Monday, January 03, 2011

Book 2 – Fragile Things

By Neil Gaiman

Since this is a collection of short horror, sci-fi and dark fantasy stories and poems that have been previously published from various sources (magazines, anthologies, even a Tori Amos song lyric), the result was a very mixed bag o’ treats. I must say I was set up for major disappointment after a stunning start with the Nebula award-winning "A Study in Emerald" - a Sherlock Holmes/Cthulhu Mythos pastiche which left me excited to dip into the next story (I didn’t bother much with the poems). However, nothing really came close to that first story.

The next interesting tale wasn’t until several stories later, almost halfway thru the book. “Other People” was only a few pages but it was effective and memorable. The next promising story “Keepsakes and Treasures”, had me flipping thru a few pages to remember what it was about. An interesting enough premise at first: a young man exacts revenge for his mother who was raped by several men while committed in an asylum, then comes under the radar of a mysterious but powerful Mr. Alice. But sadly, what promised to be an exciting adventure for this anti-hero fizzled out at the end with a lame pseudo-myth about the most beautiful male youth in the world.

Other tales I enjoyed were "Harlequin Valentine" (but like “Keepsakes and Treasures” had a 'hard' start but 'soft' ending), "Feeders and Eaters" (traditional yet effective horror story), "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" (playful twist on the hot alien females preying on teenaged boys idea), "Sunbird" about a group of gourmands called The Epicurean Club who get a real treat when they feast on a rare Egyptian bird (quite a good fantasy story but is it because Gaiman was emulating another writer? R. A. Lafferty supposedly) and the novella The Monarch of the Glen, which is supposedly a sequel to American Gods (which I remember one of the 50-bookers was meh about – was it Print is Dead?).

At the start of the story, I was surprised to see that Gaiman name-checks Angela Carter with a quote from her short “The Lady of the House of Love”. Yes, it makes sense, as I can see Carter’s influence on Gaiman. But again, none of the stories matched "A Study in Emerald" in story crafting. It seems the stories that have won recognition were ones which involved Gaiman emulating other writers. Hmm, I’m just saying….

Gaiman explains the title Fragile Things: "Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds' eggs and human hearts and dreams, are fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks." I have to say I agree, as his stories tend to be very vague and fleeting, like gossamer threads. I tend toward short stories that are tightly structured with a concrete idea. But this fragile take on writing made many of the stories feel rather half-baked.

Gaiman is a good writer who can spin a good yarn when he wants to, but there seems to be something missing. Carter was known for writing about dark fantastic things seething beneath ordinary reality and had a dreamy, feverish prose style, but she also had a way of concretizing her worlds which Gaiman seems to have more difficulty doing. Perhaps this is the problem. Amusing like a flight of fancy, if you're in the right mood, but nothing to really sink your teeth into. In any case, the overall result was meh, and I’m in no hurry to read any more Gaiman for now.

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