by velocibadgergirl

Monday, January 22, 2007

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

"I think...that I would rather collect a life mis-spent on fragile things than spent avoiding moral debt." The words turned up in a dream and I wrote them down upon waking, uncertain what they meant or to whom they applied. ... It seemed like a fine title for a book of short stories. There are so many fragile things, after all. People break so easily, and so do dreams and hearts.
-- Neil Gaiman, introduction to Fragile Things.

I finished Fragile Things several weeks ago, and then put it aside without writing about it so that I could dive right into reading Neverwhere (which I finished last week and haven't reviewed yet). Since the collection is made up of pieces written at various points in Gaiman's career, it was both eclectic and slightly uneven. But since it's Gaiman, even the weakest pieces are still pretty strong. For me, the least engaging stories were:

  • "A Study in Emerald" -- I found it somewhat intriguing but it didn't stick with me. I had to page back through it to remember what it was about when I sat down to write this entry.

  • "Forbidden Bride of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire" -- According to the introduction, this was written when Gaiman was 22 years old and was tucked away unpublished for another 20 years after it was dismissed by editor friends. It felt to me like it was trying too hard to be scary. Not an awful piece, but definitely not on par with Gaiman at his most on-target, as one would expect from something so early in his career.

  • "Other People" -- I found this little circular piece to be interesting, conceptually, but it didn't make a huge impact.

  • "Diseasemaker's Croup" -- This one was somewhat hard to follow, and didn't hold my interest.

  • "Goliath" -- Not bad, but since it was written for the website of The Matrix, it had a derivative feel.

I love dreams. I know enough about them to know that dream logic is not story logic, and that you can rarely bring a dream back as a tale: it will have transformed from gold in to leaves, from silk to cobwebs, on waking. Still there are things you can bring back with you from dreams: atmosphere, moments, people, a theme.
-- Neil Gaiman, introduction to Fragile Things

Quite a few of the stories, while not favorites, were good and extremely solid:

  • "Strange Little Girls" and "Pages From a Journal Found in a Shoebox Left in a Greyhound Bus Somewhere Between Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Louisville, Kentucky" were written for the tour books of Tori Amos's Strange Little Girls and Scarlet's Walk. Along with "Fifteen Painted Cards From a Vampire Tarot," I enjoyed these as little snippets of larger stories that lay beneath, waiting for my imagination to fill in the blanks. The Tori Amos version of " '97 Bonnie and Clyde" has always spooked me a little, and Gaiman's version in "Strange Little Girls" was just as eerie.

  • "In the End" -- Short and interesting, though it didn't really stick in my mind. What I like most about it is this note from the introduction:

    I was trying to imagine the very last book of the Bible. And on the subject of naming animals, can I just say how happy I was to discover that the word yeti, literally translated, apparently means "that thing over there."
         ("Quick, brave Himalayan Guide--what's that thing over there?"
         "I see.")

  • "Keepsakes and Treasures -- The narrator of this one is thoroughly dangerous and yet completely likable. You can't trust him, but it doesn't matter. When I read this, I had forgotten that the narrator, Mr. Smith, is a character in the American Gods novella that ends the book (which I read first). When I re-read the novella, I noticed this:  "Shadow found himself starting to like Smith. He told himself that liking this man was not a sensible thing to do. He had met people like Smith before, people without consciences, without scruples, and they were uniformly as dangerous as they were likeable."

    I wouldn't mind reading more stories with Smith as the narrator. A line from Smith: "You don't drive in London?" asked the professor in the loud suit. Heavens protect us from the dress sense of American academics.

  • "Harlequin Valentine -- A very cool piece. The identity-stealing reminded me strongly of Mirror Mask, but not in a bad way. I loved the character of Missy and wished the story had gone on so I could follow her a bit longer.

  • "Feeders and Eaters -- This one was icky, but it didn't keep me up nights or anything. I pretty much predicted the ending, so it wasn't all that shocking.

  • "How to Talk to Girls at Parties -- Paging back through this, the association that comes to mind is with the more abstract and suspenseful stories of Ray Bradbury.

