Monday, June 15, 2009

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

The fantasy genre really is the Cinderella (of the first half of her story) in the palace of literary types. The other genres look upon it with disdain, because it's not proper literature. It gets relegated to the back rooms, where it's not the window dressing but at least it gets some work done. Harlequin romance might be below fantasy in this muddled metaphor, the singing mouse of the Disneyfied palace, but at least it doesn't try to take itself seriously. But it's just sad to watch dismal fantasy wipe the floors with its paperback mop, dreaming of the day in its imaginary future when it can become queen of the palace.

Of course, many of those who love fantasy books will defend them with passion bordering on religious devotion. And some fantasy -- without getting too much into what, exactly, defines fantasy -- has risen above its humble prospects, even if such examples are still seldom accepted into any literary canon. The Lord of the Rings is the glimmering standard bearer of these books, and its position at the peak of all fantasy writing is more than justified. More than anything, Tolkien illuminated that the genre is capable of greatness. But if even Tolkien's literary masterpiece is scoffed at by many in the literary world, what treatment do other, admittedly very popular, fantasy works receive?

Because I think the fantasy genre struggles for its hold in the literary world, and craves such a place (even if it won't admit it to itself), its literary reception begs the question: What is good fantasy? Before you laugh at my foolishness and presumptuousness, don't think I'm going to tackle that question fully right here. It's far too big for a blog post, and besides, any answer would just be my opinion. And it's not like I'm the first to ask the question -- so who am I to settle the debate?

But the question came to me while I was reading Neverwhere. That I even had the book was a circumstance of events -- I had maybe ten minutes to catch the first train in a six-hour trip, had left my other book behind, and with little time to use in selecting my replacement option I chose this one, thanks to the author's name. I've read Gaiman before, and if you've been reading for a while you might remember how much I liked his Fragile Things collection. Gaiman is a gifted writer, but more so, I believe, a gifted storyteller.

And I enjoyed Neverwhere. It was a good story. But it wasn't a great story, and I think for the same reason I would say it wasn't great fantasy. A large component of fantasy literature deals with world-creation*, and I thought Neverwhere fell flat in this area. Gaiman took an interesting premise -- that there is a world beneath London where those go who have fallen through the cracks of London Above, and that this world has given much of London Above the now-unrecognized sources of its place names -- and strung together a very episodic quest from one place to the next. But instead of developing much in the way of back-story or even utilizing too much creativity** to create a cohesive world for London Below, Neverwhere feels pieced together. It tries to create a tangent world for London, much like C.S. Lewis did for England in The Chronicles of Narnia, but instead of being believable (remember that whole "suspension of disbelief" thing?) it feels more like a Saturday morning cartoon. Jonathan Strange took our world, added magic, and created a seamless wonder; Neverwhere took our world and told an entertaining story that tried, and didn't do terribly well, to give etymological roots for the London Tube stations.

*By "world" I don't mean "planet." I mean the reality in which the book is set. Even if Tolkien's Middle-earth is intended to be set on the very same Earth as our feet, it doesn't intersect with our reality within the pages of the book, so I say it is a different world. However, I would say that Lewis' Narnia books are based in our world, because the England side of the story is meant to be an England we can relate to. Same goes for J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, and for other stories whose fantasic elements occur, in whole or in part, in what we recognize as our own world.

**Knightsbridge is... a bridge. Of night.

I'm not one for the wholesale segregation of books into the categories of "young adult" and "adult." But maybe this book would fit better in the former category. It's not an exemplar of fantasy as high literature, but for all my complaining it really was a fun story, and I can imagine younger readers finding much more delight in it than I did.

UPDATE: This blog is my place to discuss the thoughts I have on the books I read. But after writing the above, I don't feel like I gave the book a fair shake. I don't think it's great fantasy, and there are plenty of books I would recommend before it. But having said that, there are a couple aspects of the book I really could (and did) appreciate.
  • The villains. Croup and Vandemar have their tag-team dialogue down pat. And they own the smart baddy/dumb baddy routine. Their role in the book really is a performance. It's not that I rooted for them over the heroes of the book... it's just that I enjoyed their parts so much more. I wish Gaiman had focused more on the characters, like these two, than on locations -- and if he wanted to focus on locations, he should have developed more places like the hospital basement these two call home.
  • The set-up and the ending. Gaiman does a great job getting Richard Mayhew sucked into the world of London Below. And while I don't think the book could have ended any other way, given what precedes the conclusion, it was done very, very well.


  1. Richard is really one of my least favorite main characters. I spent much of the book saying things like "Don't go with that freaky lady, she'll just betray you later..." and he didn't listen to me. I felt like he was mostly just there to be a trap magnet. Also, I had guessed what the twist was early on, so it was kinda anti-climactic.

    Basically, I pretty much agree with everything you said. Not his best work, but one should read it because we heart Neil Gaiman.

  2. I know how it feels to read something that almost feels clunky because the author had a great idea, or a great theme, but couldn't quite piece it together well. It seems like as he was threading the story together, he dropped a stitch or seven?

  3. I like the fact (and still is amazed) that Neil Gaiman made a really interesting and wonderful story out of the London below. It was like I was following Door and Richard's footsteps too.