Fragile Things – first four parts


You know how it is during the first week of September. Scrambling, scrambling, scrambling. But R.I.P. is underway and I have gotten ahead in my readings! And it’s Group Discussion time!

Introduction

Love the introduction, I do! Get some good insight into the Neil Gaiman cave of wonders! Funny how he dreamed up “I think…that I would rather recollect a life mis-spent on fragile things than spent avoiding moral debt” and that he remembered these particular lines and woke up with a pen to write it down! (Sometimes I dream up – I believe – wonderful things, and they are followed by another dream in which I possess a pen and I have written down those wonderful ideas – so that once I have woken up I feel like I have just gyped myself). What do you think he means by this? He says he doesn’t know what he means by fragile things, either. Perhaps a life spent doing risky breakable potentially hurtful things is a life spent more fully than one where the person’s a-scared of everything and won’t do anything beyond staying on the sidewalk, safe? Here are my impressions and questions for the first three shorts:

A study in emerald

This is a story that, each time I read it, I feel like my neurons are arc-sparking across vast empty spaces in my brain to make new connections. Full of lovely Aha! moments for zombie-brained, me.

I am curious to know at exactly what point you guys clued in on the familiarity of the main characters? I didn’t figure it out until Baker Street was mentioned and even then, I wasn’t completely sure until Lestrade strolled into the picture. Even then, I didn’t clue in to the weirdness of London until the scene with the Queen. All that talk about something mysterious happening to our narrator in the caves of Afghanistan, and the ichor on the walls from the Prince – it totally went over my head the first time I read it. I should have figured something was up, Neil Gaiman introduces each chapter with a local ad of some sort, which I found squirmingly amusing. My favourite is the one selling “Jekyll’s Powders” – “Too many people, both men and women, suffer from CONSTIPATION OF THE SOUL!” I really wanted to laugh like a little troll, but I was in a public place and had to subdue my inner me. (I would buy it in vanilla).

More than the main mystery at hand, did you pick up any funny cues for dramatic irony? Like when our narrator and his friend go to Drury Lane to watch a play. The first play was about mistaken identities. And what about the Restorationists, hm? The first time I read the story, I read it for the actual mystery – plotwise. The second time I read the story, I was reading for Neil Gaiman’s little clues, now knowing the ending and the two sets of characters. As usual, I’m always half-certain I’ve got it right as well as squeamishly half-certain I’ve got it completely wrong and I’m crazy. I always feel this way reading a Neil Gaiman story.

Some questions I still have about this story: what was all that about the “Dynamics of an Asteroid” paper and “wild theories furthering the relationship between mass, energy and the hypothetical speed of light”? And also, why did Neil Gaiman give our friend the names Sherry Vernet and Sigerson? Any thrilling connections to made there that I can’t seem to make?? Please enlighten me so I can enjoy this story more! The only thing I can think of – don’t make fun of me! – is that Albion is on another planet? Or in another dimension? It’s called New Albion, after all – anything with New before it must be on another planet in my logic. In the mean time, I will probably re-read it again.

The Fairy Reel

My favourite part to read is “And sang and whirled and sank and trod and/ skipped and slipped and reeled and rolled/ Until, with eyes as bright as coals, they’d/ crumble into wheels of gold…”

The fairy world seems pretty much wild and scary. The things they do with a heart, man.

If I were to extract meaning from this poem, I would wonder how dreams and death are related to being old? And it seems like the voice of the poem is regretting his decision to be double-souled yet, the line, “the single-souled, who dare not feel/ The wind that blows beyond the moon..” makes me believe that it is a good thing – an act of courage in some way – to dare to wander the Fairy world? But then once he lets his soul/heart go there, he gets wound up in the fairy reel, and is helpless to do anything except watch as the folk do what they will to it and use it against other humans?

