Recently, I re-read what is probably my all-time favourite standalone novel (alongside Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury), Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I’ve had nothing to do while the internet’s been down at home and, with my creative muse dead or on vacation, I decided to do some reading. Over a month ago now, I bought a whole bunch of very cheap books from a bargain store, but I didn’t really trust them enough to read immediately. I wanted something reliable and familiar. What safer option could there be than Neverwhere?
That was my thinking at the time. How wrong I was.
If you’ve been following my blog for the short time it’s been around, you may have read my second entry, entitled ‘Why I love Neil Gaiman’, which was all about his novel Anansi Boys. That’s a novel that didn’t really leave a mark, but which on my second, most recent read, absolutely stunned me – it skyrocketed into my top three choices. And now, here, with Neverwhere, the absolute opposite has occurred. The fickle gods of re-reading have struck again and tarnished one of my all-time favourite reads.
Gaiman explains in his preface that Neverwhere began as a TV show for the BBC in the early 90’s. Stifled by the editing process that saw so many of his favourite ideas and lines cast aside, he maintained his sanity by keeping those lines and ideas, promising to put them in a novel version of the series. One day, he began to do just that and sat to write the book. He completed it in just a few months and it was published later that year. Sometime later, with more time on his hand to work on the American version, he smoothed out and extended the work he’d completed earlier, making some adjustments for his quintessentially British work to be better understood by his American audience.
The version I have, he says, is the combination of both, the never-before-seen edition that he worked on to eliminate redundancies and to ensure that this was the best of Neverwhere. Sadly, that was not the case. I don’t know what it was this time round that failed to spark for me, but the magic was significantly lacking. Gaiman’s rhythm and flow, which I adore, was off – in fact, on a number of occasions, it was downright clunky. I still adored the concepts explored, of London Below, and the ‘people who fall through the cracks’; their trashy mirror world is a constant delight. But the execution was still lacking.
I wonder now if paying such close attention to the preface altered my experience, if I somehow expected it to be rushed and clunky and so that was how I read it. Whatever the case, it’s given me cause to think about how and why we revisit our favourite stories and, indeed, if we even should. I can’t speak for anyone else but I know that I have a distinct fear about re-reading certain books and re-watching certain films precisely because of cases such as I’ve just had with Neverwhere.
Which experience do I trust in? Is my earlier love and appreciation of it to be forgotten? Has the book changed or is it simply myself? Or is it neither of those, is it simply that I had built such a lavish shrine around my memory of it that it failed to live up to itself? Perhaps it’s that last more than any other. It’s a troubling process, really, like going to an old neighbourhood you used to play in as a kid and seeing it irrevocably changed, no longer populated by your friends or family, bereft of old landmarks tagged with fond memories.
Of course, there are the surprises, like Anansi Boys; I had all but forgotten most of it to be honest, but I did remember some lingering not-quite disappointment. It was something of a nothing memory really, it had neither stunned me, nor had I hated it. This time, of course, it knocked me off my feet. It was simply one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve ever had and I was grinning from ear to ear the entire time and laughing while simultaneously appreciating everything that was happening, every implication and phrase and each set up – the words of that book flow with such magic, it was simply irrepressible.
It’s fifty-fifty with these things, I suppose, though I’ve had more disappointment than happy surprises. But I wonder if we really need to revisit these books we love, or if its just that we want to re-create the experience of delving into an interesting world and immersing ourselves in delightful characters that amuse, shock and terrify us so. Perhaps to protect the sanctity of our memories, we should move on to other books and other films, to find an experience equally worthy, rather than treading all over old ground and mucking up the footprints left from before, spoiling the picture we’ve come to care so much about.
I don’t know. I still haven’t decided.
One day, I’ll read over this and shake my head – let’s hope it’s clearer then. Knowing myself, that’s probably not what I’ll be focusing on, instead I’ll no doubt fixate on the errors or the quality of the writing and bemoan my lack of talent and that I ever showed this to anyone.
The Book of Joby by Mark. J. Ferrari
With my head still spinning from Neverwhere’s lack of brilliance, and the internet still down, I turned to my bargain books for help. I had three books, two from authors I know and respect (Lords of the Bow, by Conn Iggulden and Kingdom Beyond the Waves, by Stephen Hunt) and yet, I chose the unknown element, perhaps because I didn’t want to be disappointed by the familiar again.
