How Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage Helped me Mourn my Mom’s Death

My mother loved the Queen of Crime Fiction, and for good reason, it turns out

Agatha Christie has been outsold by two people: Shakespeare and God. The only books to outsell hers are Shakespeare’s plays and the Bible. Despite that popularity, I was not impressed by my first foray into her works, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and I was even less impressed by The A.B.C. Murders. While the first was enjoyable, and played with the conventions of mystery novels in one very particular and striking way, it didn’t grab me. The second I found gimmicky and empty. I rather agreed with Raymond Chandler, who characterized what happens in English detective stories as “the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window.” As happens so often, actual knowledge of something is all that’s necessary to kill disdain for it. I crossed that barrier with The Murder at the Vicarage, the book I buried with my mother.

Agatha Christie's book
Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, with shelf

Get a copy of the book here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B000FC12XW

My mother loved reading. It was her defining hobby, and she loved Agatha Christie especially, having read every book she wrote. So, in the surreal logic of grief, I decided to put one copy of Christie’s work in the ground with her, so she’d have something to do. The copy was The Murder at the Vicarage, for the simple reason that it was one of the first to come to hand when I reached into her massive Agatha Christie cupboard. Once I was home after the back and forth and tumult of the funeral, I turned all my energy to consuming that book as fast as possible. If it was worth burying with my mom, surely it was worth reading, right? I read it on my phone while waiting in line, listened to it in my car while commuting, and spent a lot of time reading it normally at night. It was my last goodbye, and I wanted to give it the attention it deserved. The result was going at breakneck speed through the work of a master craftswoman. She’s pretty amazing, y’all.

So, what is The Murder at the Vicarage actually about?

The Murder at the Vicarage is narrated by a village vicar, Leonard Clement. He’s married to a much younger wife, Griselda Clement. After a few introductory pages, a man that everyone in the village despises to varying levels, Colonel Protheroe, is found shot through the head in the vicar’s study. The book after that point introduces many characters, all who had a reason to dislike the insufferable Colonel, and explores various scenarios under which they could have killed the victim. The only person who can see through all the chaff of misdirection is Miss Marple, in her first outing as one of Christie’s best-loved sleuths. Maybe she’s the reason why this ended up being the book I chose from among the handful I pulled off my mother’s bookshelf — the detective is an old lady of hidden depths and impressive intelligence (hi my mom was like, smart as hell).

Why Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries are so good

Crime writer Agatha Christie
Dame Agatha Christie. She sees right through you.

Agatha Christie is escapist literature, definitely, so long as the people using that term aren’t dull enough to think it’s shorthand for less-than or non-literary. She’s one of the most impressive craftsmen I’ve ever read. She builds plots like the Swiss build clocks — everything is tiny, seemingly insignificant, but it all fits together in clear and important ways once the work is done. Through and around all the logic puzzles and plot twists, there is strong, clear writing and an impressively deep understanding of human nature.

For people who are addicted to Agatha Christie, a good portion of the fun is figuring out whodunnit. I’m abysmal at this — I had not the least suspicion of the actual evildoers at any point throughout any of the three Christie books I’ve read. Dad tells me that mom got to where she could get it right about half the time. The thing that seems almost unfair, paradoxically, is that Dame Christie gives you everything you need to know exactly who murdered whom. The mystery is built perfectly — the answer is hidden, but each detail on each page of the story fits seamlessly with all others to point to only one conclusion — if you’ve got the skill to slot them together in the right order. I do not. In this particular book, the narrator runs across the killer carrying a rock. This is damning evidence, but neither the narrator nor I has any idea. Generally, you’re not smart enough to figure it out, but there’s a lot of pleasure in the examination of every little occurrence and the formation of your (in my case) inevitably wrong theory. This exercise completely occupies the mind, and pulls your brain more fully into the book than with other escapist literature. It’s half small-town dialogue and half LSAT logic puzzle.

The sheer strength and clarity of writing is a joy to read. It’s the style of writing that many of the best use, where you don’t even realize how powerfully that style is building a world around you, putting you exactly where it wants you. The powerful can make you do or feel what they want, but the truly powerful make you do it without even realizing it. It’s so strong it doesn’t need to be showy. Just an example, without further commentary:

“You see,” she began at last, “living alone, as I do, in a rather out-of-the-way part of the world, one has to have a hobby. There is, of course, woolwork, and Guides, and Welfare, and sketching, but my hobby is–and always has been–Human Nature. So varied–and so very fascinating. And, of course, in a small village, with nothing to distract one, one has such ample opportunity for becoming what I might call proficient in one’s study.”

This is the source of Miss Marple’s power. Sure, her template is just that of the nosy old neighbor, but add to that her keen intelligence and singular understanding of human nature, and she’s a dangerous adversary. There’s something so delicious in an unassuming old lady, ignored by most and feared by none, having the perspicacity to pierce through to the truth and undo all the careful plotting of the murderer.

Another of Miss Marple’s quotes, savage to the extreme, was on the subject of her modern novelist nephew:

“His poems have no capital letters in them, which is, I believe, the essence of modernity. His books are about unpleasant people leading lives of surpassing dullness.”

Unassuming old lady, able to tear the heart out of anyone who doesn’t impress her. I also particularly love this quote because it’s so true. I love modern fiction on the level of Midnight’s Children or Infinite Jest, but so much gets a pass as serious literature simply because it’s boring and miserable, which must mean it is Important. The 100 pages of Franzen’s The Corrections to which I had the fortitude to subject myself is some of the worst “literature” I’ve ever read. Unpleasant people and lives of surpassing dullness, indeed.

Agatha Christie, my mother, and me

Me, mom, dad, sister on a bridge in nature
My favorite family photo, featuring my dad, who is a big reason I love nature and didn’t end up an indoor kid. I’ll never have to write anything about that, because he’s going to live forever.

Agatha Christie gives you plenty to chew on in this novel. The frantic fitting together of every little detail as you read, hoping to prove to yourself that you’re smart enough to figure it out before the big reveal. The satisfaction of the big reveal itself, as the intricate structure of everything she’s built up to that point becomes apparent. The deep understanding of people, what they want, and how they act. Christie pulling all this out of a small village in the middle of a quiet old English county is perhaps the most impressive thing she does. It reflects actual life so well — no matter how little is happening, no matter how boring something appears to be, there is always depth to it, like a drop of water under a microscope shows an entire unimagined world, teeming with microbes.

