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Neil Gaiman in the Twenty-First Century: Essays on the Novels, Children’s Stories, Online Writings, Comics and Other Works

Neil Gaiman in the Twenty-First Century: Essays on the Novels, Children’s Stories, Online Writings, Comics and Other Works. Ed. Tara Prescott. Jefferson: McFarland, 2015. 253 pages. $29.95 (paperback).

Given the breadth of Neil Gaiman’s astonishing imagination and work across several genres, this collection of eighteen essays and one interview (with J. H. Williams III, illustrator of Gaiman’s Sandman: Overture) provides a useful overview of Gaiman’s writing in the first fourteen years of the new century. Work discussed includes the novels American Gods (2001) and Anansi Boys (2005), picturebooks The Wolves in the Walls (2003) and Blueberry Girl (2009), writing for children and about childhood in The Graveyard Book (2008) and The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013), script writing for the television series Doctor Who, an experiment in online, interactive narrative with A Calendar of Tales (2013), and a return to the comics world of The Sandman in Sandman: Overture (2014). The contributions are by established and emerging scholars from the United States, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Brazil, and South Korea who work in fields ranging from literary studies, creative writing, and graphic narratives to film studies and music. This is the second major contribution to Gaiman studies by editor Tara Prescott, who has also co-edited with Aaron Drucker Feminism in the Worlds of Neil Gaiman: Essays on the Comics, Poetry, and Prose (2012).

In one of the few published discussions of Gaiman’s picturebooks, Renata Lucena Dalmaso presents a feminist reading of The Wolves in the Walls and Blueberry Girl, paying particular attention to the ways in which each book plays with and sometimes subverts traditional narrative elements. She is especially interested in the relationship between reader and text, arguing that both books highlight the reader’s agency in making meaning. In the case of Wolves in the Walls, she addresses intertextuality (Aesop’s "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper"), the contrasting styles of Dave McKean’s illustrations, and the "feminist appropriation of all those narratives in which the female character is silenced . . . and labeled insane" (33). Dalmaso also considers fairy tale motifs in Blueberry Girl, especially implicit in the illustrations, and the work of the written narrative to subvert restrictive gender-related binaries.

There are two essays on The Graveyard Book. In the Acknowledgements section of the latter, Gaiman pays homage to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books (1894, 1895), and this has already drawn critical attention (Robertson). Jennifer McStotts’s contribution to the collection under review analyses Gaiman’s use of the feral child trope, a fairy-tale affect, and a rite-of-passage narrative arc, concluding that the novel demonstrates to child readers "their own potential for self-sufficiency" (79). In the second essay on The Graveyard Book, Margaret Seyford Hrezo applies the concept of noetic, or classic, reason to explore the division between Bod and his antagonists. Noetic reason is the means by which humans learn to live in harmony with themselves and their world; in contrast, Hrezo suggests, characters like the Jacks operate within a post-Machiavellian concept of reason as a means of calculating how best to get what one wants from others and from the world. In her reading, then, Bod’s coming of age is a process of using noetic reason to develop a healthy understanding of the self and the self’s relation to that which is other.

While many of the essays in the collection are thoughtful and engaging, a highlight of Neil Gaiman in the Twenty-First Century is the cluster of five essays on The Ocean at the End of the Lane. As this is a fairly recent work, there is little critical treatment of it available (Czarnowsky; Lee), so the cluster here marks a key beginning in the scholarly discussion of the novel. First, Monica Miller explores the ways in which the novel reinforces the advice in Gaiman’s well-known 2012 "Make Good Art" convocation speech, delivered at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Throughout her discussion, she argues that the novel demonstrates "the possibilities of adult healing through a willingness to remember, reconstruct, and temporarily return to the worlds of childhood" (114). The theme of memory is also addressed in two other essays: Rebecca Long makes use of theories of myth and mythic time by Northrop Frye and Mircea Eliade to address the function of memory and liminal space in the process of the narrator (re)constructing his identity as he negotiates the space between his child and adult selves; Andrew Eichel, in contrast, reads Gaiman’s novel against the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo, focusing on the intersection of memory and place in the novel, and applying the classical practice of mnemotechnics, the system or art of memory. Together, these first three pieces on Ocean form a productive symposium on the nature and function of memory in the novel’s treatment of childhood. Yaeri Kim shifts the discussion to consider the novel’s use of the uncanny, following the practice of critics who have usefully applied Freud’s theory to Gaiman’s novel Coraline (Gooding). Kim argues that Ocean connects growing up with the process of learning to live "not at home in the world" (162). Finally, while drawing on the discussion of the nurturance provided by the goddess-like Hempstock women, representing maiden/mother/crone, Courtney M. Landis considers the role of Ursula Monkton as a sexual temptress and embodiment of monstrousness, arguing that in the novel Gaiman reinforces the restrictive Madonna-whore binary applied to feminine social roles.

Neil Gaiman in the Twenty-First Century is a fruitful introduction to the discussion of his recent work, and in particular to the consideration of his treatment of the child and childhood, as well as of the porous boundaries between childhood and adulthood.

Terri Doughty
Vancouver Island University, Canada

Works Cited

Czarnowsky, Laura-Marie von. "'Power and All Its Secrets': Engendering Magic in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane." Fafnir: Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research 2.4 (2015): 18-28

Gooding, Richard. "'Something Old and Very Slow': Coraline, Uncanniness, and Narrative Form." Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 33.4 (2008): 390-407).

Lee, Derek. "The Politics of Fairyland: Neil Gaiman and the Enchantments of Anti-Bildungsroman." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 57.5 (2016): 552-564.

Robertson, Christine. "'I want to be like you': Riffs on Kipling in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Boo." Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 36.2 (2011): 164-189.