October in the Chair

I wouldn’t trust anybody to convince me these were the characters of each month except for Neil Gaiman. Of course, now that Neil Gaiman has defined such personalities for each month, I can’t think of them as having any other personalities but the ones they have in this story. And anyway, I’ve always liked October the best. And I agree with June, there are a whole lot of someones in the woods watching them (I’m close enough to smell the sausages). Who wouldn’t want to gate-crash on this assembly, if possible?

The beginning of October’s story kind of reminded me of the beginning of Mio my Son by Astrid Lindgren. The boy seems pretty much all alone with no one who seems to really care about him or remember him in their selfish busy lives except to point out how insignificant he is (“he is the runt of the litter. Look at him. Look at us.”) And, once the name sticks, everyone starts heaping on the insignificances on him everywhere he goes until he kind of fades from the memories of people. It remains ambiguous whether Karl from Mio my Son and Donald from this story die from their sorry situations or enter another sort of adventure (perhaps, it’s the same thing).

And the whole search for the sea resonates with all these other stories I’ve read (the most recent being Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth where Mary’s searching for the ocean in zombie-ravaged country). What is it about the ocean? Does it signify the beginning of an adventure into the unknown – here, death, likely?

I feel very sorry for Donald. He doesn’t fit in with the life he was born into. No one understands him or bothers to really get to know him – they just label him something and shove him under a rug, basically. He may be a runt of a boy, but that’s not all he is, but that’s all he is to others.

He’s brave to go off like this on his own. He hopes that helicopters and dogs will go after him. He also hopes that he can return one day, older and wiser and better somehow, and his family will welcome him back with relief and delight and awe. Perhaps his dramatic change from this adventure will finally make his family realize that he’s not just the runt. But in his heart, perhaps he thinks he’s already been forgotten. Even if he’s found and taken back home, he’ll just fall back into the old routine of being forgotten. I forget his name pretty much right after it was mentioned because he’s called the runt throughout the story. Just like the boy ghost is called Dearly because he’s forgotten his own name. Sadly, though, even the ghost boy’s ghostly neighbours don’t care about him, preferring to sleep rather than “be bothered to just go and see stuff and do things. They can’t be bothered with [him].” The runt and the ghost boy have a lot more in common with each other than their own respective worlds.

May I say that I’m glad not to know what’s in the tumbledown farmhouse? It sounds sinister.

I like the ending of the short story. “We can’t help who we are.”

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20 thoughts on “Fragile Things – first four parts

  1. I am really enjoying the collection so far. I hope it continues! My post will be up in a few hours as it is still Saturday here. I really enjoyed reading the introduction because it gave insight into the stories. Then, the stories were really good so far. I enjoyed the personalities of the months, too. Then the third story was very atmospheric. I am glad it lead to The Graveyard Book, but it was wonderful all on its own!

  2. Your thoughts on Neil’s “cave of wonders” is right on, brilliant description. That is what his introduction, and story collections, are like, to be sure.

    Reading your thoughts makes me smile because I see a kindred passion for Gaiman’s works coming through on your keyboard.

    It may be cheating, but to answer some of your Study in Emerald questions I suggest a visit to the Wiki page about it. There is some good stuff there, including:

    “Conan Doyle’s drafts show he originally intended to call Sherlock Holmes “Sherrinford” (which some Sherlockians consider was actually the name of Sherlock’s oldest brother). Holmes’ grandmother was a relative of the French artist Vernet. “Sherry Vernet” is therefore an obvious stage name for Sherlock Holmes.

    “Sigerson” is an alias used by Sherlock Holmes during the period when he is believed to be dead after he escapes Moriarty.”

    Albion could certainly be on another planet, but in the Lovecraft Cthulu mythos the idea is that there are these “old gods”, hideous creatures who are prophecied to return to Earth and bring man to destruction. Some humans seem to want this, thinking it is the ultimate destiny of mankind. In Gaiman’s creations he has set up a world, which I do believe is just Earth, in which the old gods returned and instead of instantly destroying mankind have subjugated it and now rule over it. It would make sense in that sort of “alternate history” that names of cities would be changed to reflect the “royalty” of the old gods.

