For even for the most casual observer of book publishing today, Neil Gaiman is something of a household name. He’s an author that seems almost serendipitously ubiquitous–one morning there’s an interview in the New York Times, a week later your friend mentions she loved Smoke and Mirrors, four days after that you scroll past a Facebook status praising American Gods. Nearly a decade ago now, those types of impromptu nudges finally drove me to pick up a paperback copy of Neverwhere at The Strand, and it’s languished on various bookshelves in my apartment ever since.
See, I am, for reasons that elude even me, oddly wary of fantasy books. If I had to guess, I would say it stems from some childhood fear of being nerdier than I already was—for most of my formative years I was rocking glasses, braces and a head of hair that went from bowl cut to rat’s nest before I caught on to conditioner somewhere in middle school. Indeed, those torturous limbo grades can be an unfortunate time for the acquisition of new interests, as one is misguidedly forming Opinions about things just a few years shy of the momentous realization that other people’s Opinions about things matter way less than they seem to. Perhaps I saw a foray into fantasy books—and all the cultishness and costumes and collectibles my 10-year-old self thought that implied—as a bridge too far, a surefire way to limit my romantic prospects to boys with Star Trek t-shirts and Magic: The Gathering cards. Little did I know those boys would grow up to be hipsters and I’d end up dating them anyway.
As a longtime Stephen King fan who resents when he’s tossed off as a “horror” writer, I’m loathe to pigeonhole Gaiman, especially after devouring Neverwhere Harry Potter style this week. He’s written dozens of books, plus short stories and screenplays and a computer game called Wayward Manor. Gaiman is like the Tim Burton of fiction, and all predictable casting decisions aside, I’d never downplay the man who created both Edward Scissorhands and Mars Attacks! as a one-trick pony. But even factoring in the knowledge that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Gaiman has to offer, it was clear to me from the very first page of Neverwhere that he is an author of intense talent, whose work I’ve been totally missing out on and with whom I may now have to become obsessed.
Neverwhere takes places in London, where Richard Mayhew—a hapless man with a plain life and a lackluster affinity for it—stops on the street to help an injured girl named Door. Before he knows it, Richard ends up a part of Door’s crazy underground universe, London Below, home to “the people who fell through the cracks in the world.” London Below’s connection to London Above is tenuous at best, and Richard must quickly figure out how to survive in Door’s world while keeping a grip on his own (which, after all, has better food and nicer accommodations and fewer deadly adventures). Along for the ride is a memorable cast of London Below-ers, including Door’s femme fatale bodyguard Hunter, the bombastic Marquis de Carabas, and the villainous Mister Croup and Mister Vandemar, a cunning Flotsam and Jetsam duo bent on Door’s demise.
Neverwhere is the kind of book that will make you miss your stop on the train and stay up until 3 a.m. reading, and it manages that addictiveness without the easy pulls of teen romance or elaborately imagined wizarding schools. Moreover, while there are elements of the fantastical in the book—creatures and customs so unfamiliar to Richard as to seem otherwordly—Neverwhere is at its heart a journey, a search for resolution in a universe more chaotic than, but fundamentally linked to, our own. The relationship between London Above and London Below is in many ways one of the most important elements of the novel, more important than the specific logistics of life in London’s sewer system.
Despite ample opportunity to go overboard, Gaiman is a measured and contained narrator. He manages to flesh out London Below without letting descriptions drag on, and the novel’s questing gives it a heavy bent toward dialogue, which is handled wittily and deftly. But Neverwhere is also full of small insights, literary winks that reveal Gaiman for the talent he is, and make the book that much more enjoyable to read: “Richard had noticed that events were cowards. They didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.” // “The boy had the towering arrogance only seen in the greatest artists and all nine-year-old boys.” // “‘With cities, as with people, Mister Vandemar,’ said Mister Croup, fastidiously, ‘the condition of the bowels is all-important.'”
And if all that doesn’t sell you, I’ll throw in that the last five pages of Neverwhere made for one of my favorite endings of all time. *drops mic*
….*pics up mic* To come this late to the Gaiman party is a bit of a bummer and, frankly, a bit of embarrassment, on par with how I feel about being a Gabriel Garcia Marquez virgin, and never having read Animal Farm. But to discover Gaiman now is also to have a whole bounty of new books at my disposal, a veritable library of semi-parallel universes into which I can dive on a moment’s notice. So I guess there’s a silver lining—one that means I’ll probably never leave my apartment again. Except to wash my Star Trek t-shirt.
AUTHOR: Neil Gaiman
PAGES: 370 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: American Gods, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
SORTA LIKE: Harry Potter meets Big Fish meets The Wizard of Oz
FIRST LINE: “The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself.”