Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My thoughts: The Ocean at the End of the Lane [spoilers]

I'm going to try and articulate how much I loved The Ocean at the End of the Lane without too much gushing. I will fail. It was...sublime. It was the best reading experience I've had in kind of a long time. In a slim, 180-page volume whose lightness both belied and drove home the weight of its words, I found myself completely engrossed. This book is just like Lettie's ocean--it's only a duckpond, but it's revealed to be vast.

As you might know, I was in Portland, Oregon, this past weekend to take part in the Hood to Coast Relay (recap here--link coming soon). The morning before our 2:45 p.m. team start time, one of my teammates and I took the Max into downtown Portland to visit Powell's City of Books (which, by the way, is the best place ever. We only spent about 20 minutes there, and I could have done with about 20 HOURS).

I saw Ocean on the featured shelf and after touching it, I couldn't let it go. It is such a pretty, compact little hardcover. And the dust jacket feels good. I had it on hold at the library and was planning on buying it in paperback, but, well, things happen. After an exciting and fun-filled weekend of running down mountains and along beautiful city- and landscapes, dozing in awkward positions, and a running-style puke and rally, I finally found myself on a plane home. At last, I dug out my new book, which is great, not least because I can read during takeoff and landing.

I don't know about anyone else, but I have trouble concentrating on reading while traveling. I might read a page or two and then look at the window for a while or doze off. In a two-hour plane ride, I would normally read maybe 20 to 30 pages. But I couldn't put Ocean down. I had a two-hour flight to Denver, a layover there which consisted of a breakneck sprint from Concourse A to Concourse C in less than 10 minutes, and then another two-hour flight to Indianapolis. By the time the plane landed in Indy, I was at page 140 and actually wanted the flight to last longer so I could finish. As it was, I finished in one more sitting that evening.

I thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed how much is running below the surface here. It's a deceptively simple plot, but so much is suggested--one is certain that deep currents are swirling that can't be made out. This book just lends itself to water metaphors, doesn't it? I think what struck me most was how easily different interpretations and readings I can apply, and how none of these are "right," but none are "wrong." One can't quite be sure, but it's an enjoyable feeling. Ocean isn't a safe book with everything laid out for you and a nice pat ending, but it is deft and knowing.

I will now ramble for a very long time about what the book made me think about. I want other people to read this so I can discuss it with them.

The thread that I keep coming back to is the duality between the mundane and the fantastic. We have an unreliable narrator, an unnamed man whose memories ebb and flood like the tide, who clearly has some trouble connecting with others and seems most comfortable in his own mind. The first thing we find out is that he's been to a funeral earlier in the day, and now he is compelled to seek out the past at an old farmhouse at the end of the lane where he grew up. It seems normal and sad, and then he meets an old lady who is the same as he remembers from forty years ago, our first infusion of the fantastic. But since his memory is unreliable, already we don't quite know what to make of this.

The man sits by the duck pond out back and remembers his own story as a seven-year-old boy. He's an intensely introverted young boy, and when no one comes to his seventh birthday party, he doesn't seem to be terribly upset. He received books as gifts, after all, and he's perfectly content to go off on his own and read them. As events unfold, I experienced two possible storylines at the same time. The first was to take the fantasy of the events at face value. Yes, he traveled to another world with an immortal eleven-year-old girl and confronted a monster, who hitched a ride back to our world with him and manifested as an evil nanny.

Children can sense and see things that adults can't--or won't. That's a common thread in fantasy and in Neil Gaiman's work. There's also the epigraph, a Maurice Sendak quote, "I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things. But I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them." So you can go into this book thinking a little about Where the Wild Things Are and Outside Over There and you wonder if the unnamed boy is only one who can truly see what's going on. Is it his imagination, or is the mundane world that adults see just what they expect to see, an illusion?

Now, I almost always take fantasy stories at face value because, well, fantasy. But something about this man's shifting memories and the boy's introversion caused me to treat this story a little differently. I found myself thinking how the boy's imagination might be conjuring this entire story up. He's a very young boy and he experiences some very traumatic things--the lost of a beloved pet, the suicide of a lodger, a new nanny who emotionally abuses him, his father's affair, and a terrible fight with his father topped off by physical abuse (I can't decide whether that bathtub scene was real or an "imagining," and I think that was the point).

