Thomthumb84's Blog

Book Review: NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman

Posted in Book Review by thomthumb84 on January 9, 2011

There is a point towards the end of Neverwhere in which Richard, our hero, produces the rather hackneyed question: ‘Do you ever wonder if this is all there is?’ Despite its constant use in all kinds of media it is, of course, an important question – not because of the answer but because of what the question itself implies. It speaks volumes: regret; resignation; despair;  boredom – all this fact from one question. And often the reply is not even necessary. But in Neverwhere this is what Neil Gaiman gives us. And, he tells us, that not only is there more – but it is actually all around us. Everyday we are passing it on the street. It is only our own limited conceptions and preoccupations that limit our access to them. Gaiman takes us on a sort of travelogue through an alternative London, London Below – an Alice in Wonderland world of contradictions incorporating characteristics from our own London. Common London locations begin to take on new meanings: Blackfriars literally refers to an order of Black monks; Knightsbridge becomes a bridge constantly enclosed in darkness; and Earls Court.. yeah, you got it. It follows the adventures of the intrepid Richard, very much an Alice character, through this world as he tries to get back to his own, involving all manner of weird adventures on the way.  And it is compelling. The concept is sound. So why does it not quite make the grade then?

For a start, rather sadly, the world feels incomplete. On one level I have tried to convince myself that this is a brief venture into another world and we are merely coming along on a very brief tour. We are only glimpsing this environment in the same way that those on a London tourist bus will see the Tower of London but most likely never even hear of Hounslow. This is a whirlwind trip. In fact, at one point our hero makes the concious decision not to think too hard about this world but rather let it wash over him. Is this a suggestion from Gaiman to the reader as well. But then it is not the limited number of experiences and sights along the route, but rather the quality of their description. It feels rushed – lacking the necessary texture required to really envelope you in the environment and its people. And that is a real shame. One thinks, for instance, of one scene involving a labyrinth constructed from a disjointed collection of past and future Londons that shelter an enormous Boar the size of a bull. The concept is there. And yet it just fails on delivery. Give me the smells, the sounds, that eerie dislocation. But it just isn’t there.

One can certainly make comparisons with Terry Prattchett, creator of the brilliant Discworld and co-author of Good Omens (Gaiman’s first published book). The style is similar. For instance, there is a heavy dose of well timed irreverence within the narrative designed to entertain while not segueing too heavily from the fundamental story. However, this can be problematic. While Practchett is certainly original he is frequently parodying other fantasy worlds from books and film – Tolkein’s Gandalf is Pratchett’s Rincewind and Schwarzenegger’s Cohen is  turned into a 90 year old arthritic warrior with no teeth. But Gaiman has created a whole new and original world. there is no need for parody. Irreverent designs towards our Richard are good. They engage us with this character’s alienated and confused situation. But it frequently feels as though those characters we are seeking to learn more about have turned into cartoonish variations of themselves – like the environments they lack substance.

This unfortunately slapdash approach also becomes obvious in one of the most potentially rewarding concepts of the novel. Gaiman figures from London Below are those who have ‘slipped through the cracks’ of London Above. By this, we are left to understand, he is referring to those on the streets who are seldom recognised or considered for more than a second – the tramps, buskers, runaways, and so on. Almost through osmosis these forgotten or discarded figures become almost invisible – as does Richard – to those in London Above. and it is here that we see these two world interconnecting. All that is needed, Gaiman implies, is the ability to re-evaluate our perceptions on the street. While glancing throughan interesting essay the other day by a very learned friend I was interested in some ideas put forward by Simmel, the major German sociologist and philosopher, which argued argued that through over-exposure, or an over intensification of stimuli, we have become blasé towards our environment. Stories such as Gaiman’s encourage us to move beyond this and engage with our environment once again. But it feels heavy handed – a touch too close for it to slowly meld into the understanding of the reader. Rather, Gaiman punches the reader in the face and ends up sounding preachy. Instead of a call to reevaluate our surroundings it comes across as a push to romanticise the conditions of the conditions of these people. This is false and, I feel, slightly patronising.

The overall sloppiness of the narrative does find some redemption within Gaiman’s obvious ability to conjure this world into being – much in the same way that the Harry Potter books are largely uninspiring in their narrative but rich in otherworldly oppurtuity for the imagination of the reader. But I’m left wondering who this book was written for. At times it reads like a novel for that oh-so-over-categorised ‘young adult’ audience – those slightly gothy teens dealing with the regular angst of an inconsequential future – again that ‘this is all there is?’ question. But then the plot itselfdoes not run to template. This has not been quickly thrown together for a twilight type audience and shares far more with Gaiman’s excellent Sandman style – characters die unexpectantly and some aspects can be pretty heavy going. One long chapter, for instance, sees Richards becoming deeply introspective as he questions his sanity and considers suicide. If it is meant for an older audience then, as I have said, it lacks the necessary depth and presence. It is, in itself, sitting in its own limbo world. But, once again, I feel I am being too harsh here. As a Londoner myself (and as one who frequently asks that oh too familiar question) I liked being able to feel on the edge of that world through the familiarity of the names and the identification of the streets themselves. The day after I finished the book I was actually walking down Oxford Street when I saw a bus heading to Islington Angel, I imagined the bus travelling through the world to visit a character of said name within London Below and smiled to myself. For a second I had convinced myself there was something more and I looked at the world slightly differently.

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