I’ve never been much of a summer person. I can barely swim, don’t really enjoy the beach, and hate hot weather. But something about summer clicked for me this year. Even though we weren’t able to travel, I declared it “beach summer” and have been working hard to live in a kind of virtual Hawaii ever since, listening to the Beach Boys and the Ventures, watching Magnum P.I. and Hawaii Five-O, and eating lots of pineapple. And if that weren’t proof of my commitment, I’ve even suffered through no less than five Elvis beach movies. (For the curious, Girl Happy was the best of the lot.)
But the one missing element from the perfect summer has been the perfect beach reading. I finally settled on Kingsley Amis’s James Bond novel, Colonel Sun which was fun, but nothing could quite live up to the sheer reading pleasure of the book I read last summer. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which just came out in paperback last month, is the best-written book of his career. And even though it’s a prose novel, the themes directly tie in to his work and life as a comic book writer.
In the mid-‘90s, following the release of Mr. Punch and the completion of Sandman, Neil Gaiman mostly retired from life as a full-time comic book writer. There were no ticker tape parades, no farewell banquets, and nobody chipped in to buy him a watch. Instead, he simply slipped out the back, quietly, while everyone was still having a good time. Since then, he’s been like the industry’s professor emeritus, coming back every now and then, but always for a short visit—just enough time for some cookies and tea.
During that time, of course, he’s enjoyed an incredibly successful career outside of comics, writing award-winning novels, screenplays, teleplays, children’s books, and one of the most popular blogs on the Internet. Comics history is full of writers who desperately wanted to “get out” of comics and write something else but couldn’t. In this sense, Gaiman has become the industry’s biggest success story. To borrow a phrase from J.K. Rowling, he became “the boy who lived.”
But despite all of his success, he’s never left his comic book roots far behind. In many ways, American Gods was a natural extension of the urban fantasy of Sandman, blending mythology and the supernatural with the mundane realities of contemporary life. But the connection between The Ocean at the End of the Lane and comics is even closer. It is the third part of a trilogy that he first began writing near the beginning of his comics career, and the story winds up invoking the world of comics in a number of ways.
The first piece I ever wrote for Sequart, long before I began this weekly column, was an analysis of Violent Cases—Gaiman and Dave McKean’s first major comics work. It’s a graphic novel narrated by an adult that McKean draws to resemble the adult Gaiman, and it focuses on his confusing and sometimes frightening memories of childhood. With a blending of autobiography and imagination, the story focuses on the uncertainty of memory. The book served as a brilliant letter of introduction for both creators, earning them an interview with Karen Berger and eventually a contract with DC Comics.
Interestingly enough, when Gaiman was near the end of his time as a monthly comic book writer, he and McKean produced a second graphic novel in the same vein. Mr. Punch is a spiritual follow up to Violent Cases that deals with a similarly autobiographical memory, and it, too, capitalizes on the ways in which children are only able to absorb bits and pieces of what they see and hear. Much like a reader, children have to put these unconnected bits and pieces of information together in order to understand a larger context, or a narrative, if you will—even though that understanding is frightening, confusing, and indefinite.
Those characteristics also define The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the third part of this trilogy of childhood memories. Despite its short length, it’s an extraordinary book and features the best, most lyrical, writing of Gaiman’s career. And while it contains more elements of the fantastic than either of the graphic novels, Gaiman is not using fantasy to craft a story. Instead, he’s crafting a story to explore the notion of fantasy. And in so doing, he manages to deepen our understanding of what it means to be a child.
I should add now that even though I’ll be treading lightly, there will be some mild spoilers ahead. (I wrote a completely non-spoiler review for PopMatters last summer. You can read it here.)
Of the many themes that run through the novel, the most persistent involves the difference between childhood and adulthood, and in particular, the ways in which children are able to tap directly into a world of fantasy and imagination that gradually becomes lost to adults. This is a significant shift from the way Gaiman addresses childhood in Violent Cases and Mr. Punch. In both graphic novels, the child struggles to piece together the ugly bits of the adult reality, and the patchwork quilt of understanding makes everything all the more scary.
However, in Ocean, the imagination of the child leads to greater perception and insight. It’s ultimately empowering, if still frightening. And interestingly enough, it’s a power that Gaiman subtly links in various ways to the world of comics. Since much of this book, like the two graphic novels, is autobiographical, it also addresses Gaiman’s position as a semi-retired comic book writer.