    I am glad you mentioned the play because that is part of the story that I just love. The play in some ways reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm” (read it quickly if you don’t know it, its short and I’d be curious if you too see some similarities. I imagine you can find it free online). The stage show sounds amazing and I would for sure have wanted to see it had I been living there. I like that there is a big clue with the mistaken identity part of the play. I like those kinds of nods to the audience in stories like the one Gaiman wrote.

    I have read this story several times and get something new out of it every time. I have to admit that the first time I read it I suspected something was off because Watson did not have a shoulder injury, he has a leg injury. I was doubting myself and my remembrance as I read it so I was still very surprised by the twist.

    Such a great story.

    So many of the “original” fairy stories reveal it to be a dangerous and scary place, and I like that The Fairy Reel touches on this. I can see a person being of two minds, wanting to experience the wonder and magic of Faerie and yet not wanting to pay the price that must be exacted on a human crossing over. There are dual ideas of agony and ecstasy in the narrator’s words that I think echo the bittersweet feeling of real life, in which we regret some roads taken and others not taken and also glory in those as well.

    I’m glad you mentioned the imagery of the sea in this story as I hadn’t thought about it. I wonder if it is in part a representation of the spirit of adventure, in older stories we read about the sea calling to people and so many adventures were to be had in this unexplored frontier. I also wonder if it is meant to represent death. I think of the sea in Tolkien’s work and how it is the elves that pass over it as they leave Middle-earth, a representation of sorts of death. Well done bringing that up, I’ll be mulling that over.

    Wonderful having you along for the group read, look forward to more.

  3. Dearly’s name made me laugh. It was such a clever touch.

    I also liked not knowing what was in the farmhouse. It leaves a lot of different possibilities with varying degrees of supernatural involvement. I like just knowing that it’s something scary, rather than a monster or just a bear. It’s a rather suspenseful ending, and while I guessed that in all likelihood Donald died, it made me want to know more.

  4. Kailana – I totally didn’t read the entire introduction because I was afraid I would read something that would give away the plot of the story and I wanted to read every story fresh. So I didn’t read the Mapmaker, yet! I didn’t know Neil Gaiman did that— put short stories in the intro. I still have to read The Graveyard Book, it’s been on my tbr shelf for a while (though I’ve lent it out to so many people, already, don’t know how that happened)

  5. Carl – I did wikipedia the name “Sherry Vernet” after and the whole grandmother relation thing did come up. I guess I’m not a true Holmes fan as I’m not totally familiar with Dr. Moriarty (Now that I think about it, it couldn’t have been Sherlock as the “friend” because the friend was totally in a lab coat at the beginning of the story when our narrator first meets him . I don’t think Sherlock dresses up in lab coats, does he?) I knew about the Cthulu mythos but only through wikipedia since I haven’t read Lovecraft (another person I must get to know), but wow, I thought Gaiman did an awesome job regardless of whether he took it from Lovecraft. I totally wanted to know more about this old-world victorian landscape with all these weird things like royals having actual royal blood and creepy limbs. Gaiman just inserts those descriptions in there so casually I probably did a number of double-takes as I was reading that story because I almost miss them – they just seem so natural! And I must read “The Conqueror Worm”, I haven’t read many Edgar Allen Poe stuff except for “The Tell-tale heart” (creeepy). And, what about angela carter? I lover her short stories, too. But Neil Gaiman does the whole *wink wink* at the audience so much better.

    Have already begun reading creepier things ahead!

  6. Grace – Yes I agree with you! Just the not knowing what was in there was probably the height of creepiness for me and a nice shivery touch. This story has made me want to read The Graveyard Book!

  7. yes, Angela Carter is great.

    I forgot to mention the whole dynamics of an asteroid paper and that stuff refers to Doyle’s stories in which Holmes is very brilliant in what he does but is not globally brilliant. He knows little about the universe, for instance, because he admittedly does not care. He believes having too many trivial facts cloud the brain with unnecessary information and would affect his abilities. That too should have been a clue but I didn’t get any of the clues the first time I read the story.