It helped me grieve for my mother because while I was reading it, she was right there with me. I’m so much like her that she won’t be gone until I stop breathing, and it’s comforting to be reminded of that. After I type these last words, I’ll stumble off to the kitchen, make myself salmon with shishito peppers, and watch The Defenders, continuing to lead a motherless life. While I’m writing this, and while reading The Murder at the Vicarage, I’m not motherless. Reading and writing are so much of my inheritance from her that doing those things brings her back. She’s with me, not in a mystical sense, but because she built who I am. 

Anyway, The Murder at the Vicarage is a good book, and you should probably read it.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word of Unbinding is a perfect short story

 

Le Guin’s first Earthsea tale is one of her best

I just read one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s first short stories, and it was so perfect it completely derailed my original plans for this post. I have to write this love letter to my favorite author. No one alive comes close to her flawless creation of whole worlds from a handful of sentences, and no one has a deeper speculative-anthropological interest in what humanity is and should be.

You can get the story here for two bucks:
https://www.amazon.com/Word-Unbinding-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01N6G07B8/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1489863570&sr=8-2&keywords=the+word+of+unbinding

I don’t remember the first time I read one of her books — it happened in that post-high-school flurry of absolutely unbound devouring, where you’re no longer reading what you feel you “have to” to be taken seriously, but what you want to — the rubber-band snapping of freedom is disorienting, but it’s wonderful to no longer have to pretend you understand Gravity’s Rainbow at 17 years old.

In that frenzy of consumption, something of hers was tossed in, but where she really grabbed me and never let go was with The Dispossessed. A piece of Science Fiction so perfectly balanced, so perfectly human, serious without confusing being serious with being boring and grim, that I have never forgotten it. It fairly and clearly represents the benefits and flaws of a capitalist and anarchist society (two different planets locked in co-orbital positions, one desert-anarchist, the other lush-capitalist). Capitalism is not all subjugation of the poor (although that is an unavoidable side-effect, if not a planned feature), and anarchism is not all lighting fires and throwing stones — all anarchy means is the absence of hierarchical power structures. UKL shows there’s beauty and flaws in both systems because both systems are run by inherently fallible people.

 

Ursula K. Le Guin at the 2014 National Book Awards

She’s a bona fide hero. If you need proof, here’s her speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, where she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters:

In a room filled with book publishers, at an event sponsored by Amazon, she took the industry to task for “letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant” and said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable, but so did the divine right of kings.”

That was UKL the doyenne of American SF. This story is from Ursula K. Le Guin, the barely-published writer, and she already had the magic.

 

The Word of Unbinding: a ten-minute story packed with everything Ursula K. Le Guin would become

In The Word of Unbinding, we already see all the elements that make UKL who she is as an author. Language as simple and clear as a forest stream. The ability to plant twenty words, step back, and watch them grow into an entire vivid world. A focus on the importance of balance, acceptance, and doing the right, the human thing. Before going further, please read the story. It’s two dollars and will take you ten minutes. It is without a doubt the most worthwhile thing you will do today — doubtless more worthwhile than reading this blog.

The Word of Unbinding is an exceedingly simple story. A wizard is trapped in a dark well, guarded by strange creatures and magics, and he tries and fails to escape until there is only one way out. Like all of UKL’s writing, it is simple and straightforward, but so incredibly dense. Not in the James Joyce/Thomas Pynchon sense, but in the sense that each word is so carefully chosen and placed it’s like setting stone on stone. Here’s the first line:

Where was he? The floor was hard and slimy, the air black and stinking, and that was all there was.

She accomplishes everything she needs to in twenty words. The protagonist is lost and confused, something bad has happened to him, bad air, hard floor, and that’s it. Before there’s any chance of remotely understanding what’s going on, there’s a rock-solid sense of where the story is. Next step is explaining who the protagonist, Festin, is:

Lately, in these lone years in the middle of his life, he had been burdened with a sense of waste, of unspent strength; so, needing to learn patience, he had left the villages and gone to converse with trees, especially oaks, chestnuts, and the grey alders whose roots are in profound communication with running water. It had been six months since he had spoken to a human being. He had been busy with essentials, casting no spells and bothering no one.

UKL’s conception of how magic works and what its practitioners should be is the most compelling in all of literature. This isn’t clear from the excerpt, but her system is almost entirely based on naming. Everything in existence has a True Name, and innate power wedded to study and discovery of these names gives a wizard their abilities: just like a writer, they use language to call forth miracles, to change the reality around them. What is clear from the excerpt is what a wizard should be: Festin has not cast a spell in half a year. Magic is not about fireballs and parlor tricks, but about balance. Each and every wizard has a responsibility to maintain and protect that balance — that is what makes them a wizard. The upsetting of that balance is the source of evil, in this story as elsewhere in Earthsea (UKL’s fantasy territory).

 

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Le Guin describes herself as “the most arboreal science fiction writer.” She’s not wrong. Credit: Nikanos | CC BY-SA 2.5

A wizard reaver named Voll goes from island to island, destroying towns and enslaving people, disrupting the natural order. He seals the protagonist in a dark well-tomb. Festin, confident in his power, attempts to escape repeatedly. First as a creeping mist, then as simple air, then as a falcon, then as a trout. He is successively foiled with a blast of hot air, a storm wind, an arrow, and a fisherman’s net. Broken, cold, and kept on the edge of death, he begins wondering why his enemy will not kill him. After due consideration, he takes the last path out of his situation — the word of unbinding:

So Festin made his choice. His last thought was, If I am wrong, men will think I was a coward. But he did not linger on this thought. Turning his head a little to the side, he closed his eyes, took a last deep breath, and whispered the word of unbinding, which is only spoken once.

Festin, seeing his situation and a possible way to restore balance, makes the human (in its least cynical definition) decision and accepts the change required to set things right. Once in the land of the dead, a land of hard obsidian lava flows, black grass, and unmoving stars, he discovers Voll is long dead but has somehow returned to the world. He chases his enemy back to his corpse, forces him to re-enter it, and then sits vigil at the point of origin for the imbalance, guarding against further upset.

Festin saves the world through acceptance of the most human fact there is: all will die and turn to dust. If he had attempted to avoid what must be, he would have remained trapped and ineffective, unable to bring battle to Voll on any plane that mattered.

