The Ocean at the End of the Lane and the Hard Work of Simplicity

The Ocean at the End of the LaneOcean_at_the_End_of_the_Lane by Neil Gaiman is simply beautiful. Picking up this slender volume, it feels vaguely familiar; it’s about the size of the books I read as a child. Apt, because it reads like a fairy tail, and it breathed with life in my imagination. If The Ocean at the End of the Lane was the first Gaiman novel I read, I would have read the rest of his work immediately. So now I’m playing catch-up.

It’s a lean volume with lean prose and the main character feels tenderly, achingly real. I was disarmed by the book’s simplicity. My critical brain was quiet for a while. I felt immersed in the world without the need to analyze it. I think Hemingway would approve.

A man returns to his hometown for a funeral but wanders from the grieving mass, drawn on by vague memories. When he reaches the small pond on the Hempstock farm he knew as a boy, he vividly remembers his awful seventh birthday party, and the truly nightmarish events that followed.

When a boarder in his parent’s house commits suicide with the exhaust from the family car, our 7-year-old narrator barely comprehends the severity of what he sees. But something malevolent is creeping into the neighbourhood, and it has its sights on our little hero. And of course, the magical world of danger closing in on a young child is something that parents cannot see.

Our hero—unnamed and referred to in the first person as “I”, lending an effective personal slant to the story—has help only from the Hempstock women living on the farm down the road. 11-year-old Lettie, her mother and antediluvian grandmother, are odd, and just magical enough to seem like something out of the myths our hero reads compulsively.

When he realizes with Lettie’s help that the new boarder/nanny Ursula Monkton is in fact a horrific flapping monster of rotted cloth, he tries to point this out to his parents with predictable results. Ursula wins over his family with ease; only our narrator and the Hempstocks realize that a world of chaos has opened up beneath everyday life, and only they can set things right.

But The Ocean at the End of the Lane is far from a jaunty fantasy story. It is told delicately, remembered through the lens of a 7-year-old with such authentic emotion, such alienation from the adult world that it helps us to remember, like the pond in the story, a time when our inner suspicions had a deeper reality, and that we truly did sometimes have the weight of that world on our shoulders.

It’s a beautifully realized book. It’s brevity and tone, childlike reverence for the weird and total irreverence for the quotidian life of adulthood make The Ocean at the End of the Lane a riveting dream of a novel that should satisfy adults and kids alike, though hopefully those kids aren’t too young.

The one thing I didn’t like about the novel came in the acknowledgements. Here he thanks two dozen people for reading, re-reading, giving notes, complaining, and so forth. I was annoyed because the simplicity of the book, and its beautiful execution and realization by Gaiman are so good they feel like they’re cut from whole cloth.

That a world famous author at the top of his game should need such extensive notes and rewriting bothered me. With such obvious talent and vision, why should he have to work so hard? I want this guy basically to just exhale the book onto the page, as in Octavio Paz’s poem “Writing”:

“I draw these letters

As the day draws its images

And blows over them

                    And does not return”

Of course, Gaiman is at the top of his game precisely because he’s willing to put in the work required to create a masterpiece.

“But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.” – Leonard Cohen, Song Writers On Song Writing by Paul Zollo, (written about nicely at Brainpickings.org)