Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman (1996)
The linguistic viscosity of Neverwhere resembles that of a fine bread spread. It covers the porous, pumice-like surface of a slice smoothly, soothing its unevenness with a mouthwatering stickiness of its thawing-fudge consistency.
I like this particular feeling of solitary tears trickling sideways toward my ears, when the trail of delicate moisture gradually dries out, leaving a distinctive, ever so slightly existent line. I never wipe these. Never rub them out. I leave them be. They are those special lines that appear only when I read something truly remarkable. Something which stirs up the very core of my being, something which corresponds with me, something which harmonizes with my possible selves and their state of being submerged in an unrealized realm of impossibility. I like to lie, then, on my bed for a while (I always read in any kind of horizontal position), motionless, as those tears, this rarest type of tears, make an estuary out of the conchs of my ears. They always flow in there. I don’t know what those tears designate. Frankly, I don’t want to know. All I know is I want more of them to happen. More of them to flow. Yet, I am perfectly aware were they to occur more often, they wouldn’t be the same. They would weaken, water down themselves, resolve into some other liquid less noble. Less honest. Less “ever-so-slightly”. And I wouldn’t like that at all. What I would like instead is take your hand and walk you around the recent “spring” of my tears – Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere – for the next couple of paragraphs.
Neverwhere is many things. A peculiarly camouflaged, lightweight parable, Holden-Caulfield-like, memorable characters, a book which provokes your thoughts to flex on the very nature of what does it really mean to narrate, etc. It may be even more than you and I think it is. However, first and foremost, it is a story. Pardon my slip of the keyboard – a Story, with a capital ‘S’. To compare effortlessness of Gaiman’s language to concoct a well-defined and separate reality, with which he operates upon a reader, to a spry wizard waving his wand to summon up some kind of wanton wonder, would be the greatest underestimattion of the century. The Englishman’s sentences, paragraphs and chapters are crafted with solicitous nonchalance of someone who has topped the highest level of narrative prowess ages ago, without being subjugated to a nasty aftertaste of highfalutin style. Its candid simplicity prevents it splendidly. The linguistic viscosity of Neverwhere resembles that of a fine bread spread. It covers the porous, pumice-like surface of a slice smoothly, soothing its unevenness with a mouthwatering stickiness of its thawing-fudge consistency, yet retaining its down-to-earth incapability of adorning itself with borrowed plumes of Beluga caviar or Kobe beef. What are its ingredients, you ask? Well, let’s dip our fingers in this marvelous jar of balmy prose together, shall we?
Not many a time have I been eager to admit why I am not particularly keen on the story side of novels in general. Regrettably, the day has finally come to pour my heart out a little: I suffer form a rare literary disease called Astorexia Repetitivae. Its symptoms are pretty simple: every time I hear or read a story, I cannot help but deem it repeatable. “Oops, sorry, buddy, this one has already been told/written etc. Better luck next time”! Allegedly, every logically and linguistically cohesive piece of narrative prose could be assigned to one of seven general, let’s say, Story “Archetypes”: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and, last but not least, Rebirth. Quite a disenchanting assertion, isn’t it, fellow avantgarde literature freaks? Fortunately for you and me, I won’t delve into the subject, as the malady and the ensuing bias prevents me from doing so rather effectively. I possess, however, some blurry recollection of an encyclopedic entry, which would definitely enlighten you on why is it that we should not lose hope for an eighth story archetype to appear in the future. What I am able to distinguish clearly though is the fact that Gaiman’s gem is built upon at least three out of seven story archetypes, just like The Neverending Story is. That mere fact is enough to keep our spirits up and not succumb to the repeatable compartmentalization of not so “Magnificent Seven”. I know it may be a cutthroat business of cruel self-delusions, but there always are Stories like Neverwhere, in which you may find a misplaced ounce of solace. Or a vial full of potion which temporarily suspends the devastating effects of catching Astorexia Repetitivae.
