Neverwag and American Wags
Posted by Peri on Apr 14, 2014
For those who have been keeping up with Marfs since we read Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, you’ll know that I brought up a few times that my favorite portions of the book were what I called the most “Gaiman-esque”. Notably, much of what happened to the characters in the second and third acts when things around them happened around them in a much more magical way. The book was certainly more than that, of course, but those facets in particular fascinated me.
I love magical realism. I love the idea that there are portions of this world just beyond our ken; a liminal place where things are more vivid, more mysterious, more than what they seem, while not being totally out of this world. I like just plain old magic, too, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed Harry Potter and wizards in general are just Damn Cool. I’m also a really big fan of the whole technomancer idea, that Arthur C. Clarke summarized in his famous quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” which comes into play in a lot of science fiction books that I enjoy (after all, what is the weirding way in Frank Herbert’s Dune other than a sufficiently advanced knowledge of the body?).
But magical realism really has a grip on me, and I think that one of the masters of that style of writing is Neil Gaiman, whose works Neverwhere and American Gods are some of the prime examples of what I love.
Genres, in general, are made up of sets of tropes - common ideas and story elements that are general and universal - that tie them together into a coherent and recognizable story. That’s not to say that every science fiction book is going to contain all science fiction tropes, of course, that’d be silly. However, there are several tropes and archetypes out there that help make science fiction what it is.
One of the tropes that I think really benefits magical realism as a genre is the Embroiled Protagonist. This is the idea that the protagonist is caught up in a conflict almost against their will, having no choice but to participate in a conflict much larger than themselves. This is more complex than, say, a draftee, as a conscript still understands that a war is between two nations. It’s someone embroiled in a conflict they can’t even understand. After all, magical realism without an outside observer to understand that something just beyond reality is happening would simply be a work of fantasy.
Both Neverwhere and American Gods involve embroiled protagonists. Both are works that take place on the edges of reality in some world that is ours, but also something just a little bit more. I had originally just planned to wag about Neverwhere, but the more I thought about it, the more I think that the two books play off each other quite well, in their own ways.
Neverwhere follows the character Richard Mayhew as, after helping a bleeding girl on the sidewalk, he loses his place in London Above and must journey through London Below to find his way back. The act of helping the girl, Door, taints him in such a way as to make him all but invisible to those around him: his fiancee, his coworkers, even ordinary people on the street. Everyone, that is, except the rest of those whom London above has forgotten. All of the downtrodden and homeless, the street folk, the citizens of London Below. For that’s where Richard winds up, in a place not quite real, but not out of the realm of possibility taking place below, above, and within London that is, somehow, not quite London. It’s a place of floating markets and rat-speakers, of those with mysterious Knacks, of those who tend to London’s birds, and those who tend to London’s sewers.
Richard’s chances of survival are slim to none, but after joining up with Door, a mysterious bodyguard named Hunter, and the charismatic Marquis de Carabas, he finds himself both kept alive, and embroiled in a conflict spanning millenia, caught between two wolfish hunters and an angel (no, really, an angel).
American Gods follows the story of Shadow, fresh out of prison only to learn that his wife has died mere days before. Directionless, he winds up travelling companion, body-guard, and sole employee of the slick Mr. Wednesday. What starts as a strange road-trip across the US turns into a silent, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) battle between the old gods of the world, those deities brought over to America in the hearts, minds, and souls of the immigrants, and the new gods of Television, Internet, and Technology. Shadow is caught in the middle of two opposing, godlike (or just plain god) forces, each side attempting to play him against the other; and helped along, in her own way, by his not-quite-totally-dead wife. It’s a battle to maintain relevance in the hearts and minds on the part of the old gods, and a battle for pure, simple supremacy on the part of the new.
Both of these books are just plain delightful. Both feature their fair share of magic and fantastical elements, of coures, but both are firmly rooted in reality. All (or, well, most) of the places in both books are real places or based on real places, both in London as well as in the US. Gaiman even claims that, if one were to follow the road-trip taken by Shadow in American Gods, one is likely to see many of the same sights that Shadow does; similarly, given that much of Neverwhere takes place literally in the London Underground, several scenes take place in familiar parts of the city and very real tube platforms. This helps to ground the books somewhat, especially during their more fantastical portions, as it gives the mind something familiar to hold on to - and not just our minds, but those of our embroiled, and eventually empowered, protagonists.
You can pick up American Gods here.
You can pick up Neverwhere here.
Additionally, there is a BBC miniseries version of Neverwhere which…well, if the book didn’t make you love the Marquis, this will!
Makyo is a staff member on Bookmarfs! and one of the main contributors to [adjective] [species] and a coder at Weasyl. When not yapping about books, she lives with her infinite dogs and Dogs, and tries to stay foxy.