Monday, April 6, 2009

Odd Omens

As promised, this post will bring some closure to my earlier discussion of Neil Gaiman. I realize the last entry was rather light on critical insight, and I have endeavored to compensate with this post, but I'm afraid there's still a fair bit about me in here as well.

Just as I was not initially taken with Sandman, Gaiman's status as literary idol is a far cry from my first impression of him, which was half-formed during my first attempt to read Good Omens.

I say half-formed because Gaiman was not the sole creator of Omens: It's a apocalyptic, comedic affair that was co-authored with Terry Pratchet of Disc World fame, and my fondness for that series was the angle I approached Omens from. For those unfamiliar with Disc World, I like to describe it as fantasy done Douglas Adams style. If you are unfamiliar with Adams and the Hichhiker series: Don't panic! Simply exit the blog in a calm yet expedient manner, read Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and everything will remain mostly harmless. Otherwise I'll make with the Vogon poetry.

/End ADD.exe: Omen's was enjoyable enough to begin with, but it began to wear on me terribly. Comedy is much easier to digest intellectually than drama but it's also much easier to walk away from, especially when its presented in ~300 pages of text as opposed to a performance you can just watch. Even when the fate of the world is hanging in balance of plots outcome, as is the case with Good Omens, you still know everything will end in laughter. Without any kind of emotional risk, the novelty of the jokes are the only hook for readers. Admittedly, this is usually how comedy works, but considering how ripe religion is for ridicule, most of the gags used are 'easy' enough that they seem to write themselves.

So Gaiman and Pratchet try to keep things fresh by going absolutely nuts. It seems like they threw every absurd character and awkward scenario into the plot pot, producing a tangeled stew of tangential madness. I think it was all about the fun as opposed to the craft, which is actually a good way to approach craft. They knew that no editor on God's could stand a chance against their combined insanity. Reading the result is like trying to follow a conversation between school girls as it gets swept up by some verbal Speed Force and enters the realm of precognition, where one is already "Omigawding" at what the other is about to say. Anyone whose has participated in such an exchange knows they can be exhilarating just as well as everyone whose has tried to follow them from the outside knows they can be profoundly alienating. I trust that High School has provided most of us with both experiences.

I happened to read the book during those dark days of adolescence, where I was uniquely tormented and miserable just like everyone else, so finding that same cliquish atmosphere within the fiction was thoroughly frustrating. There is no clear evidence of such an exclusive agenda within the story, because it was not intentional. It was like the text was being haunted by some phantom in-crowd which existed beyond the margin. This reaction is as impressive as it is pathetic. Anyone can be ostracized by other people. Being rejected by your own imagination takes a rare gift.

The inside-joke I was missing is that Crowley the Demon is standing in for Gaiman, and Aziraphale the Angel is a proxy for Pratchet. An intelligent casual reader may guess that from the beginning, but actually appreciating the subtle interplay between the two needs requires one to have read enough of each author's work in order to be familiar with the people behind the prose. Once you've reached that level of understanding, the conversational nature is a boon to the story because you feel like you could participate in it if the opportunity presented itself. You're one of the cool kids. Such familiarity also provides the reader with additional incentive to see the story all the way through. Who care's if there's nothing at risk? You know the guys involved!

This "inside crowd" sort of fiction is always a double-edged sword, and from an analytical standpoint, it's a very interesting variation on the Casual vs. Dedicated reader dialectic. In earlier posts, I've expressed, or at least implied the opinion that keeping things casual and inclusive is generally the best course of action. I know that probably seems hypocritical in the context of a blog post riddled with links to obscure references, but you'll notice that I also link to many relevant wikipedia articles that will help clarify my ravings. Furthermore, I frequently indulge in such hypocrisy because it's the only way I can deal with the unique strain my gift exerts on my mind.

A blog also differs from a book in many important ways. Conceptually, the act of publishing a story can be considered an invitation of sorts. If you approach the book with that sort of expectation, only to be confronted with some sort of exclusion, it's supremely off-putting. Many genres of polemic fiction defeat themselves in such a way. The author intends to solve one of the world's great problems by inspiring people with their words...only to alienate readers by condemning them as the root of the problem.

I understand that Good Omens was very well received as books go, and I believe this was because it was entertaining on two different levels. As the Simpson's has proven from over a decade now, easy and plentiful is a safe and profitable approach to humor, and Good Omen's follows the formula to produce a comparable level of appeal. On the other end of the spectrum, diehard fans have the satisfaction of watching their favorite author's bicker as angel and demon, producing a buddy comedy that plays out like an extended good angel bad angel sketch. Since I skewed in the middle of these two intended audiences, I was left out in the cold.

Now that I am more familair with the creatores, lots of little gags have come back to me, and one scene in particular captures the spirit of their duality effectively well. At one point, the pair needs to cover some ground, so Crowley conjures a sleek looking sports car (an act of superficiality suitable for a preening demon and astheticist dreamlord alike), only to have Aziraphael adorn it with hideous tartan luggage straps; a representation of humble functionality befittingan angel that also hints at Pratchet's fetish for luggage.

The reason that I bring this up with regards to Gaiman is that all of his stories have this semi-metafictional mutlilayered quality to them. Sandman is particularly appealing to writers because it is a collection of stories about stories. An epic about epics. The same is true of American Gods and to a lesser extent, Stardust as well. The Graveyard Book is enjoyable by itself, but all the more richer when one realizes it's a variation on Kipling's Jungle Book. I haven't read or seen Coraline yet (both movie and book are on my fictional to-do list), but from what I hear, it's engaging to children and absolutely terrifying for parents.

Ultimately, story-tellers are Gaiman's intended in-crowd. According to the writing workshops I've had in college, neither critics nor audiences are supposed to enjoy stories about stories, though you wouldn't know it from the opulent introductions penned by respected authors that preface each volume of Sandman. I'm not sure if that says more about the teachers I've had, or Gaiman's writing, but one day, I hope to beat the same odds.

1 comment:

Remy, Patron Saint of Rainbows and Puppies said...

I read this book years ago without knowing anything about either of the authors. It captured my imagination immediately and I basically didn't put it down until I finished. Your post makes it sound like a much more stressful exercise than it was. You came across as sounding incredibly worried about what other people would think about why you're reading the book and what you should be reading into it. Very unfun.