Saturday, December 6, 2008

Walking around in the mystery (Books - The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman)*updated*

Our dear reading friend Dewey, who blogged at The Hidden Side of a Leaf, sadly passed away just a few days ago. I will miss her energetic and inclusive spirit, her bright contribution to our collective conversation, and, probably most of all, her recommendations - especially when I was in the mood for anything in the YA fiction category. Oddly, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman was her last recommendation to me. I would say that young people's fiction about death is a neglected category. People can get so uncomfortable trying to find answers for kids about the deeper mysteries of being alive - particularly the big two - love/sex and death. Neither are realms that benefit from the solutions so many people come up with - pat answers or "protecting" kids from any discussion about them at all. I think richly imagined fiction can play a role, not just for kids, but for adults too. It does that not so much by inventing answers as by letting the reader walk around in the mystery in a safe way. As I read Gaiman's new book, that came through as its strength.

In the book, a family is murdered, except for the youngest child, a toddler. He escapes, running into a graveyard, where he is dubbed Nobody - Bod for short - and raised by its denizens - which include everything from garden variety ghosts, to witches and warewolves. The book has a thankfully non-partisan take on religion, dancing around some basic idea of sacred ground and the like without ever falling in, although it does rather obviously fall on the side of life after death or there would be no story at all. Gaiman deals with ideas young people have to come to grips with if they are going to live life in the full knowledge of its transitory nature. The book deals with larger notions of loss, fear, and I say 'play' because Gaiman allows Bod to acquire some skills normally reserved for the dead - fading, haunting, and coming to life in other people's dreams - which serve as metaphors for the ways in which life and death intersect for us all. Gaiman creates the kind of beleagured child-hero through whom more bookish youth can have some very satisfying moments of vicarious revenge against whatever bully haunts them. I found myself smiling even with more than 30 years between me and my tormentors. But finally I had to experience all this at a distance. I never became fully engaged and I think that was because of the writing. I cannot say I was wowed. That was not my experience with Coraline. Here I found the plotting obvious, several inconsistencies in character bothered me, and I was jarred by what I saw as some careless moments. Usually these were little details, as when our narrator tells us that:
He wondered how he would ever be able to sleep when he was this worried and hopeless and then, almost to his surprise, for two or three hours, he slept.
It's a quibble, I know, but you cannot be surprised that you are going to sleep, because you cannot be aware of going to sleep. That surprise could only happen retrospectively, upon waking. And while I understand that Gaiman has employed an omniscient narrator, his narrator's voice tries hard to keep us close to Bod's own experience at most times. Moments like this pulled me out of the narrative flow of time. Mostly I found myself amused by this book, but never deeply engaged by the story, or warmed by the fires of nostalgia that can be stirred when reading evokes the excitement of a great childhood reading experience. But I was appreciative of its playfully imagined "other side," as a means by which a young hero could take on one of the great mysteries.

I would like to add that Neil Gaiman had a terrific exchange on the First Amendment (Freedom of Speech) in the U. S. this week on his blog. It is a subject on which he is obviously passionate. Check it out.

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