“Life on the Edge”:

In Which a Man Named Robert Finds Himself Stuck in a City

Sandman has fostered its reputation as a staple in the Horror genre since its conception, often executing stories and fables instigating the subtle and unnerving fear lurking in the modest and mundane. Gaiman’s style, very much influenced by his hero Stephen King, permeates his one shot works especially. Worlds’ End, published between July and December of 1993, uses the titular bed and breakfast as a narrative vehicle for Gaiman’s motley crew of supernatural travelers, the whole lot of them marooned in a temporal storm across the realms. Having a pair of middle Americans, Brant and Charlene, observe the tales from a distance services the narrative, enhancing its exotic elements. To pass the time, each wearied soul tells a unique tale. Not only does each tale serve to develop the unique realms that inhabit Gaiman’s multiverse, but they sum up the character of each story teller respectively.  Mr. Gaheris, an unknown Scotsman, recounts the tale of a man named Robert who becomes trapped in a dream within the city’s consciousness. The super-reality is thoroughly Lovecraftian, suggesting a deeper cosmic significance for the city, which is given a personality. The story itself parallels the conundrum of Brant and Charlene in their marooned state, serving to enhance the super-real qualities of both the Worlds’ Inn and the dreamscape of the city experienced by Robert.  What follows, then, is an inquiry into the human heart, its distance from those around it, and the paranoia of socialization.

Life on the edge is a funny thing. The catharsis experienced in undertaking the extreme serves to enhance one’s own appreciation of their existence. When jumping from an aircraft in the act of sky diving, the sensory overload of stimuli simulates a euphoria. Sadly all good things come to an end, and the result of living on the edge creates isolation and an atrophy in socialization. Robert’s experience of the city he has lived in his whole life enhances his appreciation for the mundane, and though his job title is never described, his desk job conjures the imagery of meticulous fact checking labors. Mathematicians, accountants, and government work share no room for innovation, but rather imply order, effectiveness, and repetition. Robert’s atmosphere is one of conformity and self-sufficiency. Yet there is more here than just a man confined to his desk. His co-workers clearly enjoy each other’s company, and Robert flees to the city. Why?

Taking into account Robert’s fascination with the city and the civic diversity teeming in its environment, it is implied that Robert’s work environment is a symptom of a larger issue. His experience on the subway is the first indicator of his true problems. His fantasy of the subway car being whisked into space suggests that to Robert the people around him are nothing more than static objects living in the environment of the city. Later in the issue, it is expressed by the narrator, Mister Gaheris, that Robert could never connect with others and relate his love of the city to the common man. Robert’s mind cannot comprehend another mind like his, which shows him to be somewhat autistic; that is, being socially incapable of conceiving of what others might think of him. What results is a man deeply separated from the people around him, something he embraces wholeheartedly. It is explained that he feels guilty for feeling this way, but there is no indication that he desires to stop his fantasies. As a paper pusher, he embraces order, including the predictability of man, which puts him in an awkward position when he is annexed by the city’s dream and put into a world that is mutable and suffering an identity crisis.

Gaiman’s characterization of Robert’s journey through the dream of the city should be taken to as a comment on the nature of Modernism’s continual decline and waning weight on contemporary thinking. The shadow city that Robert enters is roughly hewn, and no longer a statement of order and predictability. It resembles more the portraits of Picasso, Matisse, Monet, and Joan Miro, which abandoned the realism of their artistic forefathers for expressions of substance and energy communicated through unconventional geometries and painting techniques. As Robert ambles aimlessly through the city, he sees buildings that are familiar, avenues that are striking, and skylines that are distanced from his mind. They are hollow echos of the city that he treasured and was so familiar with. Like a man in the throes of disillusionment, Robert sees around him the object of his affection warped and robbed of its vibrancy. They way he sees the world is through the lens of a postmodern, one who sees a world once dominated by absolutes and utopian idealism, but now sees a world enveloped in chaos and disorder. Now Robert must find his own way in a world that is no longer filled with mechanical precision. Even the shadow people that inhabit the city are expressions of his modern angst turned against him. Though he clearly relished people no more beyond that of automatons filing down the boulevards as animated props in his ideal world, now Robert sees the downfall of utilitarian values born out of Modernism’s expansion in the mid to late 19th century. He sees people as a necessity, made for companionship, but only then is it too late. Now he lives in a postmodern reality, one which predicates new parameters of socialization to the end of exploitation.