  8. To add to the Holmes things, because that is where I am knowledgeable here, the whole beginning of “A Study in Emerald” is a paraphrase of the beginning of A Study in Scarlet. Watson wants to split the cost of rooms, his friend knows a guy who works in a chemistry lab (and probably wears a lab coat), etc. etc. So I was immediately like, “Yes. Watson.” And, like Carl, I was like, “Wait, I thought he had a leg injury? This must just be part of Gaiman’s rewriting?” I’m so trusting.

    And when Carl says “he knows little about the universe,” we’re talking the man was unaware that the earth revolved around the sun. And when he was aware, he decided to try to forget that fact to fit other more important ones in. He’s a weird one, that Sherlock.

    Also, on the subject of the Runt, I’m wondering if part of the reason he decided to stay with Dearly was not that he feared that he would be brought home and then forgotten, but that he feared that no one would bother looking for him and he’d rather make this decision when it was still a decision and not an inevitability? That’s a lot of thought and responsibility to put on a kid, but I like to think the Runt is a bit wise beyond his years, yeah?

  9. “I feel like my neurons are arc-sparking across vast empty spaces in my brain to make new connections. Full of lovely Aha! moments for zombie-brained, me.”

    Oh, me too! Me too! Yet, you seem to have fantastic questions and insights for someone who’s zombi-brained. If you haven’t already, you may want to read Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Midst (bonus: Foreword by Neil Gaiman) for a look at fairy world as not only magical but also wild and scary.

  10. I was really glad not to know what was in the farmhouse too. I would totally have nightmares. Fun post! It’s late or I would think of something more to say.

  11. Alison – Haha, yes, everytime I made a “deduction” about something in the story, I had this foreboding sense that I was totally wrong and that I was falling into every single plot-trap that Neil Gaiman was cleverly putting in for us (cue the echoing evil laughter…) And I never knew that about Sherlock – the whole fact-overload thing. Interesting! I feel like I should read more Holmes stuff and become more familiar with that world and those characters. And yes, I agree with your interpretation of the Runt’s psyche, too! The Runt definitely seems wise beyond his years. Maybe he made that decision to take control of his identity/who-he-is …too many people stick him in the scrawny-little-runt-who’s-no-good-at-football category when he doesn’t feel that’s who he is?

  12. Emily – Haha, actually, I began writing the post feeling zombie-brained but then I got exponentially more excited as I wrote so I may have gotten carried away. And, Lud-in-the-Midst is an interesting title! I will definitely pull that off the shelves if I see it!

  13. Kirsten – I thought it was scarier not knowing what was in the farmhouse. My imagination refusing to go there is sometimes a creepier feeling than when there are ample descriptions….

  14. I loved your thoughts on the Fairy Reel, as this was the little reading I loved the most this week. It’s actually been extremely helpful to read your and Carl’s further insights into both Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes, as I’m just now working on becoming familiar with both of them. But, from what Gaiman has created for me, I can see he loves and respects these characters, so I’m excited to get to know them on their own turf!

  15. Chelsea – I have some familiarity with Sherlock Holmes (I used to consider myself a junkie of sorts) but it’s been too long since I last indulged in that world so I’m pretty rusty. I’ve never read Lovecraft, Carl helped me a lot to get more out of the Lovecraft aspect of the story. Makes me want to read some Lovecraft (that is a freakin’ awesome last name, anyway, I must know more about a person using that last name). And yes, that’s what I love about Neil Gaiman! He’s just always seems to be having fun with his characters and his stories, I can’t help but have fun, too.

  16. Maria – Oh really??? Wow! I never win anything!! Awesome!! I just sent you an e-mail. In case that doesn’t work I’ll type my e-mail again: this_is_shar(at)live(dot)com

  17. This sounds so fun! I went to the library and both the audiobook and hard copy are checked out. Blah! lol I might be a bit late in this discussion till I get the book. Anyway love reading your insights Sharry 🙂

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