it’s name (the oldest rule in magic really) & our narrator lets go of her hand trying to protect himself from an attack by the tent-like flea -exposing him to unnatural infection which infiltrates his everyday life.

This is the point that the story switches from the perception of a “simple fairytale-like story” to a true faerytale. In so much that it’s filled with darkness, sex & savagery yet these things cannot truly be understood by the narrator at the time (only as he reflects back). A true faerytale (as opposed to fairytale) is brutal, designed to reveal the horrors of the world & act as a warning. This is reflected in the perceived horrors of adulthood & a child powerless against adults.

This is displayed through the appearance of Ursula Monkton, who ostensively is there to look after the narrator & his younger sister as their mother goes back to work but seems to have a strange control over everyone in the household except for our unnamed narrator.

Her very presence causes our narrator-protagonist to release the inherent danger and power that adults possess -especially when Ursula manipulates his father into trying to drown him in the bath as punishment for disobeying her as well as a display of her power (mentally & sexually) over the boy’s father.

Through the novel, our narrator reflects on how he feels as though he’s a let down to his father for not being a rough-&-tumble boy like he was, into sports & mischief. Saddened that his son prefers to read & copy the experiences from books rather than take to the rugby field or cricket pitch. This is in fact a great part of the process of maturity -when you are forced to look at yourself through your parents’ eyes & come to realise that you may never be as they wanted as well as the fact that you should be your own person.

This attack by his father forces our unnamed narrator to return to Lettie for help, fleeing through the night from the nearly god-like power that Ursula now displays. In response, the Hempstocks show their own power but this merely escalates matters until Lettie summons the the Hunger Birds -“varmints” (as her grandmother calls them)- the carrion eaters of reality who destroy & devour any fleas who linger too long in the real world (with references being thrown back to a powerful flea during Cromwell’s Day). Having disposed of the flea, the Hunger Birds turn on our narrator because he still carries the infection flea in his heart (a literal wormhole between worlds). They cause him to confront his love & fears -especially the fear of not being loves & eventually rejected by his family- but it is here that Gaiman truly brings out the utter devotion that a 7 year old can have to promise. Since he promises Lettie that he won’t leave the Fairy Circle that protects him from the varmints until she returns for him. After suffering the torments of the varmints & their illusions, our narrator is exposed to the titular Ocean at the End of the Lane -which Lettie & her grandmother have forced into a bucket so our narrator can escape.

I found these scenes the most invocative of the novel. As our narrator is forced to confront his worries & fears but is also exposed to the Ocean -which is hinted at actually being as aspect of the Universe itself- that fills him with utter knowledge of everything yet will dissipate him if he lingers in it too long. The notion of having absolute knowledge & then having it taken from you with only a fragment of feeling about what you once knew is a common trope in fiction yet its something that Gaiman spins well again & again -having been used masterfully in his novel American Gods (2001) and The Graveyard Book (2008). It also echoes the duel tragedy that closes the book, where our narrator loses part of himself, his friend & his memory of al these events.

The fragility of memory is one of the oldest tropes within literature & how Gaiman uses it within the novel is very clever indeed.

He presents us with a duel voice of a single character: his narrator.

He is simultaneously the 40-something adult suddenly remembering all that happened within the passed & the 7 year watching things unfold as they happen. Gaiman weaves these two voices together to give an unreliable account of fantastical events but showing that it wasn’t part of a child’s overactive imagination but rather him being victim of forces so far outside of himself that they are almost impossible to comprehend let alone face. The fear is rife in the voice of the child, as is the longing in the voice of the adult. It also shows the juxtaposition of how one perceives people & events as a child & how they do as an adult. This is highlighted when our narrator, as an adult, meets with Lettie’s unaged mother & now sees her in the sexual light of adulthood rather than the wonderment of child. This forces our narrator to accept that he has changed & he can no longer view things as they once were. That he must accept what he has become, even if it is not entirely his fault after what he endured at the age of 7 -both self inflicted & put upon him. The notion of how one can regrow the heart that was taken from them & satisfy the one who gave themselves for them in order to live a proper life.

Whilst reading, I was forced to constantly recalled Gaiman’s previous work Coraline (2002) -which is one of my favourite works of his. Both books deal with similar themes of otherworldly entities attempting to take control of a child’s life as well as acknowledgement of the adult world with all of its complexities. On the surface, you could take these tales as being pretty much two sides of the same coin -the same basic story being told from different perspectives & by different genders- yet that does not do justice to either. Yes, both novels deal with common tropes of YA Fiction & have similar imagery of horror imposed over the mundane but they are things that Gaiman writes so very very well.

The language between the two books are also vastly different. With The Ocean at the End of the Lane breaking so many rules that were drilled into me as part of the many Creative Writing courses I’ve done in college & university over the years. Yet that is one of the strengths of the books, because it’s told in a 1st person perspective, with run on sentences & asides. It’s how a child talks & how you think when you’re reflecting on past events.

It is hard to cite a negative for the story, other than it seems a little too plain for me. Though that might be more because I had it set aside for so long as I read dense epic fantasy stuff (a ten book series which I’ll get around to critiquing one of these days). So my expectations for it were rather high. This does in no way detract from the writing but does mean that I’ll have to read it again in a few years once it’s begun to drift out of my addled brain (but I was going to do that anyway).

So, to return to where we began: this story is simple. It is without burdensome flourish or heavy handed description. It follows one of the oldest patterns of storytelling that we know yet the story is not so simple. No Young Adult stories truly are (unless you count badly written shite like Twilight but that’s another kettle of fish altogether). A good story should be like a good fluffy pastry: it needs to appear light but actually has layers within layers; enticing you in until you are as consumed by it as it is by you.

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