Cultivating imbalance for personal gain unerringly leads to evil and is set right through courageous acceptance of what must be.

This story floored me not simply because it was so perfect, so small yet so powerful, but because this is one of the first things UKL ever published, and she was already a master. She further developed her talent over a decades-long career, but everything she needed was already there: the power and clarity of her language, the strength of her perception of the world she’s creating, and the strong philosophical attachment to balance. Not to mention it’s a super fun wizard adventure story, written 53 years ago and still wonderful and fresh today.

Logan is a great balance of comic book movie action and painful emotional tragedy

And by great balance, I mean both aspects are set to 11 in Hugh Jackman’s last X-Men film

Logan gives Wolverine, one of the most popular comic book movie stars, a great sendoff. I suppose Wolverine himself won’t be leaving, but Hugh Jackman, the main reason the character is so popular, will be, and apparently he’s taking Patrick Stewart with him. The movie is a bit like Driving Miss Daisy, if Morgan Freeman were an alcoholic who just couldn’t seem to stop manufacturing amputees and Miss Daisy were an extremely dangerous telepath. The movie takes place years in the future. Charles Xavier has some type of degenerative brain disease, and whenever he has a seizure, he paralyzes everyone within a certain radius (including their lungs), so he’s living in a hole in the middle of nowhere. Logan is supporting him by driving a limo, apparently. All the other X-Men are dead. New mutants are not being born. Something is killing Logan slowly and painfully, and he’s drinking a lot and finally looking old (he was born in the 1880s). He’s aging, covered in scars, and limping, so his healing factor is ominously not working so well anymore. Add to this the sudden arrival of Wolverine’s murderous daughter clone Laura, who is on the run from the people who trained her as an assassin, and we’re off to the races! Spoilers follow. I guess they preceded too, but they really follow.

Logan is realistic, for a given value of realistic

The first thing that stands out about this film and sets it apart from other entries in the franchise, that makes it memorable (the only thing I remember of X-Men Apocalypse is an angry blue man and a collapsing pyramid) is its unstinting realism. If you replaced Logan’s claws with guns and his on-the-fritz healing factor with some good old-fashioned plot armor, John Wick style (ok John, maybe you have a bulletproof suit, but there’s a finite number of times people can shoot at you before one gets lucky and hits you in the face), and this could be a grim, gritty thriller movie about a grizzled ex-warrior who just wants to save his daughter.

Reality is the backbone of this superhero movie, which sounds weird when you get into the secret corporate labs, the kids with superpowers, and the man with giant claws. I’ll try to explain. The Hangover was just a movie about a group of guys going to Vegas, gambling, and getting drunk, nothing supernatural at all, but the underlying feel of it was completely unrealistic. It goes the opposite way in Logan. It’s a movie about a 150-year-old with a clone daughter and a telepath father figure all being hunted by a transhuman mercenary force, but underneath the superhero trappings is a story about age, and death, and loss. This is where the acting chops of Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman really come through. Those two men have carried most X-Men movies (with some help from Ian McKellen), and they are at the top of their form in this one. Stewart plays a feeble, confused, half-crazy Professor X perfectly — every line of his body radiates weakness, his voice cracks, he’s so frustrated at his helplessness he curses at Logan (yes, Professor X drops an F-bomb in this movie). Every single time you see Hugh Jackman’s face, decades of loss and disappointment hit you like a truck. His every movement, grunt, and word shows a man who is done with life, waiting to die. Their acting makes the movie work, and it’s so wrenching to watch this performance realizing you’ll never see them in these roles again.

Wolverine on a rock
20th Century Fox has every image of Wolverine extremely copyrighted, so here’s this one. Credit: Jonathan Othén | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s not just those two characters that make this grim. The entire world they live in is terrible — the X-Men are all dead (most likely killed by Xavier when he first started having these attacks), the anti-mutant corporations are ascendant and hunting down anyone who is left, and one of the most beloved characters of the franchise is contemplating suicide. Everything is awful, nothing is good. 20th Century Fox brings you in with a promise of X-Men action, and you find yourself trying to eat popcorn to a Sartre play. Again, that’s part of what makes this movie so refreshing compared to the others, and it’s not like they don’t also deliver the action goods.

If you think Wolverine is violent, you should meet his daughter

This movie is not as action-packed as others in the franchise, but the little it does have really delivers. After a brief intro fight, Logan spends a lot of time just driving around, getting drunk, and taking care of Professor X. He meets his clone daughter and still nothing cool happens. She just sits in their hideout eating cereal. Just as you despair of seeing an X-Men movie at all, the mercenaries show up to take her back. They easily subdue Wolverine and send a couple men into the building to get her. You hear some screams, and she comes out and throws a SEVERED HEAD at the leader, then throws herself on the enemy with a viciousness paralleling only that of Wolverine himself. Her fighting style is acrobatic, and involves a lot of evasion, landing on people’s shoulders, and neck-stabbing. Whoever choreographed it should get a medal. It’s a joy to watch, and the incongruousness of a ten-year-old girl effortlessly murdering beefy, lumbering soldiers gives you a sensation that lands somewhere between hilarity and extreme discomfort.

Wolverine’s fighting style is more labored — less balletic but just as bloody. Laura (the clone daughter) fights like someone holding a samurai sword, and Logan fights like a guy holding a bat with nails in. He’s old, and he’s slow, and he can’t shrug off damage like he used to, but he’s still got the killer instinct. He struggles for every inch he gets, and that makes the fights more fun to watch. Too often in superhero movies, it’s hard to see how hard someone is working. Mutants with energy-based or telekinetic powers are fighting for their lives, and, oh boy, it’s time for them to really turn it up, and all they do is…grunt a little more and squinch up their face. Logan does not have that problem — he is no longer an elite fighter, but he just does not stop, and you see his determination in every muscle flex, every enemy punch deflected, and every bodyblow absorbed. It really means something when he finally sinks his claws in someone. Speaking of sinking claws in people, they actually show it. It never made sense in the other X-Men movies when Wolverine would stab someone and the guy would just bloodlessly hit the ground. Well, Logan is rated R, and holy hell it shows. His fights involve multiple amputations, buckets of gore, and lots of realistic stabbing. When he puts his claws into someone’s skull, you see them come out the other side covered in brain matter. It’s so graphic it’s uncomfortable, but it’s better than the touch football version of fighting he was using in previous movies.

