First Lines: The Ocean at the End of the Lane (reread)

Upon finishing my reread of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I am pretty sure it is my favorite book of his. And I suspect that is because I have absolutely no clue what to make of it.

It is an absolutely fantastic story, in every sense of the word. But despite all the maiden-mother-crone triple goddesses, all the weird and wonderful and very evil things that happen, I cannot help but feel that there must be so many layers that you have to peel back before you get to the story’s true meaning. Layers all the way down. When you read, say, Neverwhere, you know it’s all, well, made up. Ocean is nothing like that.

In a blog post I have mentioned here years ago, his wife Amanda Palmer explains it in a way that makes so much sense:

neil writes fiction. i interviewed him for my webcast (the AFP Salon) a few weeks ago and we discussed our differences in writing, and a truly bizarre metaphor (but an apt one, i believe), came tumbling out of my mouth.
we are the ingredients of our own art (much like i said in the writers’ conference speech: “we can only connect the dots that we can collect”), but the amount of distance from the “reality of our experience” to the “art we create” spans a scale of one to ten on the blender of art-making.

we start off with all these fresh ingredients, recognizable (a heart, a finger, an eyeball, a glass of wine) and we throw them in the art-blender. i only let things mix very slightly. i keep my blender on 2 or 3. you can recognize the component parts: in the final art-soup, the finger might be severed and mangled, but you can peer into your bowl and see that it’s a finger, floating there, all human and bloody and finger-y. neil puts his art-blender on 10. you wind up with a fantastic purée, but often you have no fucking idea where the experiences of his life wound up in the mix of his final product.

She goes on to say that for this book, he turned the blender down a lot, and that that was hard for him to do. But know this does not bring the story behind the story within reach. In his 2012 Zena Sutherland lecture, What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book Anyway?, Gaiman acknowledges that this is a very personal, nearly autobiographical story:

The third book I wrote is the one that inspired the title of this talk, and is the reason why I puzzle and I wonder. It has a working title of Lettie Hempstock’s Ocean. It is written, almost entirely, from the point of view of a seven-year-old boy. It has magic in it — three strange, science-fictional witches who live in an ancient farmhouse at the end of the protagonist’s lane. It has some unusually black-and-white characters, including the most absolutely evil creature I’ve made since Coraline’s Other Mother. It has Sense of Wonder in it, and strangeness. It’s only 53,000 words long, short for an adult book, but for years considered a perfect length for a juvenile. It has everything in it I would have loved as a boy…

And I don’t think it’s for kids. But I’m not sure.

It’s a book about child helplessness. It’s a book about the incomprehensibility of the adult world. It’s a book in which bad things happen — a suicide sets the story in motion, after all. And I wrote it for me: I wrote it to try and conjure my childhood for my wife, to evoke a world that’s been dead for over forty years. I set it in the house I grew up in and I made the protagonist almost me, the parents similar to my parents, the sister an analog of my younger sister, and I even apologized to my baby sister because she could not exist in this fictional version of events.

I would make notes for myself as I wrote it, on scraps of paper and in margins, to try and work out whether I was writing a book for children or for adults — which would not change the nature of the book, but would change what I did with it once it was done, who would initially publish it and how. They were notes that would say things like “In adult fiction you can leave the boring bits in” and “I don’t think I can have the scene where his father nearly drowns him in the bath if it’s a kids’ book, can I?”

I reached the end of the book and realized that I was as clueless as when I began. Was it a children’s book? an adult book? a young adult book? a crossover book? a … book?

It is a book. A glorious, uplifting and satisfying book, that does not really give you any answers as to what it really is about. Do I want to know? Bet your ass I do. But also, no.

Book reread
Neil Gaiman — The Ocean at the End of the Lane
First Line
It was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm.
Favorite quotes
“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.”
“The dread had not left my soul. But there was a kitten on my pillow, and it was purring in my face and vibrating gently with every purr, and, very soon, I slept.” (😻)