"The Farm" by Joan Miro

The motif of Hope Rejected is introduced sporadically throughout the issue to the effect of emphasizing the social dissonance experienced by Robert in his now empty city. Robert’s journey begins as a traveler trying to discover a memorable quality within the city that surrounds him. When this ultimately fails he encounters the bridge upon which another, much older, transient lays. The old man is the hopefulness of Modernism, the optimism of rediscovery. The “truth” that would lead mankind to salvation was discarded upon the death of Modernism, thereby rejecting as well the hopefulness of modern-minded folk. This can be seen as early as 1896 in H.G. Well’s The Island of Doctor Moreau in which Prendick concludes,

I fell indeed into a morbid state, deep and enduring, and alien to fear, which has left permanent scars upon my mind. I must confess that I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island. A blind Fate, a vast pitiless Mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence and I … [was] torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.

The old man expresses his hope in finding a way out of the dream city, but his hope has long since faded into a fascination of the idea, no longer concerned with ascertaining the truth that will bring his salvation, but rather giving into philosophical abstractions of what the hope would lead to. In literature, this same fallacy of “hope discovered” also appears in Dino Buzzanti’s work, Il Deserto dei Tartaro (“The Desert of the Tartars”) in which the protagonist Giovanni Drogo is given his first station at the conclusion of his studies at the military academy in a remote region, far removed from the cosmopolitan urban environment where he can schmooze and gain affluence with those in high places. Upon being able to leave, Drogo refuses to go back because the alluring possibility of a glorious heroic battle with the Tartars is far too promising an outcome to pass up. For nearly forty years he waits, ultimately dying at the onset of a battle that he never saw take place. The old man has waited for a way out of his world and will more than likely die there.

Robert’s escape from the dreaming city then begs the question of whether or not he rediscovered the hope of the Modern principal. In some respects he did, faithfully seeing through the dystopic environment, to find an aspect of his old identity (found in the door). Yet he does so when meeting a woman who seductively courts his attention. What courts him is the Postmodern principal of self discovery, that in the dissonance of reality one can glean for one’s self a shred of sanity, thereby finding their own way. Mister Gaheris claims that had Robert embraced the woman he would have been lost forever, doomed to wander the paths of a life determined by existential yearnings never ending, confounding, and fluid. Rather than exist in the city he was so fond of, Robert’s experience leads him to pursue a quiet life lost in an anonymous village where Mister Gaheris was told the story. The final remark made by Robert then is troubling, in light of this information. If the cities sleep and dream, what will be the city once it rises? It is hard to say, as what this means is left to interpretation. If the ghost world Robert found himself in is the disillusioned world, a floundering Modernism, and the tenacious insistence on remaining in it the symptoms of Postmodernism, then the city risen is the ideal social conscience. It is what Robert fears so. For when he observed the city at a distance, doing so allowed him to observe the order of reality and the shadow of perfection in Modernism. True Modernism’s only end is to consume the world and override the personal will that is so championed in Postmodernism. This makes Robert and Mister Gaheris uneasy, for a world of true order transcends human understanding.

The story finished, the flavor of the tales to be told at Worlds’ End is set, leaving the reader to wonder what comes next…

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Stuart Warren is the former managing editor and webmaster for Sequart Organization. Stuart earned a BA in English with an emphasis in Early Modern Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. An avid reader and historian, Stuart researches Nordic mythology and paganism and is self-taught in the Norwegian language (Bokmål). He is a novelist and comic book writer. Spirit of Orn, his breakout Science Fantasy epic is now available for purchase via Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

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