It must be difficult to be an artist today, living in the age of Google Earth and the Human Genome Project, where everything about our world and ourselves is being mapped, labeled, and filed away in a digital storehouse so vast it makes the warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark seem quaint. With so much already discovered, so much already known, where are the wild spaces? In his new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman appears to have found one such wild space, and it’s closer than you might think.
Memory is a tricky thing. We try to rely on electronic memory, digitally capturing every “unforgettable” moment of our lives. Yet, what kinds of memories are we preserving? Visual reproductions of superficial facts? Real memory, organic memory, the kind of memory Gaiman writes about, is a living thing—far more elusive, far more joyous, and far more terrifying than anything you’ll find on your Flickr account. Memory is that place beyond the map where sailors knew never to go, the place where dragons be.
Gaiman is clearly in his element here. Twice before, in a pair of graphic novels illustrated by Dave McKean, Gaiman has explored this wilderness of memory, revisiting the things that frighten us from childhood—the things we don’t understand and, perhaps even scarier, the things we do. Both Violent Cases and Mr. Punch were inspired directly by Gaiman’s childhood, and both play with the uncertainties of a memory that often conflates the very real—physical abuse, violence, and emotional estrangement—with the more explicit horrors and monsters of the imagination. For years, Gaiman’s finest prose has been quietly tucked away in these two graphic novels. Until now.
Put simply, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the best-written book of Gaiman’s career. It features a level of craftsmanship, focus, and control that we normally associate more with literary fiction than genre. The book is focused, lyrical, and profoundly perceptive in its exploration of childhood and memory, and it’s also quite frightening—like one of Truman Capote’s holiday stories by way of Stephen King.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t the kind of book you want to summarize, even though that’s what you’re supposed to do in a book review. I could tell you that it’s the story of a man sitting on a bench remembering something from when he was a boy, but that really doesn’t sound like the kind of story many would want to read.
The problem is that unveiling any of the details that the narrator’s memories unfold would directly interfere with the magic of the reading experience. Besides, a story about a man sitting on a bench might be more compelling than it sounds. Comic book readers will remember that Gaiman once changed the course of an entire medium with a simple story of the Sandman sitting on a bench, feeding the pigeons, and chatting with his sister.
It takes very careful and nuanced writing to make a story like this work. As Gaiman’s narrator sits on his bench, so do we, and as he combs through the tangle of memories, we, too, follow the strands that transport us back to those perceptions we had when we were seven. The result is a communion between author and reader where the process of reading is as visceral as it is intellectual, and where the experience of reading takes on a life of its own, just as important as the details of the plot. In my case, I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane outdoors, under a shade tree, on a spring day with an impetuous breeze that kept trying to flip the pages forward with each gust, stealing glances at the next chapter, as it were.
It would be hard not to blame that breeze, for there’s a mysterious and thrilling story here, and a good bit of insight into life as well. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, indeed, a wise book about many things, from the uncertainty of memory to the destructive nature of money. But Gaiman saves his most perceptive observations for the differences between children and adults. As the narrator explains, children see, taste, and experience the world very differently than adults, and the narrator frequently reminds us of these differences, interspersing his narration with knowing little aphorisms about childhood.
The things that are important to us when we are seven become the things that are important to us as we read, and Gaiman reminds us of the kinds of details that make a bedroom special to us as children. He shows us what it feels like to experience truly great-tasting, transcendent food for the first time. And he illustrates why children often make much better navigators than adults when you really need to get from one place to another. These are the sorts of truths that we all used to know but forgot at some point in between paying the mortgage and filing taxes.
Mark Twain once said that Tom Sawyer was a book for boys while Huckleberry Finn was a book for people who used to be boys. Much the same could be said for Gaiman’s efforts here. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a book for people who used to be children… and for those who would like to be again.