Monday, July 1, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane; Also Known As: How Neil Gaiman Nearly Made Me Cry

Last fall I was able to see Neil Gaiman at George Mason University in Virginia. He was there to accept a reward and brought along something special: he had just finished writing a book and sent it to his editor that morning and he wanted to share a chapter with us. The chapter was from what would be his first adult novel in a number of years, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and when he read that chapter I fell in love. I wanted to read the book for myself and couldn't wait for it to come out.

So, I stalked twitter, as any sane person would do, and read anything pertaining to the publication of this book. When there was a chance to buy a signed copy, to be delivered the day of the book's release, I jumped on it. Then, when there was the chance to get to meet Neil Gaiman and have him sign my book himself I was all over that as well. Ordering the same book twice to have his signature, twice, isn't crazy. Right?

Jump to June 18th -- the day the book came out -- and I had it in my hands crisp, new, and with his swirling signature on the title page. I hated that I had work. I wanted nothing to do with work. But unfortunately there  was nothing I could do about my lack of interest in being at work. I held onto the book and I waited until my day was done. Then I read.

As a bit of back story, the week the book was released was one of the most upsetting and stressful weeks at work I had yet to experience. I won't get into any more details than that but keep it in mind. When I was able to read this book I felt the stress of the week begin to slip away. I was sucked into the pages of the book rather than stressing and worrying about real life.

I finished the book in five hours.

Further on in the week (June 21st) I arrived at GWU's campus in DC, three hours before Neil Gaiman was to take stage, and sat on a lengthy line in the sun waiting for the main doors to open. I made friends with a few girls in line and we were able to sit next to one another in the auditorium. We were at the start of the line (my ticket number was 79) and were able to sit a few rows into the auditorium but the signing was sold out and the ticket numbers reached well over 1,000. 

Neil Gaiman came out, he spoke, he was witty and charming and everyone loved it, and then there was the signing. By groups of 50 ticket numbers were called up and I, luckily, was in the second group. I held onto my copy of Ocean at the End of the Lane and American Gods/Anasi Boys and slowly made my way to the stage where the signing was set up. Once I stepped foot on the stage there were about ten more people in front of me and it started - I felt weak in the knees. I got closer and felt butterflies in my stomach. I was nervous. I was nervous of looking a fool. I was nervous of forgetting all I wanted to say. I was nervous I wouldn't get my point across: that his books are lovely, inspiring, and helpful. That he as a writer has helped me so much. And how could it be memorable? How would it matter? There were over 1,000 people in this signing alone who likely felt the same way. How could I let him know just how powerful his literature is to me?

I stepped up in front of him and he opened my book, viewing the post it with my name within, and in his deep accented voice said, "Erica Rose, how are you this evening?"

My jaw dropped, I blinked, and no words came out. I was starstruck. He looked up at me and I blinked again, realizing that if there is a time to talk that time was now. Stuttering at first, I began to speak. I explained to Neil that I had a horrible week, that friends of mine had been laid off from my job and that I was frightened for my own job security. I explained that I was stressed beyond a doubt and when his book came out I devoured it. It was a chance to escape and focus on something else. It was an evening of freedom from stress. Then, for the remainder of the week, the signing was the silver lining. It was what I was looking forward to, if nothing else, and I had held onto that the entire way.

The entire time I spoke he glanced up at me, making eye contact while he signed my books, and then he paused prior to reaching for the next books to signed. "I'm so sorry you have had such a rough week," he said and reached out. I took his hand and he gave me a reassuring squeeze. I felt the barely patched together walls preventing me from losing all control of my emotions start to break down. He was sympathetic of my hellish week and sorry for it. He was trying to comfort me. Maybe he was just being polite but still, it meant something. I felt like I was going to cry, no, I knew I was going to cry.

I gathered my books and thanked him repeatedly for writing the book, being wonderful, for what he said and that he had come that night. I gathered the books close to my chest, hugging them there, and he nodded and smiled as I stepped away, turned, and hurried off the stage before I did cry. 

I walked to the metro to go home that night dazed but with a smile, even if I was teary eyed, and my signed copy of Ocean at the End of the Lane is now sitting on my bookshelf. 

* * *

There's a reason why I had this particular book personalized rather than the other Neil Gaiman books which I own. Reading Ocean at the End of the Lane was, as I mentioned, was an escape for me during that week. But it was much more than that. 

A middle-aged divorcee returns to his childhood home and finds himself driving down a lane and stopping at a farmhouse which, he suddenly recalls, he used to play at. Bit by bit memories drift back to him and he recalls with developing clarity the events of his life around the time when he was 7. There was a girl, Lettie Hempstock, who believed that the duck pond was an ocean. There was a man who committed suicide in the back of his father's car. There were dark creatures and coins and burnt toast. 

The story can be creepy and dark but not specifically because it involves creepy and dark monsters out of fairy tales (don't worry, it has those) but because Gaiman describes, very vividly, the creepy and dark monsters of the real world as well. Without revealing spoilers there is a scene in a bathroom between father and son which was quite uncomfortable to read. There are other scenes that are upsetting on varying degrees but they are all possible in the real world. Sometimes, I feel, when I am reading a book that is fantasy or supernatural in nature, the most frightening portions of the book are the portions which could happen in real life. This novel has plenty of that. 

The plot has you brought along, led by the tight grip of Lettie Hempstock, while our narrator is instructed by her of what to do and what not to do and sees many things he wishes he would have never caught sight of. It's a whirlwind and you find that you can't put the book down, no, because you only want more. By length, the book appears surprisingly short, but the story is just the right size. Had it been any shorter you would have felt left out of important details and had it been longer, well, it might have lacked the urgency of the situation the characters face.

But for me, personally, and it seems that this is a very personal book for many, I found myself emotionally attached to the narrator because the narrator in many ways was me. There I was, reading this book as a form of escape from my crummy weak and finding comfort in its pages while the narrator did the same thing. He liked books, he trusted them, and he knew books wouldn't disappoint or hurt him. I kept thinking, yes, yes I agree completely! It was much my way of coping as a child and still, obviously, my way of functioning.

The narrator also did not have many friends and there is a particular birthday mentioned where no one showed up for his party. This struck a cord in me that was very deep. My birthday is July 6th and often tied in with the 4th of July. I adore the 4th with all its festivities but while I was little, often enough, my birthday parties were quite small. Many friends I would invite wouldn't show up, hell, a lot of times my own family didn't come. I recall the main reason being because people were taking vacations at that time because of the long holiday weekend but I also recall feeling hurt as a child and not quite understanding why. By the time I was a preteen we stopped having parties all together because it wasn't worth the time planning for something that few showed up to and my parents and I, maybe a few close friends, would travel to an amusement park and celebrate my birthday there. I loved it and I feel it was special. But the fact remains that the narrator's loneliness woke memories of my own childhood and how lonely I often felt. 

It's funny how childhood memories can come and go but it takes a location, or some gentle reminder in a book, to bring them back and that is another plot point that Neil Gaiman displays so well in this book. You can get caught up in the story itself but the story wouldn't have been remembered had the narrator not gone to that funny farm where he had such memories. It's magical and he forgets the memories soon after leaving but don't our random memories from childhood do the same?

This book is honest and full of fantasy at the same time. It's personal, maybe for all, and of the perfect length. I'm glad to have read it and hope to read it again. And I'm so happy to have met Neil Gaiman and so grateful for his work, his kindness, and his creativity.

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