SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Like so often with Neil Gaiman's books "The Ocean at the End of the Lane," opens with a normal, if somewhat sad, existence for the main character. You enter a staring contest with the world, straining your eyes for a second of strangeness, of magic, of something that does not belong in this sepia world of innocence and boredom. And just when you least expect it, the world winks at you.
"Ocean," Gaiman's first adult novel in over a decade, as a whole is exactly the opposite of simple, it's a complex, multi-layered organism. It requires re-reads, encourages debate. It frustrates the reader by presenting gossamer threads of reality in lieu of hard facts to latch onto as if they are frantically trying to remember a dream they had. At every turn we question the narrator, and we question our own perceptions and understanding of the world.There's a terror in this novel, the fear that we feel as children when those who are all powerful seem suddenly weak when we start realize there's always a bigger fish in the sea. But what's most frightening about
"Ocean" isn't the creeping creatures, or the inherent wrongness of the world which we come across, it's the plausibility of it, it's the seed of doubt planted by Gaiman which will make you wonder at the very nature of reality and memory.
Gaiman's books often fall into two categories. The first are the thorough epics such as "American Gods," and "Stardust," in which we go on a sweeping journey through space and time and learn in-depth details about the plane which has become our new homes until we reluctantly tear ourselves from the novel. The second group is the glimpses, books like "The Graveyard Book," which give us snapshots of the world the author has created.
"Ocean" falls into the latter category, throughout the duration of our visit to the unnamed Sussex town where the narrator lived; we only get to peek over the top of the fence. Try as we might, it's impossible to get a clear picture of the true nature of things from the information provided to us. But, this allows the reader to fill in the blanks with their imagination, an increasingly rare trait in modern literature which is so often overwrought with exposition and twists.
Characters in Gaiman's adult novels are often men with scraggly black hair, a stand-in for the author at least in appearance most likely, but in "Ocean" the narrator is a child, who functions as a nameless, featureless canvas for the reader to mold into themselves.It is worth noting that while the main character and his family are never named, every other character is overly referred to by their first and surnames together, as if each recitation is the narrator recommitting the names to memory.
The briefness of "Ocean," it clocks in at 181 pages, gives it the feel of an elaborate fairy tale, the plot is straightforward and simple, but complex in its meaning. It feels like the stories children are told by their parents, it seems at first blush it seems to be a cautionary tale, but the actually meaning becomes much more difficult to pinpoint. The prose is beautiful and as spot on as it is vague, Gaiman captures a world of shadows and rain and moonlight in a way that makes your brain reel from cognitive dissonance but at the same time say, "I know exactly what he means."
"The Ocean at the End of the Lane," is a great introduction to Gaiman's writing style for those unfamiliar with it which will leave you scrambling to the library to pick up something else of his. Neil Gaiman comes to the Saratoga City Center at 522 Broadway, Saratoga Spring, N.Y. Thursday, June 20, at 6 p.m. as part of WAMC's "OFF THE SHELF: Authors in Conversation with Joe Donahue." "The Ocean at the End of the Lane," is available now from William Morrow.
Andrew Roiter can be reached at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @Andrew_Roiter.