  • "The Sunbird" -- I found this one enjoyable, if a bit long. My favorite part: "I have a presentiment of doom upon me," said Augustus TwoFeathers McCoy that night, in a bed that was far too small for him, before he slept. "And I fear it shall come to us with barbecue sauce."

  • I found the included poems pleasant but not noteworthy, except for this one:

    A wodwo, or wodwose, was a wild man of the woods (introduction).


    Shedding my shirt, my book, my coat, my life
    Leaving them, empty husks and fallen leaves
    Going in search of food and for a spring
    Of sweet water.

    I'll find a tree as wide as ten fat men
    Clear water rilling over its gray roots
    Berries I'll find, and crabapples and nuts,
    And call it home.

    I'll tell the wind my name, and no one else.
    True madness takes or leaves us in the wood
    halfway through all our lives. My skin will be
    my face now.

    I must be nuts. Sense left with shoes and house,
    my guts are cramped. I'll stumble through the green
    back to my roots, and leaves and thorns and buds,
    and shiver.

    I'll leave the way of words to walk the wood
    I'll be the forest's man, and greet the sun,
    And feel the silence blossom on my tongue
    like language.

I believe we owe it to each other to tell stories. It's as close to a credo as I have or will, I suspect, ever get.
-- Neil Gaiman, introduction to Fragile Things

Several of the stories in the collection stood out, fragments of them turning up in my mind days and weeks later. My favorites:

  • "October in the Chair" -- I loved the different characterizations of the months, and the framework of the storytelling ritual, even though they didn't feel completely essentail to the core tale of the piece. I especially loved the description of October: "His beard was all colors, a grove of trees in autumn, deep brown and fire-orange and wine-red, an untrimmed tangle across the lower half of his face. His cheeks were apple-red. He looked like a friend; like someone you had known all your life"

    To me, October (and autumn in general) always feels like a friend, so this description really resonated. The story October tells was fantastic, a tale of a living boy who finds a place of safety, friendship, and adventure in the company of a dead boy, and who ultimately decides he wants to stay in the dead boy's world.

  • "Closing Time" -- Of all the ghost stories in the book, this was by and far my favorite. Very cool.

  • "Bitter Grounds -- At first, this well-woven zombie story reminded me somewhat obliquely of a Flannery O'Connor story. I loved it.

  • "The Problem of Susan -- Fantastic and heartbreaking. It'll definitely come back to me the next time I read the Chronicles of Narnia all the way through.

  • "How Do You Think it Feels?" -- Excellently creepy, even more so (to me) than the more macabre "Feeders and Eaters". I was also immensely pleased to find a Cowboy Junkies reference (the characters listen to The Trinity Sessions).

  • "The Monarch of the Glen" -- When I read through the introduction's summary of each piece and discovered that the final story in the book was a novella featuring Shadow from American Gods (my favorite Gaiman book so far), I skipped ahead and read it first, and loved every word. To be fair, I read it again once I'd finished the rest of Fragile Things, and I still loved it even without the extra appeal of excitement. I don't want to say too much about it, because the plot is fantastically fun, but I will say that Shadow is as solid a character as ever, and I wish Gaiman would write a few more Shadow books.

In summary (finally), I really enjoyed Fragile Things, and would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes somewhat dark modern fantasy / sci fi. Even if you've never read any of Gaiman's work, I feel like this book would be very accessible. And even if the less engaging pieces don't appeal to everyone, the ones I marked as favorites are definitely worth a try.

As I write this now, it occurs to me that the peculiarity of most things we think of as fragile is how tough they truly are. There were tricks we did with eggs, as children, to show how they were, in reality, tiny load-bearing marble halls; while the beat of the wings of a butterfly in the right place, we are told, can create a hurricane across an ocean. Hearts may break, but hearts are the toughest of muscles, able to pump for a lifetime, seventy times a minute, and scarcely falter along the way. Even dreams, the most delicate and intangible of things, can prove remarkably difficult to kill.

Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds' eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas--abstract, invisible, gone once they've been spoken--and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.

-- Neil Gaiman, introduction to Fragile Things