I’m glad I did.
If you read the blurb of this book, you’re bound to groan as I once did (when the book was still on the shelves of respectable bookstores and outside the bargain bin. I bought it for $4.95). God and Lucifer make a wager…and then your eyes glaze over. Now, I’m intensely interested in all things biblical or quasi-religious in fiction that aims to bend or twist or subvert the normal, especially in fantastic literature, but the whole God v Devil in a wager is truly tired ground.
Thankfully, that’s not the focus, or at least it wasn’t for me.
The plot centres on Joby Peterson, whom God has chosen as the candidate for the wager, which is to prove fundamentally that Earth and its inhabitants are not, as Lucifer claims, ‘rotten to the core’. The parameters of the contest (which has been waged over 10, 000 times, according to God, during which time the devil has won only twice, once on a technicality) disallow God from in any interfering in the contest, or with Joby, and further stipulate that his immortal elite may not interfere in any way unless directly asked by Joby. Meanwhile, Lucifer has full reign to influence Joby; he has until Joby is 40 to cause him to utterly renounce God and commit some great evil.
The outcome? That God must erase all creation and begin again according to Lucifer’s instructions so that all is accordingly perfect. Meanwhile, if God wins, Lucifer is to cease and desist with his current myriad horrible plans involving various wars and nuclear catastrophes. So, with those plot particulars out of the way, let me tell you what I loved about it. First and foremost, the writing was truly beautiful. It is such a gorgeous read, so easy to sink into and lose yourself in the lavish descriptions. More, young Joby’s childhood is, in many ways, the childhood we all dream about; it’s so fun and golden and familiar, that you smile fondly the whole way through.
It’s full of boyhood adventures, athletic zeal, and school drama – nothing new, certainly, but it’s the wonderful writing and faultless execution that makes this particular brand so engrossing. Young Joby is full of passionate fire, everything he does seems destined to blossom, with best friend Ben by his side and his very own Roundtable of knights to do good with, he lives a blessed life; everyone around him recognises it, and believes him destined for great things as, even he himself does. The endless exuberance of youth and the cocky delusions of grandeur as exposed wonderfully. What then, is Lucifer’s grand plan to derail this charmed life?
Mark. J. Ferrari touches on what we all fear most, here – that is – to be pedestrian or unremarkable and how we all seek so desperately to be exceptional. The golden years fade, Joby’s body refuses to grow, his athleticism is gone and he can’t seem to get anything right; every movement is awkward, a fumble, popularity passes him by, social graces are gone…and meanwhile, Ben continues his shining upward curve, growing taller and fitter and more golden than ever. Joby’s parents split up. Every trifling insecurity, every fear, is played upon – every moment of his life orchestrated to further break his spirit, to crush his hopes and dreams, while even the perfect years of his childhood are cast in a different light, something to be ashamed of, for the foolishness of it all, the childhood fantasy.
Watching it all play out in a horrible mimicry of life is torturous, especially after the beautiful whimsy of those childhood days. In many ways, I felt that the plot artifices kept interfering with the beautiful story, with Joby’s struggle for meaning, for any kind of consistency or hope – in fact, if you remove God and Lucifer from the equation, and keep just the flawed characters and their endeavours through life, I think you have on your hands a masterpiece. It doesn’t follow any original pathway, really, but as I said, it’s the execution, the lovely prose and great characters that make this novel so incredibly endearing.
Now, I’ll admit, the second half of the book has its problems. For one, there is entirely too much weeping for it to be at all reasonable – yes, I’m fine with angelic introspection, godly wagers, and even the occasional dabbling of Merlin himself, but so much weeping broke my suspension of disbelief – it was really bizarre. I mean it, it seemed every second page, there was cause for crying – genuine cause, as calamity after calamity struck, but it was laid on far too thickly and you can’t try and push the emotion button so many times, it just left me feeling disconnected and a little off put.
As well as this, the actual conclusion to the wager itself…well, suffice to say that it all but robbed the book of its meaning. It was a great portrayal of life, but I kept feeling that given God had orchestrated everything and indeed, had any involvement with the story in a literal sense, took away any real sense of accomplishment or achievement that the character (and you, by extension) could have gained from the experience. Still, it was incredibly fun and it’s been a very, very long time since I have read something so compelling that I finished it in one sitting, staying up through the night until 7.30am.