The story begins, much like Violent Cases, with an adult narrator. But whereas the adult’s childhood memories in Violent Cases were all vague and indefinite, in Ocean, it’s the narrator’s adult life that seems undefined. He’s wearing a black suit and he talks about having made a speech on this “hard day” (3), meeting people he hasn’t seen in years, and going to his sister’s house. But what he doesn’t explicitly say that he’s been to a funeral, nor does he note who has died. Instead, like the child protagonists from the two previous graphic novels, the reader has to put these pieces together in order to understand the grim reality.
And once one starts putting those pieces together, Gaiman’s description of the narrator becomes even more interesting. While he keeps the details sparse, the terse summary of the narrator’s life up to this point hits on what would be the bullet points of almost any Gaiman biography—marriage, kids, divorce, and art (4). He keeps the narrator’s “art” undefined, but it doesn’t take much effort to find the comic book writer-turned-novelist in-between the lines.
From the very beginning, Gaiman closely aligns childhood with the world of comics. Before the story even starts, he presents us with an epigraph—taken from a conversation between two cartoonists—children’s book illustrator Maurice Sendak and comics creator Art Spiegelman: “I remember my own childhood vividly … I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” Not only does the quote encapsulate the theme of the book, but the prominence given to the two cartoonists also reminds us quite specifically of Gaiman’s professional history.
In the same way, once the narrator turns the story over to his memories, Gaiman again emphasizes the importance of comics. For example, when a visitor takes the family’s car, one of the narrator’s chief concerns is the fate of his new copy of Smash!, a British comic of American reprints popular in the late ‘60s and one Gaiman himself used to read. He also makes allusions to one of his favorite toys—a plastic Batman. Thus, in these early moments of a book designed to explore the difference in perspective between adults and children, Gaiman clearly defines childhood with iconic markers from the world of comics.
As a result, if we then think back to the way he first introduced us to his adult narrator, we begin to see added resonance. Take, for example, the way he describes his clothing: “I wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult” (3). He is clearly someone who sees himself, internally, as a child and belonging to a child’s world, someone only masquerading as an adult. Those are certainly self-perceptions one might expect from someone who had established himself as a comics writer, writing in a medium historically labeled “juvenile,” who is now living in the “borrowed robes” of an award-winning novelist.
Throughout the novel, Gaiman continues to make this distinction between the ways in which children see the world versus adults, with the sense that the child’s vision is far more powerful. For instance, when Lettie Hempstock, the mysterious girl who lives down the lane, refers to an ocean in her backyard, the narrator asks his father about it. However, the father, limited by the shackles of Western Rationalism, can only offer the vision of cold, clinical plausibility: “‘No,’ said my father. ‘Ponds are pond-sized, lakes are lake-sized. Seas are seas and oceans are oceans. Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic. I think that’s all of the oceans there are’” (24). But children, as Gaiman informs us, are like “small gods” (51). They are the ones that discover hidden paths and trails—the same trails that adults will later follow but could never have forged themselves (56).
Late in the novel, when the boy is granted the opportunity to step into the Hempstock “Ocean,” he is momentarily connected to a world of infinite knowledge and insight. For that brief moment, he has total clarity. But as Lettie tells him, you can’t stay in the ocean, because it would eventually destroy you: “You wouldn’t die in here, nothing ever dies in here, but if you stayed here for too long, after a while just a little of you would exist everywhere, all spread out. And that’s not a good thing” (145). To the extent that the ocean suggests childhood and childhood is symbolized by comics, it’s easy to see the professional and artistic dangers of spending too long writing comics exclusively. Better to be “the boy who lived.”
And thus, the narrator leaves this ocean of fantasy and childhood wonder. But he occasionally returns. As Lettie’s mother says, “You were here at 24 and then in your thirties (173). Of course, when Gaiman was 24 he was learning from Alan Moore about how to write a comic book script, and he was in his middle thirties when he walked away from the medium. Clearly, much like the Hempstock’s ocean, comics isn’t a place he can stay, and he seems resigned to that. But before the narrator leaves, he does ask the proverbial question, “Will I come back here?” (176).
Only four months after the publication of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman and J.H. Williams, III released the first issue of Sandman: Overture. Some answers come quickly.
Gaiman, Neil. The Ocean at the End of the Lane. New York: William Morrow, 2013.