Let’s talk about Logan’s feelings

I spent so much time talking about the action scenes because that’s how you approach an X-Men movie, right? How cool the fighting is, how much fun it is to watch people use their powers, etc. There’s another level to this movie though: actual character development and a real focus on the human side of things. These are people, not superheroes. Many of the previous X-Men films tried to carry the whole emotional arc of the movie on the back of the old tension between Magneto and Professor X. It gets stale. In Logan, a half-feral mute falls in love with her genetic father and learns that murdering everyone all the time is maybe problematic. A man who was one of the most powerful and respected mutants of all time is now feeble and dying, desperately trying to advise his last surviving pupil (Wolverine) to do something that really matters. An old, cynical loner who is convinced the last thing left for him to do in this world is leave it finds something to care about. That last one sounds corny, and I suppose it is, but the difference with Logan and other “heart of gold” stories is that Logan absolutely does not have a heart of gold. He’s an old, angry Canadian, and his heart is full of bitters and blue ruin, full stop. By the end of the movie, he has a heart that is maybe a bit shiny if you catch it in the right light, but that’s it.

Maple syrup on a table, only thing better from Canada is Wolverine
Maple syrup, the best thing America has imported from Canada after Wolverine. Credit: Miguel Andrade

Another good human touch to this movie is the humor. There’s not much, god knows, but it is there. Xavier and Logan bicker like an old married couple. The girl does not understand that violence doesn’t solve everything (mostly because it does solve everything). For example, they are at a gas station and she’s riding a little mechanical rocking horse. When it stops, she flies into a rage and is about to murder the coinbox to get more money when Logan just hands her a quarter and gives her a look. Another thing I found funny (and I’m not sure if this is intentional) is that almost every single mercenary chasing Laura has at least one robotic arm, which you absolutely would need if you spent your days raising a baby Wolverine. These small, almost non-existent touches of humor are pleasant in this film, and in a more general sense are what makes the Marvel (not actually the same studio as this one, but whatever) movies more successful than the DC ones — they have a sense of humor. The recent Batman/Superman movie was so terrified of looking goofy that it ended up looking like a steaming pile of gloomy, humorless garbage. There’s got to be a little humor, no matter how serious the movie, because there’s always a little humor in people, no matter how serious the person.

Logan: the rest is silence

There are plenty of scenes of mutant-fueled carnage in this film, more than enough to satisfy the moviegoer who just wants to see Hugh Jackman kill stuff, but the real focus of the movie is an assemblage of deeply broken people taking action to do something that matters, regardless of how much the sharp edges of their shattered pasts grind together within them with every step they take. The beginning, middle, and end of the movie are exercises in unremitting tragedy, which a.) might be overkill but b.) some people’s lives really are that bad. I definitely got something different than what I was expecting, but most of the unexpected was great.

In the climax of the movie, old, almost-dead Logan takes an injection of a serum that supercharges his powers. He’s finally back in form, ready to tear apart a legion of soldiers without breaking a sweat. Wolverine finally achieving full strength was extremely gratifying to the part of me that watched X-Men cartoons as a kid, but the gritty emotional realism comes through here as well. He’s not just back physically, but emotionally as well, finally ready to fight for the person he loves. In the climax, the two focuses of this movie — serious emotional piece and action-packed superhero film — come together like hydrogen and oxygen, in a way that entirely satisfies the part of me that will always love any movie that involves Arnold Schwarzenegger + guns and the part of me that makes a point of watching whichever film won the Oscar that year. I left the theater not sure if I liked the movie or not, not sure exactly what I had watched, and that is a result of the director taking a risk with this film, which is almost always better than doing a retread of a successful formula. After a week’s reflection, it’s clear that any movie that can successfully blend well-done action escapism with emotional catharsis is a great achievement.

 

 

Lincoln in the Bardo Redux: Still Weird, Still Great

Most weeks, this blog is about a different book. Lincoln in the Bardo is so important that it gets two posts. It’s seriously good. It’s hard to call this stuff, but it might be the next big thing people look back at in a century and think “Whoa, there was a forking path in the history of art.” One of the areas in which Saunders was most inventive was how he constructed 166 completely distinct characters in a single book, so I asked him about that.

I was lucky enough to go see Saunders speak about his book. The event took place in a church, because the demand was so heavy that the nearby bookstore couldn’t accommodate it. High ceilings, arches, stained glass, and a guy from Chicago standing at the pulpit talking about art. It was a really great night, and I got to ask him a question about what his process was for making all those different voices sound so very different. What follows is an inexpertly copied transcript, with changes made for the various uncertainties of human speech (ums, ahs, you knows). My question was about how different each character sounded, but the answer I got was about his entire philosophy of writing. It was extremely gratifying. Thanks, George!

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He drew me a ghost and a Lincoln inside his signature. I mean, he drew that for everyone, but he also drew it for me.

Anyway, here it is:

Q: When I was reading, what I was most impressed with was how sharply distinct each voice was, and doing that with 160-odd characters, even the ones that are just there for like, half a page, hello-goodbye, I was just wondering what went into making those voices so clear and distinct.

A: Oh thank you, yeah. You know, in my short fiction, it’s always in a contemporary voice; I’ll often have two or three characters, and I really try hard to distinguish them in voice, and that means going really overboard on two or three voices. In this book as soon as I realized how many people there were going to be, there’s a hundred-sixty-six, I thought, I have to maybe scale it down just a bit so I can sort of make that many versions. And the approach really was, I mean, my whole thing on writing is, it’s based on a three-part mantra. Donald Barthelme said, ‘The writer is a person who, embarking on her task, does not know what to do.’ Gerald Stern, in a slightly different register, and I’ll clean this up because we’re in church, ‘If you set out to write a poem about two dogs making love, and you write a poem about two dogs making love, then you wrote a poem about two dogs making love.’ And then Einstein, taking it up another level, as he always did, said, ‘No worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its original conception,’ which for artists is a real deep thing. If the thing only is what you thought it was gonna be, then you’ve disappointed. So, in my process, I’m always just kind of proceeding at speed, trying to have as few notions about it as I can, almost imagining like there’s a meter in my head with ‘P’ over here for positive, ‘N’ over here for negative, and the job is just to read, and revise, and watch that needle, without any sort of attachment to where you wanted to be. So, it’s up in the positive, if it goes in the negative, you don’t do that thing where you say, ‘Oh no it didn’t,’ and you also don’t do the thing that says, ‘I suck. I have to go back to law school.’ You just say, what you kinda do is, and my thing is you sorta turn to the story and you say, ‘Hey, I notice you’re down in the negative here,’ and the story will go, ‘No I’m not,’ and you say, ‘Well, I kinda think you are, it’s okay, I still love you,’ and it says, ‘Ah yeah, well,’ and you say, ‘Well, what’s the problem, what’s the problem with the story?’ And it goes, ‘I’m boring.’

