18 May 2009

Ending It All: How Neil Gaiman Wraps Up His Books

Last fall I re-read all of Neil Gaiman's YA books (and a few of his comics) in a period of about a week and a half so I could write an essay about his use of poetry. This was a pretty enjoyable experience, and it lead me to notice some similarities to Neil's* books that I hadn't before. My boyfriend has pointed out on several occasions that Neil's plots tend to the Alice structure, and while I'll cover that, I noticed something quite different: it was the ends of his books that felt similar. (Note: since I'm talking about the END of books, there are SPOILERS AHEAD. Especially American Gods.)

Alice (both in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) is the basic structure of modern fantasy: There is the normal world over here and over there (through this door/wardrobe/wall/sewer system/ancient Egyptian temple/train platform/Stargate/bathysphere/time machine/or red pill) is what is decidedly not normal. Now I call this the Alice structure, even though Journey to the Center of the Earth was published the year before (1864), and could certainly qualify as being the ur-structure. Partly, this is because Alice rocks while Liedenbrock annoys me, but mostly because I don't like mushrooms. (Also, Alice ends up where she starts, while Liedenbrock and Co. end up in Italy - this point will actually matter in a minute.)

Neil's books deal in this quite often. Even Sandman, the graphic novel for which I'd say all comparison bets are off, has a number of characters who go from normalville to the land of dreaming where they have adventures. Occasionally the stories move the other way, with dreams in reality, while our primary protagonist Morpheus doesn't do a lot of traveling, but there you are: part of the 2,000+ pages are Alice-y. Neverwhere is absolutely Alice (with a character named Door and everything), as is Stardust, Coraline, Mirrormask, Odd and the Frost Giants, Interworld and the end of Anansi Boys. American Gods is a bit more complex, but I think it's fair to say that Shadow does enter the world of the not normal, even though he might have been in it all along.

So what? Heroes have been going out and having adventures and coming back since the beginning of time (literally: see The Odyssey). But here's the thing: Od and the rest of his trireme crew knew there were gods and monsters all throughout the world and that going out might mean meeting them, but no more than staying home might (Here's where I point out the Helen of Troy, Zeus's daughter, was the first cousin to Penelope, Odysseus' wife. The gods were everywhere.) Alice (and Coraline and Tristran and Odd and Richard Mayhew and Helena and Joey and well you get the idea) doesn't know that there is another world or that it is strange or that she could get there. In the end Alice returns home all safe and sound, with the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts (please do not get them confused) if not outright defeated, then certainly thwarted. Thus it is in Neil's novels. Except ... the ending never quite works that way.

Neil's characters often do go home. But maybe not for long, or not to stay, or maybe not home safe. This particular structure of ending a book is one reason Neil's novels never quite translate to film: movies like smash bang endings, and maybe a coda that involves a beach, a kiss and a wisecrack, but doesn't take more than 120 seconds. Or possibly the hero stalking away from a pile of rubble while wearing sunglasses. No, Neil takes his ending cues from the books that created the world's most drawn out film endings (and they still left out everything with Boromir those kiwi bastards!): Lord of The Rings. Yep, Neil starts of all Alice, but ends all There and Back Again.

The structure of LotR is as follows: Some friends are drawn out of their small safe world, into a large scary world, where they have many adventures and learn a lot. They are ultimately successful and rewarded justly for their troubles (this, is by the way, where Star Wars ends.)(The original.). But now, newly successful, more competent and better armed they triumphantly return home (this is where The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe throws it all out the window and goes back to Alice). But they aren't the only ones who have changed. Home is no longer safe and they must use their new skills to return their home to it's former glory (here is where Neil ends some, not all, of his books). Except, one of the friends is now so changed from his adventures (what they called nostalgia after the Civil War, shell-shock after WWI and PTSD today) he CANNOT stay home. So he leaves.

How does Neil use this structure for his endings? Well, he doesn't always. Mirrormask is straight up Alice ending, with return and the possibility it was all a dream. And Odd ends not long after the triumphant return.

Neil's more likely to just pull the final return to fantasy without bringing evil into the domestic sphere. In Neverwhere no evil follows Richard home (to his Alice-y reassembled life) but he has been changed, and must go back. Tristran doesn't bring any evil back from Faerie (though he nearly kills his girlfriend on accident), but he can't remain in Wall either. Joey returns home in the middle of Interworld, but leaves again (his adventures saving people after his return to fantasy get much more detail than Tristran or Richard's).

Coraline brings evil back with her in the form of the Other Mother's hand which escapes into the real world and must be vanquished (in the book Coraline plans and plots for several days, in the movie it has to be done that night, which means no planning, just brute force. Filmmakers: this is why all the ladies were mad at you for having her saved by a boy. Because you don't understand structure.). More strangely, in the picture book, The Wolves in the Walls Neil skips the whole Alice beginning, in favor of the end LotR: the wolves come out of the walls, bringing fantasy evil into the domestic sphere, that the family must then overcome without the benefit of prior adventures (but with the Queen of Melanesia, so I guess that evens out).

But it is Shadow, who has the most complicated (least Alice) of the entries into the over-there-weird-fantasy-ness, who has the most LoTR-like exit. After the battle between ye Olde Gods and the Newer Shinier American versions, Shadow returns to his "hideout"; the city of Lakeside. Lakeside is already known to the readers as a perfect Midwestern small town. Great pie, wacky old men telling folktales, and free of the economic collapse that has attached itself to the rest of the state. Upon his return Shadow encounters the most domestic of folklore creatures: a kobold, or house spirit (Germanic). Kobolds are often associated with a single residence, though they sometimes attach themselves to the people of the household. They do chores, if left little offerings of food, but also play tricks: everything from hiding things to killing and dismembering people and throwing them in the cooking pot (they're German, okay?). Though they often appear as little old men (say 2 feet tall) they also reveal themselves as murdered children. In American Gods it turns out Lakeside's kobold is a truly domestic terror: a murdered child, who takes as his offerings other children.

Unlike LotR, where the bad guys in the Shire are lead by an enemy already faced and defeated (Saruman and his thugs), this is not an evil that Shadow brings back with him from his adventures. Rather, much like the entire world of the gods, it is something that existed before and whether or not he knew about it. Only with his new knowledge obtained from the gods is Shadow able to take care of this domestic evil. But in the end, like Frodo, Shadow is driven to distant shores to sort out what has happened to him (we see him in Iceland, then in another story, in Scotland). So here is Shadow: There and Back Again, only to find Back Again no good and ending up in search of another There.

The good writers borrow. The best writers steal. And what could be better than poor little Alice, not waking up to her sister's lessons, but returning as the knight errant ready to sweep away whatever evil lurks behind the lace pinafores and Victorian mores? And who could blame her if she went back again?

*Yes, I know it's presumptively familiar. Did you see my last post? I stalk the man! I read his blog! I know the name of his pets and children! I've had three different guys buy me Neil Gaiman books as tokens of affection! If I can't call him Neil, I really don't know who can.


At 12:56 PM, Blogger Marirosa Mia said...

This post was great. Made my day really. I call him Neil as well. Though I think if I had the chance to meet him I would walk the other way. Just because I like to keep the people I admire at a distance...also because I imagine I would be a blubbering idiot should I ever meet them. :)


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