Monday, February 16, 2009

Neil Gaiman's Stardust: a review

‘These mythological ballads are full of that very primitive undergrowth that the literature of Europe has on the whole been steadily cutting and reducing for many centuries with different and earlier completeness among different people… I would that we had more of it left – something of the same sort that belonged to the English.’

-J. R. R. Tolkien

This is the first book I’ve read by Mr Gaiman (I have not yet seen the film version) and it will not be the last. If for no other reason because of his growing reputation and because he’s bright enough to have on numerous occasions made much of two of my favourite authors: R. A. Lafferty and Gene Wolfe. Let me start by mentioning that Gaiman’s writing style in this particular book is a nice light prose, generally pleasant to read, and he takes time to set up a genuine (if not deep) world. But the writing is not ‘deceptively light’ as the writing of some writers is described (e.g. Gene Wolfe). It is as it appears. I don’t sense a great depth or sophistication behind it (not great, I say, but there is some). I’m not accusing it of being outright shallow in either style or content. But there are many shades between casual and profound in writing.

The story starts with the comment that the town of Wall (where the hero hails from) is still here in the 20th century (the book was published in 1999), but then pleasantly and skilfully Gaiman sets his tale back in Victorian times. He does so in a way rather reminiscent of Lewis setting up The Magician’s Nephew in its era of Sherlock Holmes on Baker Street, the Bastables looking for treasure in Lewisham Road, stiff Eton collars, and cheap but delicious sweets. Writes Gaiman:

‘Queen Victoria was on the throne of England, but she was not yet the black-clad widow of Windsor: she had apples in her cheeks and the spring in her step, and the Lord Melbourne often had cause to upbraid, gently, the young queen for her flightiness. She was, as yet, unmarried, although she was very much in love.

‘Mr Charles Dickens was serializing his novel Oliver Twist; Mr Draper had just taken the first photograph of the moon, freezing her pale face on cold paper; Mr Morse had recently announced a way of transmitting messages down metal wires.

‘Had you mentioned magic or Faerie to any of them, they would have smiled at you disdainfully, except, perhaps for Mr Dickens, at the time a young man, and beardless. He would have looked at you wistfully.’

There you can witness it for yourself. A very pleasant style with a light sophistication. Truth be told, if the whole book had kept up this level of intelligent playfulness, I would have enjoyed it more. But as in the Chronicles of Narnia, it rather quickly takes off into the strictly Faerie and as it does so I became less impressed with Gaiman’s exhibition of either erudition or invention. I found I had to ask myself: why would I want to read this if not for the respect I’ve heard given to him and because he’s smart enough to recommend Lafferty to people and even to make a self-confessed (and valiant) attempt at writing a Lafferty short story? I’m not sure.

Please understand, this is a fine book. It’s story is essentially sound. It is not a waste of time. Nevertheless I can find fault. For example, some of the magical elements are a bit too ‘cheap’ for my tastes. Just one instance: at a fair a miniature glass cat figurine is picked up and found to be alive, then dropped in shock. It sounds alright extracted as a summary like that, but it’s the kind of thing a writer like Gene Wolfe can do with a similarly light touch but that gives both an initial shock and lingers on in the mind with a genuine and even discomfiting sense of magic. This moment in Gaiman’s story felt just slightly obligatory or perfunctory, adding very little to the world it was creating.

Now I’ve said that the prose is pleasant enough to read, but nevertheless it must be confessed it can be overall just slightly pedestrian—though there is the occasional notable metaphor: ‘Mount Huon… had been expanded, improved upon, excavated and tunnelled into by successive Masters of Stormhold, until the original mountain peak now raked the sky like the ornately carved tusk of some great, grey, granite beast’; or ‘The lord’s voice wheezed out of him, like the wind being squeezed from a pair of rotten bellows’. (These sound even better in their context of course.)

In terms of exploring ‘the Big Questions’ through art, the story starts off promising. The very first sentence reads: ‘There once was a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire.’ But I do not feel this simple but potentially pungent start pays off in the end. It really amounts to a rather conventional ‘love story’ where a boy thought his true love was ‘this’ girl but it ends up being ‘that’ girl. Nothing deeper.

Again I feel obliged to emphasis that this is actually a very decent and sometimes quite good book. I wouldn’t really say that it’s bad or poor at all. My criticisms are sharp and strict just for the sake of getting to the point and to keep the standard requisitely high.

I will tell no more of the story itself, of the hero’s dangerous adventures through fairyland with a beautiful fallen star and of the various sets of characters whose own plots slowly converge into one with passably commendable artistry. It is entertaining. When all is said however, I must give credit and respect to Gaiman for genuinely pursuing the land of Faerie in the way Tolkien described that fairy tales at their best do (not because I think Tolkien the final authority on such matters, but rather because he was humble and wise enough to simply historically discern what was the deep human impulse in such tales worldwide and from ancient times). That is, Gaiman in this story is longing for escape, hearing ‘whispers from beyond the world’, to use some of Tolkien’s phrases (from his seminal essay ‘On Fairy Stories’). That is, I think Gaiman is trying to rather frankly (and refreshingly) honour Faerie for what it is, which is especially pertinent to our age: mischievous, indefatigable, irrepressible, irreverent-yet-reverent, painfully poignant, acutely powerful anti-reductionism. I.e. he honours the fact that in our heart of hearts we humans wish (perhaps we know) that there is More Than This and so we turn to this weird and wonderful form of storytelling.

I must mention that in his Acknowledgments at the end of the book, Gaiman makes the very interesting comment: ‘I owe an enormous debt to Hope Mirrlees, Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell and C. S. Lewis, wherever they may currently be, for showing me that fairy stories were for adults too.’ I’m pleased no end that Lewis continues to have such a crucial influence on the arts, especially on more ‘pop-fringe’ artists like Gaiman. I have no idea what Gaiman’s personal beliefs about immortality are or how purely whimsical this comment may be, but I sense it is one more instance of his heartfelt anti-reductionism (even it it’s not an out and out affirmation of a supernatural worldview).

Neil Gaiman is trying valiantly to cultivate some of the aforementioned ‘primitive undergrowth’ for our times and I applaud him for it. There is something very right about his intentions. In honesty I’m bound to say I don’t sense the deep, deep power of myth coming through in this particular tale. Not that every moment of even the best myths do have this. I just mean it seems to me that it lacks somehow what Lewis called that ‘spear stab’ of true wonder. Or at least that in Stardust it comes across flickeringly in rare moments as more of a pinprick.

PARENTAL NOTE: I would recommend parents read this tale before their children do. Many, like me, would not find it age appropriate, especially for young children and probably even teenagers, due to a few graphic scenes of sex and violence. This is regrettable as I would have enjoyed having my children read it and seeing what they thought.

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