‘You are boring, you poor thing. Can you tell me, where are you boring?’

‘Page six.’

‘Ok, I agree. Where exactly?’

‘Third line.’

And you go to the third line, and it says like, ‘Bill sat at the empty table, the black planar expanse, the dark flatness,’ and you go ‘Oh yeah, I get it.’

So it’s a very intuitive approach, and it’s kinda based on the idea that when we’re reading, something crazy’s going on in the mind; it’s so intelligent, and it’s picking up so many signals off the text that are kinda subverbal, you couldn’t articulate them. So in that heightened beautiful state, reader and writer together kind of reach this communion, basically. So, when I’m writing I’m trying to make the voices (to come back, finally, to your question), I think what I do is I try to be as deep in the text as I can, and then I turn over and say OK I need a ghost over here, and then, this is the scary part, I just trust the verbal overflow. You know at that point, a voice will appear, as you’re typing, bom bom bom. So, the trick is to not say, ‘I don’t want that ghost,’ or ‘What does that ghost mean?’ but just like, ‘Go ahead, tell me,’ you know. And so it’s sort of a sustained improvisation, and even with that number of characters you kinda remember what you’ve done before, and your subconscious is moving you away from those, so it’s kind of a crazy process of believing there’s a part of your mind that’s smarter than the surface part, and then sort of allowing that to come through.

So there’s a small piece of George Saunders’ writing process, which I was super excited to hear. Whether he’s the greatest living American writer is a matter of opinion, but he’s doubtlessly in the running. Part of why he’s where he is, and part of what his answer makes clear, is he takes his writing as seriously as a heart surgeon takes his work. He’s not just, you know, telling some story or whatever. He’s telling the perfect story, the only story that could grow in the space in which he’s working. If you haven’t checked out his entire opus, you really should.

Here, I’ll help: https://www.amazon.com/George-Saunders/e/B000APEZ74/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1488608095&sr=8-2-ent

Rick and Morty is what happens when Dan Harmon gets carte blanche

I am extraordinarily late to this party, but Rick and Morty is the best currently-running cartoon on television. It’s also currently available for free on the Adult Swim website. It is endlessly inventive, does not shy away from complexity, and does a surprisingly good job on exploring character traits for a 23-minute show. It’s the baby of Dan Harmon, so if you liked the absolute absurdity of some of Community’s plotlines, you’ll appreciate the same style. The absurdity coupled with the effectively limitless conceptual space of the SF setting results in a show that is constantly entertaining because it’s constantly new. Think about all the times Community got ridiculous — the Halloween zombie episode, the paintball episode, etc. — and then think about what would happen if you moved that aesthetic from a show about community college to a show about a dimension-jumping intergalactic mad scientist with no moral compass. I’m getting ahead of myself. This show is about a dimension-jumping intergalactic mad scientist with no moral compass, a cynical, alcoholic 60-year-old who is probably the smartest being in existence. He’s a man who built a robot at the breakfast table because he needed something to pass him the butter. He built a butter-passing robot in like two minutes because he was lazy.

The eponymous pair of the show is this super-genius, Rick and his rather stupid grandson, Morty. Rick has returned to the family after years of absence, and his daughter Beth has abandonment issues and is terrified he’ll leave again. This creates tension with her husband, Jerry, who does not like Rick because he makes him feel stupid (he is) and has a bad influence on his son. There’s also Morty’s sister, Summer, who is mostly interesting because she’s a normal teenage girl — she’s the only character who is not dysfunctional. The relationship of these characters is one hint of the greatness of this show. It’s a zany sci-fi hijinks cartoon that also addresses the reality of human interaction. For example, the failing marriage between Morty’s mom and dad, two deeply hurt and codependent people, is an ongoing topic across all episodes.

The main draw of the show is its sheer inventiveness. In one episode, Jerry is annoyed that the family dog is so stupid. He pesters Rick until he solves the problem by putting an intelligence helmet on the dog. The dog spends a little while fetching slippers, using the toilet, etc. Then he achieves self-awareness, modifies his helmet to bestow super-intelligence, enslaves the family, and starts building an enhanced dog army. In another episode, Rick gives the family a Mr. Meeseeks box. The box is alien tech. When the user hits a button, a humanoid Mr. Meeseeks pops into existence, solves a problem you set for it, and then de-manifests. The dad, Jerry, asks for help getting two strokes off his golf game, but he’s so bad at everything that the Meeseeks can’t help him, gets distraught, and hits the Meeseeks button itself, asking a second Meeseeks to help it help Jerry. This process repeats until there are dozens of Mr. Meeseeks all experiencing an existential crisis. The only way to stop a homicidal rampage is for Jerry to actually improve his golf game. There’s the one where aliens place Rick and Morty (and accidentally Jerry) in a simulation of their normal lives, hoping to trick Rick into giving them one of his technological secrets. The problem is, the simulation is really low-rent, and the only person dumb enough not to notice anything wrong (people walking through trees, his wife responding to him robotically and using the exact same words, seeing the same three people over and over again throughout the town due to the limits of the simulation’s processing power) is Jerry, and as a result, the poor dumb bastard has the best day of his life. Every episode has some high-concept core around which all the wackiness happens. The cardinal sin of bad art in any medium is to be boring, and this constant renewal of ideas puts Rick and Morty on the opposite side of that spectrum.

