Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

For the first time in who knows how long, I have actually finished my book club book before book club. (I used to be such an exemplary member! I always finished my book club books on time. Luckily, I also never gave the other members grief when they didn't finish--or didn't even start!--reading their book before our meeting, so everyone has karmically gone easy on me during these last few months . . . or, erm, possibly years? But that's not my point. My point is that this month I did it right. And anyway, I digress.)

Gaiman's new book is a fun and fast read, and quirky to say the least. I read the Kindle version, which I've always found difficult to equate to real books as far as determining length, but this book must be pretty short (as well as not boring) because I read it within 24 hours--actually less than that, if you subtract a full 8-hour shift at work and at least five hours of sleep (why oh why can I never go to bed early enough to get a good night's sleep? But I digress again).

This is the story of a friendless 7-year-old bookworm who meets an older neighbor girl. Lettie, at first, seems merely to be a teller of tall tales; she claims the pond on her property is an ocean. Though the narrator is skeptical of this (and rightly so), soon she opens his eyes to a reality that most people never see. Normal human events are interspersed with psychedelic weirdness.

Now, weirdness is good. I've told you that before. But it can be much more enjoyable when it has a purpose. Unfortunately, this story seemed loose and aimless (I wanted to describe it with the word "meandering" instead, but the plot had too much tension for that to fit--though in an episodic way rather than in a suspense-building way). As I neared the end I realized I was waiting to find a string that would pull everything taut, one mind-blowing puzzle piece that would click into place and shift everything into a new and dazzling perspective, but alas . . . there was no miracle thread, no revelatory missing piece. There was a pleasing symmetry in the way the fantastic was book-ended with reality, but it didn't make the mess in the middle seem any less pointless. I wanted the fanciful events the narrator experienced in his childhood to be linked to the realistic things he saw and didn't understand--things that frightened and confused him--but (call me stupid) I never found those links.

I get the feeling that, had this book not been written by Neil Gaiman, it would not have found a publisher. Or, best case scenario, a good editor could have taken the raw material (because the layered, textured fabric of good strong storytelling was there), snipped it to bits, and stitched it back together into something that would have raised my eyebrows, dropped my jaw, and altogether satisfied me in the way only a great story can. Instead, I found myself sitting there staring at Mr Incredible in disappointment.

My parting shot: Neil Gaiman used too many commas in this book. Surely he understands correct comma usage (and, barring that, surely his editor does). I was half irritated by this and half dissolving in self-doubt (maybe I'm the one who is wrong!). But so many of his sentences would flow much more nicely without all the pauses.