The story can make sense as a way to explain and repress these awful memories. Triggered by the arrival of the lodger, who soon kills himself, he meets a new friend, and while playing with her, it's easy to imagine that they stumble upon a rotting piece of canvas-covered wood frame in the woods. Maybe it's a windy day and the canvas is flapping loosely. Perhaps he steps on a nail.

I don't mean to try and pin the story down. That's just what I was thinking while I read, and I was really interested in how these dual readings made sense and intertwined. I like the idea that while what the boy is seeing might not be real to the adults, it's no less dangerous.

Another way to read this that I found interesting was to examine the women in the story, especially the Hempstock women. It seems certain that Gaiman meant to evoke the Maiden/Mother/Crone cycle, a representation of female life and the phases of the moon. There is a lot of great moon imagery to support this, and of course the fact that all three women are apparently immortal. Sometimes the Maiden, Mother, and Crone are seen as separate, and sometimes as aspects of a single deity. Lettie, Ginnie, and Mrs. Hempstock appear as three separate characters, but they also can seem like a unified force. They often reminded me a little bit of the beloved Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which from A Wrinkle in Time.

Women are power in Ocean. The Hempstock women are portrayed as solidly good--nurturing, friendly, helpful, eternal, powerful, wise, no-nonsense. Ursula is a little more complex--it's not quite clear if she's simply evil, a malevolent presence that wants to cause pain, or misguided--something that has responded to the dead opal miner's desperate last thoughts and actually wants to help people in a fumbling and inept way. But she is undeniably powerful. She effortlessly takes control of the boy's family and manipulates events all around her in subtle and frightening ways. Getting rid of her is difficult, and the solution to her is even worse than she is.

In fact, with the exception of the boy himself, all of the effectual characters are female, though not all female characters are necessarily powerful--only the supernatural ones. The adult male characters are weak and with their weakness, cause problems. The opal miner gives in to a compulsion to gamble and later gives up on life completely. The boy's father can't understand his son and remains distant, then becomes easy prey to Ursula.

As for the boy, one would think he would be the weakest of all--he's young, shy, frightened--but with the support of the Hempstock women he gains power throughout the story. He dispassionately removes the worm from his foot (a truly riveting scene) and later summons the courage to escape from the house. Later, he resists the temptations offered by the hunger birds while taking refuge in the fairy ring, and finally, makes the conscious decision to sacrifice himself to save his family and the world he knows.

This last takes place after Lettie rescues him by allowing him into her ocean. I found that to be a powerful metaphor of a young man being initiated by a young woman into knowledge and mysteries. Not sex, necessarily (he's only seven!), but in a more symbolic sense of growing up and maturing.

It's very soon after he's enfolded in the waters of the ocean (and after Lettie saves him again) that he begins to forget everything. By the time he returns home, everything back to normal, he thinks that he has been at Lettie's going away party, and that she has gone to Australia.

When he returns, more than once, as a man, Lettie is still not back. He's promised she will be, one day. And to me this seemed to bring things back to his relationship with his father. I think of the little bit of the worm left behind in his heart, described like a chip of ice (which calls to mind the Snow Queen fairy tale). I also think about the fact that the man is never named, and that the funeral he has been to is almost certainly that of his father. He thinks of how he and his father did not become friends until after he became an adult. And Old Mrs. Hempstock tells him that he's healing. With all this, I wonder if he is only now coming to terms with something very terrible that happened with his father as a child, something that they both have felt guilty and terrible about. Perhaps it's exactly what was described (the chilling bathtub scene). Perhaps it's something even worse, or something different. Perhaps it's just the inability of father and son to understand each other.

It seems likely this experience has affected his entire life. He describes how his own relationships have frayed: a divorced wife, children with their own separate lives. He says right out that he has distant ways that he suspects his family will understand, especially this time. Perhaps one day he will be able to...what? Forgive? Let go? Embrace? Come to terms with something? Was it only possible after his father has gone? Then maybe Lettie will come back and he'll rediscover something childlike in himself again that will allow him to trust and connect with other people a little more.

That train of thought is both terribly sad and a little hopeful. The overall tone of the story to me was bittersweet--childhood not necessarily portrayed as a golden, wonderful time, but as filled with both terror and possibility.
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