The interactions between Rick and Morty also add to the show’s appeal. On one side, you have a sociopathic genius who once built an entire pocket universe, filled with beings to whom he was a god, just to use as a car battery. On the other, there’s a kid who isn’t that smart, but also thinks that maybe doing whatever you want with no regard for destruction, mayhem, or morals maybe isn’t the best path. For example:

This is a pretty good encapsulation of what the show is all about. Rick sells a gun to an assassin to get enough money to go to a galactic Dave and Buster’s. Morty, horrified at his callous disregard for life, refuses to have a good time. This has all the other elements of a Rick and Morty show: the weirdness of them going to a galactic arcade, the variety of all the background aliens there, the high-concept of one of the arcade games taking the player through an entire life from childhood through death, the cynicism of Rick saying “55 years, not bad!” while Morty, still confused from the virtual reality, desperately asks “Where’s my wife?!”

The key element that ties everything else together is Rick himself. The character is so compelling because of the dynamic tension between wanting to root for the smartest guy in the room and being horrified by what a complete asshole he is. He can out-think anyone, build the coolest machines, and take his grandson on eye-opening adventures of breathtaking scope. On the other hand, he abandoned his daughter, is a galactic criminal, and seems literally not to care about anyone’s life, human, alien, or otherwise. He embodies the Darth Vader/Walter White effect, in which individuals of extraordinary competence, no matter how morally repugnant, appeal to audiences. Also, although he is completely unrepentant, he does have one single redeeming factor that the show buries deep: whenever he has to choose between the safety of his family and himself, he sacrifices himself. That one tiny spot of humanity colors the rest of his character and elevates him (just barely) to good-guy status. Well, not a “good” guy, but you get the picture.

The last episode of this show came out a year and a half ago, after a hell of a cliffhanger. Legions of fans have been painfully awaiting its return, and now I join their ranks. However long it takes for season three to premiere, it will be worth the wait. I’ll leave you with one more clip that will probably serve as a better indication of whether you should invest in this show than anything I’ve said. It’s the cold open for one of the episodes. If it makes you laugh, watch the show. If it’s too weird and off-putting for you, don’t watch the show.


 

George Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is just as weird as you’d expect

Abraham Lincoln, one of the characters of George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, looking sad and withdrawn.

George Saunders’ recent Lincoln in the Bardo is the most interesting thing I’ll read all year. Saunders’ career is built on finding the small, the unlovable people of the world and constructing a story around them purpose-built to carve a them-sized cavity in your heart,  to demonstrate forcefully why they, yes, even they, are deserving of love, or at least pity. His writing is very Sermon-on-the-Mount, and encourages us to have empathy for the unfortunate and understanding for the contemptible. Saunders’ career is also built on short stories, and it’s exciting to get a novel out of him. As you might expect from someone who started his career as a geophysical engineer, it strays far from novelistic conventions. So what exactly is it?

In my outline for this part, the first bullet point was “Hoo boy.” Where even to start? I guess with an explanation of what “Lincoln,” “in” and “the Bardo” mean. The bardo is a state of spiritual transition in Tibetan Buddhism. After death, those freshly severed from their bodies linger in a liminal state, awaiting the start of their next life. The one and only setting of the book is Oak Hill Cemetery, where young Willie Lincoln lingers, awaiting his father. He died young from a fever just as the Civil War was really ramping up. The book also features the leader of the sundered Union, Abraham himself, who repeatedly visits his boy’s corpse, unable to move on, just like his recently deceased son.

willie_lincoln
Willie Lincoln, the center of the book.

Willie is not alone in the bardo. Oak Hill Cemetery is filled with the archetypes of all the feckless people Saunders tends to write about. In fact, the book is mostly about them. There’s the old man who married a young bride, but died just before consummation. There’s the gay man who slit his wrists and, just as the percussion of blood on porcelain hit his ears, changed his mind. There’s the drunken misfit couple, who passed out in the road and were run over by the same carriage. In the finest traditions of human cognitive dissonance, they are constitutionally incapable of realizing they are dead. They believe they’re simply resting, like the Norwegian Blue (beautiful plumage, innit?). One ghost, obliviously describing his death, says:

There I lay, in my sick-box, feeling foolish, in the parlor…[t]hen the physician returned, and his assistants carried my sick-box to his sick-cart, and I saw that — I saw that our plan must be indefinitely delayed.

Beautiful piece of dramatic irony, as it’s entirely clear what that sick-box is, what that physician is doing, and where that sick-cart is going. The bardo/cemetery plane is semi-sentient, and takes a dim view of lingerers. It’s not outright malevolent, but it is definitely the extreme opposite of amenable to these people. Its job is to attack, to weaken, and to entice. Its methods of enticement are varied, bizarre, and vivid, and I’ll leave it entirely to you to find out what they are by reading the book.

Saunders’ background and his expertise are short stories — perfect capsules of narrative that achieve quickly and efficiently what they’re built to do. Saunders doesn’t so much write a novel here as use his absolute mastery of the short story form to compose fragmentary, ultra-short narratives then fit them back together in a way that works. Saunders is like a self-taught glassblower who never learned how to build a vase in the standard way, in a single piece. He instead starts with 160 colorful shards of glass and fits them together in a way that not only holds water, but is strikingly beautiful and original. That’s how many separate voices are in this book, by the way. Saunders writes 160 different people in a 367 page book. Some are only there for a page or paragraph, some recur, but they are all there and all distinct.

The distinctness of each voice is a triumph. Saunders’ authorial voice disappears completely into each character. He peeks out here and there, certainly, but for the most part, these impressively distinct characters arise from their impressively distinct language. Some examples:

A Union army captain, first coming to the bardo:

Wife of my heart laura laura

I take up my pen in a state of such great exhaustion that only my deep love for all of you could so compel me after a day of such Unholy slaughter and fear. And must tel you frankly that Tom Gilman did not make it through that terrible fite. Our position being located in a copse. Much firing during which I heard a cry. Tom is hit & fallen. Our Brave & Noble frend laying upon his Face upon the Ground. I directed the Boys that we would avenge even if it meant stepping through the very gates of Hell.

captain william prince

One of the more permanent inhabitants, judging the preceding captain for realizing where he is and leaving:

My goodness, I thought, poor fellow! You did not give this place a proper chance, but fled it recklessly, leaving behind forever the beautiful things of this world.

And for what?

You do not know.