All right, enough beating about the bush – The Story. One evening, Richard Mayhew – a typical 90’s Londoner, consciously entangled in and subconsciously mangled by heartless, soulless, mind-your-own-business, standardized, contemporary conditioning of the Western world (selfish, bossy, hoity-toity fiancée, mind-numbing, Office-Space-ish corporate job, one-dimensional, almost paper-cut acquaintances and colleagues, etc.) – decides to help a wounded, skid row girl with elvish face and odd-colored eyes, while accompanying his significant other to a dinner with her mogul boss. Soon after, his decision turns his whole life upside down, or shall I say upside BELOW, as he finds himself utterly out of his depth in a murky and mysterious London Below, which is teeming with lush alternative lives, real-deal-no-joke biographies and other fascinating existential continuities. There awaits an adventure, intrigue, fear, loss, pain and many other meanings tangible enough to be completely fictitious in London Above, yet ultimately desirable and even more destined for Richard to happen in its cracked, split and splintered mirror-image Below.
As almost always, I have resorted to certain vagueness about the plot. This time I am excused from not revealing more only by the tears I mentioned in the first paragraph. What do we have so far, then, as far as Neverwhere is concerned? 1. a tasty style of prose, compensation for the imprisonment behind the bars of the Seven Story Archetypes. 2. characters more real than the most vivid person you have ever met in your life. 3. a quite rare, three-ingredient cocktail of the said Archetypes. Is there number 4? I am afraid I am going to have to meander in the river Digression once again and barge into the novel through the back door of ruminations we are being left with, after the final page of the novel has been turned. Scope-wise, the ruminations are exceptionally narrow, though deep as an oceanic trench, and regard the following question: ‘How and why is it possible to construct the world out of letters?’. As an entity which isn’t particularly enchanted by a penchant for over-philosophizing as well as blatant theoretical beard-stroking, let alone impertinent drag of interpretations, I am going to use my favorite Hemingway quote, even though I do not fully agree with it:
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
Personally, in order to spice up the quote a little, making it a felicitous summary of Neverwhere in the process, I would modify only two words and specify the exact place you bleed from. Hemingway’s curtness here is very well-put, yet, to my mind, a bit too general for the hmm… modus vivendi of a 90’s novel. Swapping “typewriter” with “computer” is more than obvious (though e.g. Cormac McCarthy – an avid user of Olivetti Lettera 32 – would immediately object), “nothing” with “everything” in turn hits the sweet spot between grammatical error and wordplay show-off. But the paramount upgrade of the quote comes with the realization that you don’t just bleed, but you bleed from the life of your soul. When a writer draws “ink” from this special circulatory system, the resulting prose radiates one of the most immaculate flows of honesty, benevolence, almost a literary providence. This is the case with Neverwhere. Its bread-spread smoothness mentioned earlier manifests itself so painlessly, simply because it is written with this rare type of permanent ink. It is truly invulnerable, unshakable, indestructible, not only to those who are more or less akin to Richard Mayhew, the weak-willed wimp from the beginning, but also those who 372 pages later give a misty-eyed nod of wild satisfaction to how Richard Mayhew, the iron-willed Warrior now, realizes where his true destiny lies.
Then comes the tempest of questions. What constitutes the expressive nature of narration? Why is it so, that narration per se doesn’t have the immediacy of images and is therefore bound to rely on a specific yet inexplicable kind of delay in conveyability of sense? How may truth, half-truth, half-lie and lie affect the creation of potentially new literary tropes? To what extent are descriptions necessary in worldbuilding? Where does the form begin and where does the content end (and is it the same “place” vice versa?)? Why some narrations are more universal than others? How often does the shift of such universality in literature occur? I can go on and on with these forever, believe you me! I can but I won’t. Instead, I want you to go on on your own. For of all the superbly genius things literature has brought us throughout the centuries, this is probably the most fascinating one so far: the spark of will to explore. It never ceases to make me appreciate the sheer simplicity, with which literature incinerate the said spark of exploratory will and propagate the ensuing flame within readers. Those are the real impenetrable mysteries of reality! Those that are innately lined with positively puzzling phenomena. We all shall don as many layers of garments tailored with these as possible. We may look hobo-like and bulky – as if we raided the wardrobe of an eccentric 60’s psychedelic rock star – just like Door did when she fell down on a pavement in front of Richard and Jessica on that fateful evening. But what candor, what possibilities, what fortune before us! And, to top it all, with what ease do we open our own Doors of our own Belows in our own Neverwheres…