The Faintest Inklings: The Ocean At The End Of The Lane
Welcome to the inaugural meeting of the Faintest Inklings, our very Pajiban book club that we hope will be successful and lead to much insightful discussion, eventual book deals, and devastating cocaine habits. If you missed the announcement a couple of weeks ago, you can read it here and we’ll jump right into the discussion on this page.
Dearly literate, we have gathered here today to speak about Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane. It should go without saying that in depth discussion of a book will involve spoilers as to the plot of said book. This is why we assigned the reading three weeks ago. Do keep up.
Steven Lloyd Wilson: So in brief, I found the book to be fantastic. In Gaiman’s earlier books, I always felt that there was this level of self-consciousness to his writing. That while they are beautifully written, they always seem to have this subtle sheen over the story where you can sense the fingerprints of the author being conscious at all times of what he is writing. There’s almost a hesitancy where you can read between the lines “ah hah, I am writing a fairy tale”. In Stardust it was most apparent, but it was always there, except perhaps in Sandman.
I don’t know if I’m describing it very well. But that sense is gone in Ocean. In this story Gaiman comes into his own and the story exists on its own with a confidence of storytelling that was not there before.
Joanna Robinson: I completely agree. Some of the preciousness that can be found in Gaiman’s other work is completely absent here. While many of his recent books (Coraline, The Graveyard Book) were marketed for both children and adults, this is very conspicuously an “adult” book. Sure, there’s a child protagonist and strange and wonderful things occur, but it has such sad, adult themes that I would only encourage the most mature youngster to read it. Gaiman also famously wrote this book for his wife, the musician Amanda Palmer who, according to Gaiman, doesn’t like sci-fi/fantasy. I think that’s why the fantasy and mythic elements feel so grounded in reality and in, as we suggested in the discussion questions, science. This is Gaiman’s attempt at writing a modern story while incorporating some of the elements from classic mythology. Do you want to walk us through some of those elements, Professor?
SLW: Why in the world would a renowned fantasy author marry someone who professes to not like the genre? What do they talk about? Sports? Garfield? That’s like a famous chef marrying someone without taste buds. Inexplicable, and completely irrelevant to the question at hand, I suppose.
As far as mythology goes, the strongest element is the use of maiden, mother, and crone. But it’s done subtly enough that I didn’t even register how the Hempstocks mapped onto the archetypes until the very end of the novel. And that’s because the mythological elements of the novel are not there just as references, not just there for the reader to feel smart about recognizing them: ooh three linked magical women, maiden-mother-crone for the bingo! No, the mythology exists seamlessly with the world. Like Joanna said, the magic feels grounded, and not just because it’s plausible but because he wrote this for someone who didn’t like fantasy, so every fantastic element is meticulously chosen in order to dovetail with the overall themes of the story. So that by the end, there’s a sense of inevitability, that the things that are fantastic in the story have to be fantastic for the story to be told.
Which I suppose ties into what the narrator (let’s just call him the Boy from now on to make it easier, since he doesn’t have a name) says about disliking fairy tales but loving mythology. Myths are told to make the world make sense. They only contain fantasy in so far as it simplifies the explanation of the world. This story is mythology because of Gaiman forcing himself to remain grounded, to use the story as a way to explain something, but with the subtle grin of checkmate against the fantasy-challenged in that he meticulously chose that something such that it required fantasy to explain it. So I guess the real question is, what is that something that Gaiman answers with this novel?
JR: Well for that I think we have to look at the frame narrative. We meet our protagonist (the Man that the Boy becomes) ducking out of his father’s wake. If Gaiman was indeed setting out to write something more adult, universal and Amanda Palmer-friendly, then he couldn’t have have picked a more commonly shared experience than that. It’s one thing to confront your own adulthood. That’s something many of us avoid for years. (Still avoiding, thank you very much.) It’s another to confront your own mortality. When a parent dies (I assume, I’m lucky enough to still have mine), you’re forced to stare down the twin barrels of adulthood and mortality. When his father dies, the Boy no longer has the luxury of being the son. Now he’s absolutely and without question the Man.
Despite the magick, the evil nannies and the bewitching Hempstocks, I really feel like this boils down to a story of fathers and sons and the thresholds we all have to cross. For me, the scariest moment of the book was not when Lettie Hempstock is attacked (though that was terrifying), it’s when Father holds our young narrator underwater. The Boy experiences the worst aspects of his father and of manhood (lust, aggression) but also, in that final fairy ring scene, confronts the worst and seeks out the best. He tries to understand his father as a human, not an archetype. I don’t know, maybe I’m projecting. What do you think about that notion of fathers and sons as the major theme? And, if that’s the case, what’s the significance in The Man Who Was Once A Boy forgetting this story over and over?
SLW: The wonderful thing about human beings is that we can learn from experience, but our great tragedy is that we can only learn from experience. Growing up is when you can see your parents as actual people like you are, not some sort of person who fits in another category of existence. When you get old enough that you can remember your father when he was younger than you are now, that shakes you, as do the memories of when you glimpsed behind the mask of the Father and saw your dad as a human being for the first time. This story is very much about a Man remembering when he saw his father that way for the first time, and for all the fantastic wrapping, the glimpses are so mundane that they are painful: violence in the bath, screwing the nanny against the fireplace.
I think the key to the entire book is that beautiful metaphor about how adulthood is a mask, how everyone really is still just the same child inside. But when we wear that mask, most of us forget that it’s a mask. And our protagonist can only remember being the Boy when he takes off the mask of being the Man. He needs to take it off though, because on the day of his father’s funeral what he needs more than anything is to remember his father as a man, for all his faults, rather than as the elder he would become. He needs to see his father as he himself is now, which is only possible through the eyes of his childhood.
It’s like a mirror of the Hempstocks: three faces of one being. Of course that still leaves the question of how Ursula fits into this.
JR: Well it’s what she represents to the Father, right? The sexual threat and temptation. She also perverts the caretaker role as well. Both of those things, the humanizing of father and the Boy’s impotent frustration of being left in the wrong hands, force him to grow up immediately.
That’s probably quite enough of us babbling. We really want this to be a group discussion so please weigh in with your thoughts below. You can jump off the discussion up here or start your very own line of thought. All comments and questions are welcome. There are NO wrong answers or opinions or theories. Tell us if you hated it. Tell us if you couldn’t finish it. Tell us if you loved it. Tell us if it’s your new favorite Gaiman. Recommend other Gaiman books you liked better. Tell us if you think we’re wrong in our assessment. We want to hear it all.
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If there’s enough discussion and interest here, we’re contemplating expanding this concept in a number of directions so please don’t be shy, your feedback is so essential to this project going forward. We also hope you’ll join us for the next meeting of the Faintest Inklings on Friday, December 13th (dunh dunh dunh). We’ve selected The Hobbit. Why? The better to criticize Peter Jackson’s bloated adaptation, my dears. So if you have somehow lived to the ripe old age of *mumble cough* without owning a copy of The Hobbit, won’t you use our sponsored link? Proceeds from those sales go to help fight Cancer, a cause near and dear to our bookish hearts. So hit us up with your thoughts in the comments and we’ll see you next month for a lot more scathe and b*tch.