A most unintelligent wager.

roger bevins iii

A ghost regretting his choices:

I give her dimonds and perls and broke the harts of wife and children and sell the house from under us to buy more dimonds and perls but she thows me over for mr hollyfen with his big yellow laughing horseteeth and huge preceding paunch?

robert g. twistings

Someone who doesn’t know how to talk without inflating each and every word:

I did always try, in all my aspects, to hew to elevation; to dispense therewith, into myself, those higher virtues of which, rendered without, one verily may sag, and, dwelling there in one’s misfortune, what avails.

elson farwell

A good reverend, trying to convince Willie Lincoln to leave:

What do you think? I said to the boy. Is this a good place? A healthy place? Do these people seem sane to you, and worthy of emulation?

the reverend everly thomas

Five different mini-narratives present five completely different voices, and Saunders does this 160 times. The constantly swirling perspectives, shifting not just in subject, and not just superficially in style, but presenting a new world with every speaker, is the center of what makes this book work.

Saunders expertly places each shard of narrative, expanding here, shortening there, revisiting, interweaving, and building a miraculous whole.  Out of the chaos of each ghost’s small, painful grievance he constructs a cohesive picture of the shared experience of humanity.

Saunders also pulls off this maneuver with quotations from history. There are alternate chapters composed entirely of historical quotations, with Saunders mixing and matching dozens of sources and making them serve the narrative. One of the bardo chapters ends with the ghosts seeing Abraham Lincoln’s face, and the next chapter consists entirely of historical sources describing Lincoln:

The pictures we see of him only half represent him.
— Shenk, op. cit., account of Orlando B. Ficklin.

In repose, it was the saddest face I ever knew. There were days when I could scarcely look at it without crying.
— Carpenter, op. cit.

But when he smiled or laughed…
— Ostendorf, op. cit., account of James Miner.

It brightened, like a lit lantern, when animated.
— In “Lincoln the Man,” by Donn Piatt, account of a journalist.

The impressive thing here isn’t so much Saunders’ ability to quote extensively and fluently from historical sources, but how he can join them together seamlessly to serve his purpose. Without the citations breaking them up, these four disparate quotations flow almost exactly as a fictional paragraph, and Saunders pulls this trick repeatedly. There’s a caveat though: some of these historical citations (not anywhere near the majority, just here and there) are made from whole cloth. In some cases they read with the cadence of fiction because they are. Also, this guy is so good at style that it took me half the book to notice the counterfeit.

The story arc is the movement from anxiety and fixation to enlightenment and acceptance for both the living and the dead. Lincoln needs to come to terms with his grief, leave his boy in his “sick-box,” and go lead a nation at war. Each ghost needs to come to terms with its own death and go on to its next life. For Lincoln, the fixation is the overwhelming, intolerable depth of loss. For each of the other 159 characters in the book, the fixations vary, but what is common is that it forces out all other aspects of their personality. The boneyard is filled with anxiety-ridden neurotics whose fixations influence their physical appearance. The man who committed suicide and deeply regrets removing himself from the sensory feast of life walks around with multiple hands, noses, eyes, etc., sprouting more and more whenever he gets excited; the man who was denied connubial bliss walks around naked with a member swollen to the size of, well, I gather it’s impressive, but you can never really tell as the only people who talk about it are rather repressed 19th century Americans. Let’s just say it appears to impede locomotion.

Oak Hill Cemetery gatehouse, where Lincoln entered the cemetery to mourn his son.
Oak Hill Cemetery, the only setting in the main narrative of the novel.

They are trapped physically (ectoplasmically?) and spiritually by these fixations, and only by making peace with them and opening themselves up to the wider experience of the universe can they move on. When they accept their own death, they pop out of existence with “the familiar, yet always bone-chilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon,” a phenomenon which terrifies those left behind. Simultaneously, Lincoln can only move on to become one of the greatest leaders of history by dealing with his loss. The living and the dead in this book must learn acceptance.

George Saunders has described literature as a “compassion-generating machine,” and he’s built a compassion-generating nuclear reactor here. As each character progresses from misery to acceptance, as their major failings are detailed, the author understands them so deeply that, at the end of their journey, admirable or asshole, enlightened or still trapped, you can’t help but love them, and by extension, love the entire human race. Saunders taps into the powerful national narrative of Lincoln-the-leader, explores his deep struggle with his son’s death, and uses that strong current to help turn the emotional millwheels for an extensive cast of screw-ups, each mini-narrative joined perfectly to the others, mutually supporting and building upon themselves and upon historical snippets, in the clear, inventive style of a master. Lincoln in the Bardo‘s clarity, weirdness, and emotional depth combine flawlessly to make it the best book of the year. Calling it now.

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

Neil Gaiman wrote a book of Norse mythology. There is perhaps no one more perfect for the job of modernizing this body of myths. The Sandman series that put him on the map is one long love letter to mythology, and American Gods, my favorite novel of his, specifically digs deep into Norse tales, exploring how deities might fit into the rough-and-tumble of today, cutting them up or down based on their merits, and watching how they navigate the world. It is fascinating. He also just loves these myths, ever since they inspired him as a child reading Marvel’s Thor comics.

georg_von_rosen_-_oden_som_vandringsman2c_1886_28odin2c_the_wanderer29

So when I heard Gaiman was dedicating time exclusively to these fragmentary stories, lovingly shaping them into a coherent book, I immediately pre-ordered it and began my months-long wait. His dark imagination, narrative deftness, and deep understanding of the perfect, powerful cadences of storytelling are wonderfully suited to this undertaking. Gaiman is steeped in the ancient tales of humanity, and his joy is reshaping them and bringing them to us. His deep respect for myth strengthens his credentials for this project, and he succeeds beautifully.

He’s not working from whole cloth here — he is restitching stories that already exist. The problem is, they exist fragmentarily, across multiple sources. The two biggest sources are The Prose Edda and The Poetic Edda. One is (surprise) prose, the other is (surprise) ancient Norse poetry. Both come from Iceland, and there’s not much because on the one hand, people who worshipped these gods didn’t write much, and on the other hand, Christianity eradicated a lot of what they did write as pagan heresy. So Gaiman takes them, makes them his own, and makes them ready for contemporary readers to absorb easily. Why should we absorb them at all? Why is Norse mythology appealing?

