Now you see him, now you don’t

by David Larsen / 20 June, 2013
With new book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman for the first time does his “unreliable autobiography thing” at novel length.
Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman. Photo/Philippe Matas

Neil Gaiman is not co-operating. I have long suspected him of having a deep-seated horror of mortality: look at all the immortals in his books. Look at the friendly, unthreatening avatar of Death in his Sandman graphic novel series. (A series that is ultimately about both immortality and suicide, by the way.) Death as a cheerful goth chick with pet goldfish? I call that overcompensation.

Gaiman calls it “telling stories”. The immortals crop up so often because he likes long time horizons, he says. More interesting. And he was not traumatised as a child by the suicide of a stranger in the Gaiman family car. (No one told him about it.) Or by his aunt Diane’s death when he was six; at least not that he recalls.

“I don’t think I was sad when she died. Just relieved she wouldn’t kiss me any more with her scratchy face. I went to see her in the hospital, with my father, before she died. It was white. Everybody knew she was going to die.”

He writes this in Being an Account of the Life and Death of the Emperor Heliogabolus, which was published at the back of an issue of the long-running indie comic Cerebus in 1991. It used to be a given that only hardcore fans knew about Heliogabolus. Then it was uploaded to the web. Gaiman, speaking by phone from his home in Wisconsin, comments that his public profile has followed a similar trajectory.

“For 20-odd years, it felt like I was a secret, and I liked that. I really like the anonymity and awkwardness of being a writer. I like the idea that if you take a writer to a party you can find them because they’re out on the stairs, or somewhere in the kitchen talking to somebody’s mum. In the late 90s, I used to compare myself to sushi – I’m not going to be to everybody’s taste, I’m like sushi.

“But the web has changed everything. Any talk I give will end up on YouTube now. I’ve got to this weird place where people do kind of know what I look like, and they sidle up to me at bus stops and say, ‘I loved your Doctor Who episode’, and run away. Suddenly every block in America has a sushi restaurant. And I’m very lucky, and one should certainly not grumble. But I don’t feel like I ever signed up for this.”

Another thing to note about Helioga­bolus is that its autobiographical details are all accurate. “Nothing in there is made up. It’s all completely true. Well, except the stuff that’s me fantasising about Heliogabolus.” This makes it unique among the half-dozen books, short stories and comics purporting to be based on Gaiman’s childhood, the latest of which is the novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane cover

Ocean is superficially somewhat similar to Gaiman’s children’s fantasy Coraline, being the story of a young child growing up in a rambling semi-rural house, whose adventures in a world outside our own put him and his parents in terrible danger. But this story is not for children. Gaiman has commented that he deliberately made the initial chapters understated and dry, on the basis that any child who could deal with them would probably not be traumatised by what follows. It is narrated in the first person, by the man the boy protagonist has grown into, and that man, although he never names himself, is clearly Gaiman.

I am sceptical, to be honest, about the idea that the tone and pace of those initial chapters were framed to screen out age-inappropriate readers. Their cool melancholy is the seed from which the mood of the entire story grows, and Gaiman stresses that “grows” is the right word: he didn’t have a plan for this book. He didn’t even plan for it to be a book. It began life as a short story, written as a gift for his wife, singer Amanda Palmer, while she was away on tour.

“I normally know where I’m heading when I sit down to write a novel. Much like if you decided to hitch-hike from New York to Los Angeles you’d have a plan that involved ending up in Los Angeles. It’s absolutely possible that you may find that this journey is actually going to take you to San Francisco, but at least you have the shape of the journey in your head.

“But in this case it was just a short story that I was writing because I missed my wife, and it grew in very strange ways, and many of the things that happened were very organic. It was more the equivalent of me saying I’m going to nip down to the shops to go and get a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk, and then not coming back for two months. And when they say, ‘Where did you go?’, I tell them I think I went to Los Angeles. It’s probably the strangest novel I’ve ever written.”

In the opening chapters, a British writer living in America returns home for a funeral and finds himself adrift among people he no longer knows. He goes out driving and realises after a while that he is looking for the house where he grew up, which no longer exists. He starts to remember some of the things that happened there, including the friendship he formed with the girl down the lane, who may possibly have been an immortal from a family of immortals, and the time his aunt took him to a play, shortly before she died, and the time his father was possessed by a demonic babysitter, and the time a visiting South African stole their family car and killed himself in it.

In the commencement speech Gaiman gave to the graduating class at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 2012 – which was subsequently posted on YouTube, went viral and has now been published in book form as Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” Speech – he says, “The moment that you start to feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself, that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.” This feeling of exposure – would that be what it feels like when you use your own childhood as a stage set?

“Absolutely. And it has done every time I’ve done the unreliable autobiography thing, going back to – I think the first time was in 1986. I’ve never done it at novel-length before. I have two sisters, and they’ve both read Ocean, and one of them just loved it, and said, ‘It’s my favourite of all of your books.’ And the other said, ‘People are going to think it’s us!’ And I’m kind of like, ‘I don’t think they  will’, and she was like, ‘Well, can’t you not set it in Sussex? Set it in Derbyshire, and have the father be a little fish and chip shop person, so everybody knows it’s not him.’ And I’m going, ‘Well, I don’t think that anyone’s really going to think that, but I will put a disclaimer at the end if you want, saying that this is not my family.’ Which I promptly did. It absolutely is my landscape, though.”

The suicide of the visiting South African really happened, although Gaiman only heard about it years later. “I was talking to my dad a little while before he died about why they got rid of the Mini that I’d loved as a kid. He told me the story of a guy from South Africa who had stolen our Mini to commit suicide in, after having lost all of his money at the Brighton casino. My dad had been called by the police at six o’clock that morning, gone down, identified the car and the body, and sold the car by late afternoon. All I knew was that one day we didn’t have our Mini any more.”

Gaiman’s father, however, is very definitely not the domineering and dangerous man who lives through this event in the book. Given the book’s father loses his mind to an interdimensional succubus, this perhaps does not need to be underlined. But Gaiman has written about “my dad” before, notably in the graphic novels Violent Cases and Mister Punch – both of which also build on nuggets of family history – and the Violent Cases father, a vast, adored, slightly ominous figure who accidentally dislocates his three-year-old son’s arm, is the real Gaiman snr.

“He liked Violent Cases. He did used to sigh and say, ‘Your fans are going to think you were an abused kid’, and I’d say, ‘No, I don’t think they’re going to think that, Dad’, but the dislocation anecdote is completely true. I was doing that three-year-old thing of refusing to go to bed or something, and he was pulling and then there was a clunk and my little arm came out of its socket. So that was completely true. I think he always felt rather that he wished I hadn’t started the story with that.”

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, by Neil Gaiman (Headline, $36.99).


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