Fantasies about real life

I love Neil Gaiman. I’ve enjoyed basically everything I’ve read by him. So of course I liked Neverwhere, which I downloaded a day or two ago. But I got to the end and I had this slightly dissatisfied feeling, as though there was something important that I’d missed.

The book itself is great. It’s the kind of book you want to take on a plane, because it’s both easy to read but also genuinely fun, with points that’ll make you laugh out loud, and characters that are very easy to like, loathe, or feel conflicted about (depending on the point Gaiman is aiming for).

But I got to the end, and I felt as though … as though I were seeing one of the things I don’t like about some fantasy novels, even when they’re well written. Which is that it feels as though the writer’s turning their back on the world – refusing to engage with it.

One point that springs to mind is the way homeless people are treated in the novel. Ostensibly, it’s a story about the underworld, the people who’ve fallen through the cracks, who are invisible to the Londoners going about their business. But in the novel’s world, all the characters that fit into that range have dramatic, interesting roles – they live on rooftops, they talk to birds, they do magic. They fit right into the broader fantasy world that essentially serves as an other for Richard Mayhew, who’s quiet, boring, and not very brave (at least on the outside).

Which brings me to the other thing I found … confusing, here, I suppose. Richard is an everyman (warning – TVtropes.com is a massive time sink), and he serves as the pivot point between the two worlds that Gaiman creates. There’s the rich, mysterious, dangerous fantasy world that exists underneath London, and there’s the boring, everyday world where Richard works as a securities analyst.

Richard himself does very little throughout the novel, apart from following very explicit instructions (even in his moment of apotheosis he’s following instructions). There are perhaps two significant choices that he makes at different points in the novel, and those are only choices about where to go – simply to attempt to reach a destination, which invariably is ready and waiting for him.

And I think that shallowness in creating Richard’s character, and in the simple dichotomy of boring/fantasy worlds, really misses something important. Much as the trek across the marsh scenes was long and excruciatingly slow in Lord of the Rings, it mattered – it showed us Bilbo striving, struggling really hard, in a difficult situation. And it captured the monotony, too, the fact that boring isn’t a permeating factor of just one universe, it’s something we all encounter at different points – and how we deal with it, reflects something in our characters. Perseverance isn’t a montage, it’s a character trait.

One of the reasons I like the Song of Ice and Fire series is because although there are a lot of flashy fantasy things going, the universe the books inhabit is a real universe. People suffer, have boring, tedious jobs, and are selfish, dull and petty.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that a part of me thinks all the problems that Richard has in the real world, that he escapes from to go to the fantasy world, will eventually find him. You can’t depend on things simply happening to you – environment matters, but so do the choices you make, how you choose to interact. And it’d be nice, occasionally, to see that depth of struggle, both in the fantasy world but even more in the real world – novels about how tough it is being a good parent, or how sometimes just getting through the day is a struggle.

All of which is more a reflection on the genre, than this book. Neverwhere is excellent, and if you like Neil Gaiman, you’ll love it. But it’s a fantasy novel, and I think it fits into some of the tropes and standards of the genre.

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