The first part of the answer to that question has to do with the gods themselves, Odin especially. Next to Odin, Zeus looks like a dumb, sex-crazed jock. Odin is not just strong, he is wise, he understands the power of information, and he is wily. He works for what he has and is on a constant mission to find out more information about Ragnarok, never fully giving up on stopping it. He sacrifices himself to himself to gain the knowledge of runes, and sacrifices his eye to Mimir for a drink from the well of wisdom. These two things make Odin what he is — the wisdom to lead the gods, and the power to enforce his leadership. The runes he learns are many. One rune can blunt the weapons of his enemy, another can free him from any fetters, another can put out fire consuming a hall, yet another can calm the fire in an angry man’s breast, bringing all to a peaceful conclusion. He knows a battle rune that brings courage and strength to those who follow him to war, and another that can give life to the dead. It’s not so much that he has these powers that makes him appealing, it’s that he had to earn them. Hey Neil, show us how:

[F]or knowledge of runes, and for power, he sacrificed himself to himself.

He hung from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, hung there for nine nights. His side was pierced by the point of a spear, which wounded him gravely. The winds clutched at him, buffeted his body as it hung. Nothing did he eat for nine days or nine nights, nothing did he drink. He was alone there, in pain, the light of his life slowly going out.

He was cold, in agony, and on the point of death when his sacrifice bore dark fruit: in the ecstasy of agony, he looked down, and the runes were revealed to him. He knew them, and understood them and their power. The rope broke then, and he fell, screaming, from the tree.

Now he understood magic. Now the world was his to control.

Odin has to fight to maintain everything he has, and he knows that, in the end, no matter what he does, he will lose it all in Ragnarok. The world will end, and when it resurrects, he won’t come back with it. This grimness makes these myths meatier than their Greek or Roman counterparts: underlying every single telling of every single story of the Aesir is the certain knowledge of future death.

There’s so much more to talk about than just Odin and Ragnarok. There’s Thor, who is so extraordinarily powerful but not too smart. When wearing his belt of strength and holding Mjollnir, there is very little Thor cannot destroy, but when doing anything whatsoever requiring subtlety, such as when he pretends to be a bride in order to sneak into a giant’s house, he fails. An entire ox, seven salmon, and three casks of mead disappear under the dainty bride’s veil before the giant gets suspicious. Luckily, Thor is able to just kill him with his magic hammer. Problem solved!

There’s Skidbladnir, the huge ship that always sails under a fair wind and can be folded up like a handkerchief and put in a pocket. There’s Gungnir, Odin’s spear, upon which the gods swear unbreakable vows, and which can pierce anything and will never miss. There’s Draupnir, the gold ring that, every ninth night, drops eight perfect copies of itself, thereby increasing the wealth of its owner indefinitely.

The myths of the Aesir stand on their own, but what Gaiman does for them is consolidate them, package them in a contemporary style, and add his own spice and talent to the whole. Perhaps the best thing Gaiman does is weave them together in an accessible way, where everything is clear and tied together. I’ve read some of The Poetic Edda, and great as it is, it’s full of references to other events and incomplete descriptions of people, places, and things, because the audience for those poems absorbed those stories with their mother’s milk, and millennial skalds in Iceland didn’t write for an audience almost completely ignorant of them. Gaiman organizes a collection of the best-known stories from the beginning of the world to its end and resurrection, point A to point B, with full context.

He also modernizes the language, both of the narrator and of the gods. The book loses something in this, but it’s like what a steak burrito loses by not being steak. It doesn’t mean the burrito isn’t delicious; it just isn’t steak, and it isn’t trying to be. Take for example the following descriptions of Ragnarok, the first from Gaiman’s work, the second from the Seeress’s Prophecy.

Brothers will fight brothers, fathers will kill sons. Mothers and daughters will be set against each other. Sisters will fall in battle with sisters, and will watch their children murder each other in their turn.

Brother will fight brother and be his slayer,
sister’s sons will violate the kinship-bond;
Hard it is in the world, whoredom abounds,
axe-age, sword-age, shields are cleft asunder,
wind-age, wolf-age, before the world plunges headlong;
no man will spare another.

There’s a certain heft in the words from The Poetic Edda, but I mean, if you’re not here for the kennings, Gaiman’s interpretation is great. He finds the balance between majesty and accessibility.

He also modernizes the dialogue of the gods. In the following example, Loki has just shaved Sif’s head. Sif is Thor’s wife, and, none too happy, Thor is threatening Loki:

“No!” said Loki. “I can’t put her hair back. It doesn’t work like that.”

“Today,” mused Thor, “it will probably take me about an hour to break every bone in your body. But I bet that with practice I could get it down to about fifteen minutes. It will be interesting to find out.” He started to break his first bone.

As with the Ragnarok example, this is a trade-off. On the one hand, Gaiman brings relatability to the gods. On the other, hearing gods say something as simple as “It doesn’t work like that” somehow lessens their majesty.

The majesty of the gods might suffer when they talk like you or me, but Gaiman’s understanding of the heart of storytelling, of the cadence and pacing that creates fiction, is unparalleled and more than makes up for it:

They dug a pit and built a fire of wood in the pit, and they slaughtered an ox and buried it in the bed of hot coals, and they waited for the food to be done.

They opened the pit, but the meat was still raw and bloody.

Again they lit a fire. Again they waited. Again the meat had not even been warmed by the heat of the fire.

All that’s happening here is the gods are failing to cook beef. That’s it, but the cadence here, the sentence structure and the repetition shapes the story perfectly. Read it out loud and pay attention to how it flows. It seems so simple, but it’s flawless, and demonstrates how Gaiman is not just some guy who likes Norse myths. It’s not just his talent that’s clear; his love of the stories shines through as well. It’s hard to explain the exact effect this has on the book, but all I can say is Gaiman deeply respects and loves his subject matter, and the effort this pulls from him makes the book better.

The final question you have to ask whenever an author takes the time to rewrite stories that already exist is, was it worthwhile? Should they have done it? In this case, the answer is yes. Gaiman’s retelling is straightforward and clear. The language is polished and fitted together as only a writer with decades of practice could do it. The book walks a perfect line between faithfulness to its source material and modification for a modern audience. The only possible half-criticism that even exists for it, that the book just isn’t as majestic as the poetry, is invalid. It’s like someone who orders sushi leaving a bad review on Yelp because *gasp* it was raw fish! The book is what it is, and it’s unfair to criticize anything for not being what it was never meant to be. Besides, choosing to land on the side of accessibility might be Gaiman’s best decision here. If this book inspires some kid to be the next Neil Gaiman, it will have more than justified its existence.