Like many who have spent an extended time there I am in love with Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I would like to consider it my hometown, not that I grew up there; I only spent the best six years of my life there. It has had its modest place in the national spotlight recently with Bon Iver's success at the Grammys. But Bon Iver is just one aspect of a thriving artistic community. There are many other musicians, painters, artists of all kinds and in the woods not too far away, an author: Neil Gaiman.
Now Gaiman is not an actual Eau Claire resident, nor is he a native son. He is a Brit who has taken up a second residence about half an hour from the city in a secret location, presumably to find peace and quiet. I give you all this background not to try and claim his works as the product of my city but to explain how I came across this book. Because the local cultural magazine, Volume One, does consider him part of the local culture and strives to keep us all informed of his activities. Makes sense. When a renowned author chooses to live in your part of the world that's exciting, even if his goal is to escape civilization. So he comes up every few issues.
My best friend from college knows I love and miss Eau Claire, and he knows I love the essays the online editor writes in each issue so, being a great friend, he clips them out and sends them to me. Well, a recent essay used Gaiman's Neverwhere to explain a point about the local cultural scene and my friend had a copy so he sent it along in the mail. Like I said, great guy, and thanks to him I had a new book to read.
Neverwhere is about a secret underworld made of lost and forgotten bits of London from across the ages. Our protagonist, Richard Mayhew, is your typical mild-mannered nobody who accidentally finds himself in London Below. While trying to find his way home and get his life back to normal he becomes wrapped up in a major plot and ends up having to summon his courage and believe in himself to save the world. If it sounds like a cliched action fantasy story that's because it is, but that doesn't make it a bad book outright.
I was skeptical going into this book for many reasons, the first of which was the predictability of fantasy stories. I had never read anything by Gaiman before but I saw the movie Stardust - based on one of his books - and thought it was just completely terrible. My friend who lent me the book has very similar tastes to me and recommends a lot of great stuff, but he also enjoys a lot of things that are, shall we say, less than great so the recommendation is not a guarantee. And really I'm just not a fantasy guy. There are a few devices in fantasy writing that just rub me the wrong way:
1) When authors describe someone performing an action, usually at the beginning of a story, without letting you know who the person is. "The man walked down a dark alleyway, blood dripping from his hand..." The idea of it is to draw in your interest but I think it's a very weak way of creating suspense.
2) When characters in a fantasy world explain things matter-of-factly as if they are obvious and then offer no explanation. The newcomer asks how something works and the native of the fantasy world gives a one sentence explanation, always ending with "of course." This is fine, because that which is fantastic to us is commonplace to them. But I never understood why after this the explainer neither notices or cares that the other person is still visibly confused.
In Neverwhere, Gaiman is guilty of every fantasy cliche that bugs me. And yet I found myself enjoying myself. My skepticism was wrong; I liked the book. There's a joy and a passion in the writing that is contagious. Gaiman clearly loves his characters, and loves his city and loves playing with language. Altogether it just makes for a fun read.
One of the reviews on the back of the book refers to it as a modern Alice in Wonderland. This is a comparison that's made a lot but it's fitting here. It's not like Alice in Wonderland in the way that so many have lazily taken old stories and made them "creepy." You won't find specific characters or events that are analogues to, say, the white rabbit or caterpillar, though at one point Gaiman describing a character as "smiling like a cheshire cat." What you will find is a completely original story written in the spirit of Alice in Wonderland. There is a naive and innocent protagonist with a dull life who stumbles into adventure and finds he was a lot happier being bored. There is a slew of creative characters and locations, and I really do mean creative. I was delighted each time to see what we would be presented with next, and the new arrivals rarely disappointed. But the feature of the book that most emulated Lewis Carroll was the experimentation and manipulation of the English language. The only word I can find to accurately describe Gaiman's prose is exuberant. Even though his story copies other fantasy stories, his language takes common fantasy phrases (i.e. "once upon a time") and turns them on their heads. He seems to be making jokes with himself and sassing the audience half the time and it's really endearing. You can tell he's having fun and as a result you start to have fun. It's the strongest quality of the book.
I'm glad I gave Neil Gaiman a chance even though I hate his movies. Because any adaptation of his work is doomed to fail; it can never capture what makes his work great. The strength of his literature is not in what he writes but in the way he writes it.