18 March 2009

Mysteries and Secrets

Neil Gaiman is an incredible treasure of storytelling, whom I can appreciate largely due to the years-ago efforts of Expatriate Dave to make me experience as much of Mr. Gaiman's work as possible. Since that time (around age 17, this was) I have consumed every iota of his work that I could, and his work includes comics, other literature, movies, a daily 'blog and numerous odds and ends besides. If you don't know his work, you should, even if you don't consider yourself a fan of fantastical fiction. He has very good ideas, and he steals awfully well. By which I mean that one of the things I love about his work is the way he can tie together disparate old ideas and stories with new ones and make something appreciably unique. This could be considered a decent description of what any artist endeavors to do. Neil Gaiman is an artist.

I decided to write about him today because I have noticed many disparate ideas and stories coming together for me lately that point his way. In brief:

  • I'm reading a book about him I received for Christmas.

  • He was just on "The Colbert Report," which I stayed up to see (WAY past night-before-open-call bedtime).

  • He just made Wife Megan's esteemed list of Famous People With Whom She Would Like to Have a Conversation.

  • I've been enjoying the fiction-writing process of late, especially with Friend WHftTS.

  • Expatriate Younce actually confessed some writerly desires to me the other night -- a victory for the cause of Fiction, I assure you.

  • He recently experienced a personal loss that makes me wish I could do something for him, as he's done so much for me.
I had an opportunity to share a word or two with Neil Gaiman a few years back, when he was in town signing copies of his short-story collection, Fragile Things. He was interviewed by John Hodgman, which was hilarious and insightful, and then took a seat at the back of the room to sign hundreds upon hundreds of signatures. I waited my turn in line with my and Megan's books, and I thought about things. I had a signed copy of his novel Stardust that I had won in a costume contest back in my home town, and it seemed unbelievable that I was going to watch him sign a book from my very hand. I wondered what I would say, and suddenly the whole thing felt eerily familiar. Looking back, I realize the panic I felt was the exact same feeling I have waiting for an open call. Suffice it to say, I thought of a million things I could say. When I got to the table, I squeaked. Something. I don't know. I think I've since blocked it out. But I know it was squeaky, whatever it was.

The Zen Buddhists believe that the elimination of desire is a key to enlightenment. When I want something as much as to be cast off-Broadway, or to get into a discussion about mythology with Neil Gaiman, I can see their point. It can be crippling.

Mythology, as a concept, is a very interesting way of looking at our lives. Obviously I would say so -- see name o'blog -- but a few thousand years' worth of actual mythology may be said to back me up on this as well. I used to think of mythology on the whole (and prepare for more sweeping generalizations here) as a way of devising answers to difficult questions. I was taught that these stories came about because primitive peoples needed an answer to things like lightning storms, death and babies. I won't argue against that theory, but it is only one theory. The more I learn about them, the more I see the enduring mythologies as stories and beliefs that return people to essential questions, rather than direct answers. Moreover, I see mythology not as giving us guidelines or neat morals for our living, providing context, so much as it changes our story. Stories influence other stories, and one person's life can be said to be a (hopefully) long, largely sequential story. What I realized while standing in that line was that Gaiman's stories had profoundly affected my life, my story. In fact, just at that moment, it seemed entirely likely that his stories had had the most influence on mine, out of all of them. Thus: Squeak.

I don't know if myth and mystery have any relation, etymologically speaking, but I find them to be very closely related. Brothers, almost. In his famous Sandman graphic novels, Gaiman resurrected DC Comics' versions of Cain and Abel as the keepers of mysteries and secrets, respectively. According to that particular mythology, a mystery is a mystery because it was meant to be shared, a secret a secret because it ought to be forgotten . . . if it can be. Mythology, fiction, stories, they all confront unanswerable questions in one way or another, and it's by sharing them that we fulfill their functions. So I hope you'll share in some of Gaiman's, because it's no secret that they're uncommonly good.


kara said...

You're starting to sound like a Gnostic dear Jeffrey :)

Nicole said...

I must agree with Sandman- quite enjoyable not only for entertainment value- but it's so intriguing... Conceptual stimulation.
I'll have to broaden the boundaries and read more of Gaiman now- thank you.

Jeff Wills said...

Kara: Gaiman may be the demiurge of my adult fantasy life.

Nic-coley-oleyo: You said it. His novel "American Gods" may as well be a follow-up piece on the ideas about faith and pantheons he outlined in Sandman. Highly recommended.

Patrick said...

Just read Meggie's letter to Gaiman, so he's much on my mind as well. Brian got me hooked, and it's one of the best things he ever did for me. I think he and Joss Whedon are two artists I wish to emulate; interesting to note they're both writers. I do envy the autonomy and freedom of that life in many ways.

My word verification: unkeread. Don't know why that seems appropriate, but it does.

Jeff Wills said...

I love the Joss too, I must confess. I feel completely unkeread when it comes to Serenity!

kara said...

Patrick and Jeff: www.drhorrible.com

seriously, its genius. Watch the commentary too, I usually hate those but it's completely worth it. The musical blog is free on hulu, might have to purchase the commentary though...

Jeff Wills said...

Know it and love it well. Thanks Kara!