I was eleven years old – perched at the edge of puberty – and supposed to be having the time of my life. At sleepaway camp the pleasures of summer beckoned: horses, archery, a lake. Yet I was miserable. Slightly homesick, yes, but even more obsessed with a question – Why do bad things happen to innocent folks? If only Neil Gaiman were writing back then (instead of newly born).
Childhood is a powerless state which Gaiman understands. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he presents us with a character so impotent he has no name. In fact the boy remains anonymous throughout the book. First we meet him as a man returning from a funeral (possibly his father’s). The narrative is a flashback – the operative term being flash. Like fireworks in July, the boy-man’s memories start to fade the moment they appear.
To summarize the plot (no spoilers): a lodger in the child’s home commits suicide. By so doing, he releases evil into the world. Ironically, that evil takes the form of a beautiful woman. She wants only to grant people’s wishes – especially those involving monetary gain. Yet every gain has its pain, and her beneficiaries suffer. For instance, there’s the couple who begin to fight when the man finds extra money in his wife’s purse. He thinks she earned it by “doing bad things.”
When he encounters the lodger’s corpse, the boy meets a family – all women, each of whom has extraordinary powers that she uses for the good: Granny Hempstock, Mrs. Hempstock (her daughter) and Lettie (her granddaughter). The title’s ocean (or is it a pond?) sits in their backyard. Lettie becomes the boy’s friend and guardian. She also brings about his loss of innocence – not in the usual way (via sex) but through a battle with evil, during which he receives a wound. The plot turns upon these points – evil, good and woundedness.
Wish I could say the story is neatly resolved, but that’s not how this author works. Nor would that have satisfied my younger self. The truth is evil and good are intertwined, each telling about the other. Gaiman implies they are interdependent – parts of a larger whole. Emerging from Lettie’s ocean, the boy-man says: “I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger. I saw the world from above and below.”
With its explicit scenes of sex and violence, this is not a children’s book. Yet the story is simply told. That lends it a spiritual quality, suspending it outside of time – like folklore and myth. About his own reading, the boy says, “I was not scared of anything, when I read my book: I was far away, in ancient Egypt, learning about Hathor… I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.”
Gaiman has written a “Hero’s Journey” of sorts. The mythologist Joseph Campbell coined that term for a coming-to-grips-with-evil story. (There are many in the fantasy genre. The Hobbit is a classic.) They follow a strict form: First comes the call to adventure, which the hero can hardly resist. Then he enters the Land of Mysterium, a world parallel to his own but different in distinctive ways. Once inside this alternate reality, the protagonist gains an ally. The ally often gives him a weapon of power. Soon hero and ally are called to do battle against the demon. There may be many rounds, but in the end the hero wins. And here is the kicker – he must take part of the demon with him when he leaves.
Why? There’s that pesky question again. Cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote, “I have met the enemy and he is us.” Most psychologists would agree. That which we most loathe and fear is part of us: if we perceive it, we have conceived it. And while that may seem repugnant, it means we can kill it too – or at least dampen its power over us. How? The first step is psychic integration, owning our darker side. Thus, Perseus takes Medusa’s head, Darth Vader turns out to be Luke Skywalker’s dad, and the boy in Gaiman’s story grows up to be a wounded man.
You can practically read this book in one sitting, but why? There is so much to consider. In addition to good and evil, the story toys with other themes. We are asked to ponder the value of memory versus amnesia, eternity versus linear time, and whether we are worthy of those who sacrifice to keep us safe. Indeed, that is the job of myth – not to explain, but to describe. And though my own childhood self might have been disappointed to learn that the evil is in us, it would have soothed me to know my question was important enough to spark a book such as this.
What novels that are based in myth have you enjoyed?