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Fragile Things

by Neil Gaiman

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Fragile Things
Whenever a writer takes questions at a reading, an audience member inevitably asks, "Where do you get your ideas?" In the case of Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman's latest collection of short fiction and poetry, the question may be fair - ideas are very much on display - but his best work is driven by character and by the central question of popular fiction: What happens next? In other words, Neil Gaiman tells stories.

The half-dozen readers in America who still believe that genre means something might see Gaiman as the English answer to Stephen King, and might classify these tales as fantasy, as horror, as science fiction - more broadly as "weird tales," descendants of queer English ghost stories from the early decades of the last century. As if to confound these readers, Gaiman starts off the collection with "A Study in Emerald," a Hugo-winning collision between the worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft. The story's narrator, a medical man who served with the British army in Afghanistan, neatly elides the difference between these two literary landscapes:
The gods and men of Afghanistan were savages, unwilling to be ruled from Whitehall or from Berlin or even from Moscow, and unprepared to see reason. I had been sent into those hills, attached to the -th regiment. As long as the fighting remained in the hills and mountains, we fought on an equal footing. When the skirmishes descended into the caves and the darkness then we found ourselves, as it were, out of our depth and in over our heads.

I shall not forget the mirrored surface of the underground lake, nor the thing that emerged from the lake, its eyes opening and closing, and the singing whispers that accompanied it as it rose, wreathing their way about it like the buzzing of flies bigger than worlds.
(p. 2)

Like Stephen King, Gaiman shifts from the banal to the fantastic without grinding his gears, beginning with a conventional colonial military setting and ratcheting into the uncanny with ever-stranger details. Also like Stephen King, the sheer enjoyment of these stories obscures the author's love of and facility with language.
As in Sandman, his comic-book masterwork (now published as a series of ten graphic novels, with various supplemental volumes), Neil Gaiman obsessively frames his tales: "October in the Chair," the hilarious "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire," "Closing Time," are among the stories in which he uses a framing story or equivalent device to ensnare the reader, who hardly notices that he or she has begun to suspend disbelief.

More than the supernatural, Gaiman concerns himself with the outsider. For all their gothic overtones, nothing much supernatural occurs in "Strange Little Girls" or "Pages From a Journal Found in a Shoebox Left in a Greyhound Bus Somewhere Between Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Louisville, Kentucky," both published in Tori Amos tourbooks. Their characters exist in the near-liminal world, beyond the margins of polite society but close enough to see them wandering out there if you squint just right.
As in Smoke and Mirrors, his previous collection of poetry and short fiction, Fragile Things' introduction seeks to answer that reader who asks, "Where do you get your ideas?" Treating each story in turn-and sneaking in an extra story-Gaiman discusses the genesis of the tale or poem, either its history or its core idea. Gaiman acknowledges inspirations including sculptures, dreams, paintings, and other writers, but admits that some stories seem to come out of nowhere. Characters, too, seem to come out of nowhere: he channels voices of harlequins, sock monkeys, and a Mr. Smith, a brutal pedophile, undoubtedly evil but descending into neither grotesquerie nor thuggish vacuity.

Gaiman's longer works engage far more than his shorter pieces do. In the latter, he so focuses on a conceit that he fails to dress it up, as in the clever but transparent "Other People." The longer the story, the more room Gaiman has to pull in the reader, to dress the set, and to build suspense. The final story in Fragile Things drives this point home.

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