timons (timons) wrote,

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

     The book that all the WPF students were to read for June's Residency was Neil Gaiman's 1-grimace short novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Since Gaiman is one of those authors I try to keep up with, I decided to get it, read it, and possibly use it to illustrate elements of my lectures.
     I'm glad I made that choice, because it proved useful for all three of the modules I taught in June. The book is "minor character, first person POV," and therefore gave me something other than John Watson and Sherlock Holmes to talk about when that came up.
     I'm happy to recommend reading this novel, but it does have a flaw, and that proved very helpful in teaching students about the structure and strategy of a novel. The problem arises because the narrator is not the protagonist of the novel, but for most of the first half, at least, of the book, the reader is trying to make him fit that role. He fits it badly, being young, clueless, and faced with unimaginable weirdness. He is not the hero of his own story, mostly, and that makes him irritating. I couldn't even tell what the story was "about" at the 60% mark, and I made a note to tell the students that Mr. Gaiman would not have sold this book if it were his first, because no-one would read far enough to find its real strengths. What you get most of the time is atmosphere, and hints of big stuff going on behind the scenes.
     This point was made for me when I taught a class of our second-year students the first afternoon after they had their sessions discussing the common reading. I asked them who the protagonist was. They didn't know, or named (I should say "tried to name," since the narrator isn't really named) the narrator. I'll give a spoiler, since it might help future readers: Lettie is the protagonist.
     So a roomful of journeyman writers, many of whom had finished reading the book, were unable to identify the protagonist. Which means they didn't know what the book was about, or who they were to be rooting for, or against. Yep, that's a problem.
     On page 170 there's a paragraph where the author tips his hand, and makes it clear that the narrator isn't the protagonist, and that the protagonist isn't a person. (Lettie is a god, to be blunt. She's does the work, she pays the price.)
     So, this is the kind of book you can get away with if you've earned the readers' trust. I might have stalled in the middle, even though the book is short, were Gaiman not one of my favorite authors. And it paid off in a story that I admire, and that sticks with me.
     For those in the trade, there's a kind of writer's joke in the premise of the book. Instead of a "Save the Cat" moment at the beginning, it's a "Kill the Cat" event instead. Killing the cat turns out to be a really, really bad thing.
Tags: fantasy, fiction, horror, neil gaiman

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