25. Fragile Things

:rectangles within rectangles within a rectangle:

:rectangles within rectangles within a rectangle:

I just finished reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. And I intended to write this blog post about that novel – a beautifully carved work of fiction, bringing fantasy and reality together in a way that doesn’t reek of fairies or dragons, but instead feels plausible. Real. It’s an exploration of mortality and the space that is filled with thoughts, legends and stories – a space left for the intangible that often feels as close to touch as the lamp beside my bed or the cigarette in my mouth. (It reminds me a lot of my brilliant writer friend Aaron Franklin‘s work. Look out for The Desert and The Darkness in the next few years.)

But this morning, as Big D slept, I went downstairs to read a bit and eat some breakfast. I picked up Fragile Things, a book of short stories by Gaiman, and I read a few. And it hit me – the book, the perfect novel, is not a rectangle. Sure, it may be bound in a rectangular fashion, and in our hands, it might feel as rectangular as a brick or a postcard or a pack of cigarettes. But a book is circular. The beauty of the novel is that it returns, many times, to touch upon ideas that it’s brought up earlier. It draws back and forth and completes itself in a circular route through the seasons, the moods. And American Gods, a particularly good novel, is certainly a circle.

The short story, however, is a rectangle. It is a delicate snapshot into life, a moment represented in a brief square of time – a day, an hour – but it leaves the reader subtly disconcerted. A polaroid picture snapped carelessly and left to develop on the floor of a raucous party, the short story is not complete. The best of them are unsatisfying, leaving the reader with ideas and images in his head to contemplate on and dream about the next night. A good short story requires a pause, a long moment with parallel sides, to process and complete it before the reader can move on.

So instead of American Gods, I’m going to write about another of Gaiman’s works. Fragile Things is a collection of poems, stories and whimsies that is just an unbelievable showing of one man’s gift. His stories range from the months of the year, sitting around a campfire, telling tales to Holmesian detective romps – all leaving the reader with a sense of unease, a sense that he needs to develop one more frame to figure out what’s really going on. Brief, rectangular nuggets of enviable prose that manage, in fifteen pages, to make an impression. Sucking candies or sticks of gum or postcards. These are the short story.

I once took a writing class in which we had to come up with twenty first sentences for stories in one hour. We didn’t develop them until later, and then we took them wherever they led us. I feel like Gaiman, a true wizard with language, did the same exercise to write this book of tales. One starts, “Somewhere in the night, someone was writing.” Another begins, “They were a rich and a rowdy bunch at the Epicurean Club in those days.” Every story in this collection winds off and away into a glorious romp of words. Characters begin to build and events sort of happen and then – the reader is left to draw his own conclusions.

One of my personal favorites in this collection is “Bitter Grounds,” a story about zombies (sort of), but really about professors and life and death, equality and inequality and convention that stacks up for decades. It includes this line, scrawled on the back of a plain sheet of paper:

“‘In a perfect perfect world you could fuck people without giving them a piece of your heart. And every glittering kiss and every touch of flesh is another shard of heart you’ll never see again.
Until walking (waking? calling?) on your own is unsupportable.'”

Gaiman is not afraid to make fun of himself. The collection includes a story about a writer, trying to “create a slice of life…an accurate representation of the world as it is, and of the human condition” who finds himself in situations that are far more absurd and unreal than the unrealities he hates in his stories. (Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves is the title of this work).

“Strange Little Girls” is a mass of microfictions blended together – paragraphs, each with a title and a strong character, that tell a story. One is entitled “Time“, and goes:

“She is not waiting. Not quite. It is more that the years mean nothing to her anymore, that the dreams and the street cannot touch her.
She remains on the edges of time, implacable, unhurt, beyond, and one day you will open your eyes and see her; and after that, the dark.
It is not a reaping. Instead, she will pluck you, gently, like a feather, or a flower for her hair.”

And that’s it.

Gaiman’s way with words always makes me incredibly jealous. I like to think of gifts – true gifts, like Bach’s skill with musical notes, or Einstein’s tact with numbers, or Hemingway’s ability to make me cry in a page – as a Listerine strip that God places on a child’s tongue at birth. And as it dissolves, the recipient receives their Gift. And receives baggage, of course, the baggage that seems to be inherent with genius. Gaiman got the Listerine strip. One more rectangle. And it shows.

June 15, 2009. Books, Rectangles.

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