The care of the living for the dead and the dead for the living
It’s a pretty grand theme and is nothing less than one of the notions behind Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I finished it recently. I think I like both this and Coraline better than American Gods, all three of which are high concept novels about worlds and the beings who slip between them, with American Gods being adult fiction.
I like Bod and I like how characters were introduced through inscriptions. I appreciated how he changed and struggled with his world – and the world beyond. Miss Lupescu is obvious in her depiction, but Silas is strangely difficult to decipher. There is a tragic arc to the story of Scarlet that was deftly achieved, and I missed entirely the point of Mr Frost until it became overt.
Depictions of place were effective, particularly of the graveyard itself, even if exactly how Bod lived is less detailed. There is a danger that this book and others (more of which down further) romanticises nature, without clearly understanding it.
The barrow sequences were especially charged and fraught and presented a neat narrative circularity that showed how Bod and Scarlet developed. I like the bind that the Jacks were forced into by their own actions: by seeking to prevent their prophecy they enable its fulfilment. But I want this to signify something. Bod was special, but coming of age meant he left this behind and I am deeply unhappy with that. He mastered something no one had before and in the end….pfft.
I also want more *something* regarding the dance. In its effect it was a little reminiscent of the chapter The Piper at the Gates of Dawn from the Wind in the Willows, whereby Portly is saved by a demigod, but for the animals to survive this experience of the numinous, they must forget. But why the dance?
In fact, most of the characters had this reluctance to confront issues or explain events to Bod (and thus to me) and this is intensely frustrating. This is exacerbated by the emotionally climatic ending. Yet Bod deserves a sequel. It would great to see him as an adult reunited with the ghosts of his past, as they ever were. It would be interesting to see him attempt to defend Silas.
Basically, everything I didn’t like had to do with what was missed out or skipped. The Graveyard Book suffers from The Hobbit syndrome, whereby both Tolkien and Gaiman make narrative decisions about how to present the action outside of the main character’s awareness. In both cases, because of the intended audience and because of space or time, battle scenes are perfunctorily described, even as they deal with the death of important characters that shape the plot. None of these characters deserve this in-passing treatment.
This annoys me. If annoyed me as a kid and it annoys me now. If writers are going to dare enough to invent worlds that feature murder and battles and present these as suitable for kids I think they can be a little more…honest. In the world, kids endure wars and I don’t know, broken homes or even the occasional dose of news on TV, so I think they can cope with a couple of fictional accounts of battle scenes between monsters and heroes.
Kids can and do read stuff they are too old for, and can and do stop reading what they can’t cope with. I know I did. Plus parents edit their kids reading all the time.
To be fair, Gaiman addresses the first driver of the plot well. It was tense, eerie and menacing without being gory. But then, later, I believe he did the Honour Guard a disservice by not describing them, their roles and their sacrifices more completely. Too much was hinted at and like the ghosts themselves, not enough became solid.
For all my criticisms I think this was a better realised world than American Gods. I’ve never thought of cemeteries as particularly negative spaces. If you think about it, the suffering of those buried there happened elsewhere (mostly) and this is true for Nobody Owens.
Gaiman was inspired by the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, where a boy is raised by animals. Philosophically, Gaiman, and David Malouf in An Imaginary Life, correlate childhood to a state where not only the human brain is more malleable but more attune to subtle worlds: with Malouf it’s nature; with Gaiman it’s the supernatural.
Both authors build into their narratives assumptions about how growing up means abandoning these for the ‘real world’. A part of me sees how this works. As we grow up we become, generally, more ‘fixed’ in our personalities, our likes and dislikes and in our ideas about how ‘reality’ works. Malouf demonstrates with Ovid that this certainty is most vulnerable when humans are at the edge of what they know – in terms of living and dying and in terms of civilisation.
The rest of me abhors and rejects this entirely. I loathe this as a trope. I want some author to examine why this is so or to offer an alternative where Bod can be what he was and be an adult, for instance. As a writer I strive to ensure I hang onto a sense of wonder. I want to explore boundaries. Writing is treating the imagination as real. What I imagine manifests, alchemically, as a story and then exists independently as a thing, sometimes even as a physical item, in the world. A story transgresses boundaries. It is magic. It is maybe the only magic we have left.
I will never stop believing in it.
So why can’t some characters?
Literature is littered with instances of the outsider: god/being/person who exists on the borders or has special connections to nature or the gods. Literature, mostly, is concerned with how they (and therefore the rest of us) lose this connection and pick a side. This dates to the wild man Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh whose affinity for animals and nature was lost after a week with Shamhat, Temple Prostitute. This particular idea ricochets through literature for 4000 years +. Gaiman hints at it. A part of Bod growing up is about understanding and losing Scarlet and Liza. If he had written it for adults this may have become more overt.
It’s problematic too, women repeatedly depicted as vessels of civilisation. Or corrupters of ‘natural’ men, inducting them into the realm of domesticity or life and death, where men and women are both ‘impure’ – divorced from nature (or the dead or the numinous). It assumes women are always responsible for men’s ‘fall from grace’ – a la Adam and Eve. The exceptions are Liza, the witch and Miss Lupescu who are both free to cross borders – in and out of civilisation and beyond the grave. Liza is a witch – a (perceived) transgressor of social and religious norms, even in death. Miss Lupescu is a different order of being. As a teacher (and ‘foreigner’) she passes through the world, but never belongs to it. So that is where women end up: if they are not Eve (Scarlet), they are exiles, like Liza or not even human, like Miss Lupescu.
If Gaiman is interested at the beginning of this process with Bod as a baby. Malouf is interested in the possibility of a return in older age. His Ovid, after trying to teach his Wild Child, eventually accepts the Child as teacher. This enables Ovid to properly cross the border between Roman civilisation and the unknown wilds. He learns that he is not exiled to a Roman outpost, but is entering another world – one we all must enter in the end.