Delayed gratification is the flip side of procrastination. The anticipation stirred up by putting off something enjoyable can be almost as satisfying as the experience of the thing itself. Eating an ice cream sundae slowly, or waiting until Christmas morning to open your presents, even when you know where they are, make the end result—the sundae relished, the presents opened—more special. Anyone who loves to read will be familiar with the process of trying to make a short book last as long as it possibly can, even though the urge to binge-read it may be overpowering.
I am not the only one who felt this way about Neil Gaiman’s newest book. Unlike some of his other novels—American Gods is a weighty thousand-plus pages, and his other adult-oriented novels are no shorter than three-hundred or so—The Ocean at the End of the Lane comes in at just over two-hundred pages.
But let’s rewind. Before getting to the point at which I could read the book as slowly as possible, I first had to get my hands on it. The task proved to be harder than I had expected, but the journey prepared me for reading this book in ways that I never thought I needed.
I should add that I am not a spiritual person. But books have a way of enchanting me, enhancing me, causing me to grow starry-eyed and lightheaded. And while I don’t believe in the supernatural, I believe in people, in the power of their minds, and in the importance of stories.
When The Ocean at the End of the Lane first came out, I was in the UK. Even though Neil Gaiman is English, it was coming out in the United States first. Maybe the publishers had the same idea of delayed gratification in mind. More likely it was some obscure business decision. It struck me as strange because not only was Gaiman raised in Sussex County, but that is also where the novel is set. I have found out since, by an odd coincidence that had me working with his agent, who by another odd coincidence shares my alma mater, that since she’s based in NYC, Gaiman is often published in the US first.
The framing device that Gaiman uses to tell the story of a man’s memories of his boyhood in a small town is a particularly poignant one. Coming home for a funeral, the man—unnamed—encounters Mrs. Hempstock, a woman he remembers as the neighbor down the road from his own childhood home. She leads him to the pond behind her house, at the end of the lane, and he sits and rests on the bench beside it. The events of the story unspool while he sits in reverie for hours by this pond.
The story is narrated by the grown man, with all the gravity of the man’s voice, but it is also a reflection of a boy left behind, the boy he once was, whose memories he must struggle to reignite.
When I flew home to Israel from the UK, I still had no idea how much I’d come to appreciate that act of remembering. Having lived straddled between two worlds—I was born in the US and live here now but grew up in Israel—the idea of home has been as difficult for me as it is for the unnamed narrator of Gaiman’s book. Gaiman has admitted that this novel has brought him closest to overtly blending autobiographical details with his fiction, and as a longtime fan reading interviews with him, I couldn’t wait to find out and extrapolate more about his life.
I say I couldn’t wait, and that’s true, but I was also infinitely patient. It’s that delayed gratification thing. I’m a sucker for it, and there are books that are worth the wait. Besides, it wasn’t as if I didn’t have other things to read. Little did I know that the books that I would read that summer—starting in Israel and ending in Saratoga Springs, New York, where the only place to buy books is an old and wonderful used bookstore—were to be, each in its own way, a preparation for my eventual reading of The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
The first book I devoured that summer was Ramona Ausubal‘s A Guide to Being Born, a book of short stories. Her stories, filled with elements of the fantastical paired with sharp heartfelt pain, verging on magical realism and something less definable, renewed my acceptance of the uncategorizable.
I read Stephen King’s The Shining—having never seen the film—and began to think about the way people translate their inner demons into the world around us. The metaphorical use of the supernatural in King’s book to convey addiction shows how complete those manifestations can be. Metaphor overcomes reality, swallows it up, and takes over, until it has wrested control away from us.
I began to read Madame Bovary, which slapped me into shape with its crisp, clean realism. The idea of infidelity lodged in my brain and turned out to be useful later on.
At Skidmore, where I was attending the New York State Summer Writers Institute, I was exposed to more books and conversations that prepared me for my eventual, long-awaited reading of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I started Amy Hempel’s Collected Short Stories and fell in love with its permutations of the truth. The stories revealed the quirky insides of our heads, the way we interpret and choose to think about events. I listened to marvelous poets such as Mark Strand and Chase Twichell reading witty, serious and sob-worthy poems, and I was reminded that poetry is something that even I, with my inability to write it, can read.
In early August, having moved into a new apartment far from any and all bookstores, I took a train into New York City to meet a friend. As we approached a small Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue, I only needed to say “Do you want—” before she responded with a resounding “Yes.” We went in.
Neil Gaiman has said that writing The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a long and sometimes painful process. He first thought up the Hempstock family when he was nine years old, roughly the age of his protagonist. Though members of the Hempstock family—always female—have showed up in his other books, they hadn’t featured as main characters until this one. Gaiman said he began writing for his wife, singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, who is often away on tour. He didn’t plan the plot; he allowed it to figure itself out all on its own.
I could have ordered the book at any time during this long waiting period. I was in Israel just long enough to be able to get a book if I’d ordered it and, for the US, Amazon has a two-day shipping option. But I didn’t do it. Thinking about this now, it seems fitting. I was letting the book, like Gaiman’s plot, figure out its own way to me. Even in the store on Fifth Avenue, I couldn’t find it on my own.
“The Ocean at the End of the Lane?” I upspoke to the clerk behind the information desk. The clerk was absolutely silent. I remember that his lips were thin and surrounded by deep, careworn lines. His black hair was thin and receding, and he was shorter than me. He raised his eyebrows, lifted a finger, and crooked it. I followed him to the aisle dedicated to best-sellers, where the bottom two shelves were full of copies of the same book with a dark blue and grey cover. He picked one up, nodded at me, still not speaking, and left.
This man who delivered the book to me has become, in my mind, a strangely mythical creature. I almost believe that he wasn’t there an hour before I arrived and melted into thin air an hour after. Bearer of the book, his silence seemed to be calculated so as to keep our interaction untarnished by the empty chatter we are so accustomed to in our daily lives, and of which Neil Gaiman’s book has absolutely none. I took the copy that he put into my hands and brought it to the register. It felt like a homecoming.
During those few months—my waiting time—I had been noticing beautiful sentences on my Tumblr dashboard. These quotes from The Ocean at the End of the Lane, regarding the love of books and the escape that reading provides, convinced me that I had nothing to be nervous of; I was going to love it. One of the commonly reblogged quotes was: “I went away in my head, into a book. That was where I went whenever real life was too hard or too inflexible.” Another was: “I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.” These words sparked my bookish veins and made the back of my throat warm in a satisfied, secure way.
Gaiman has been one of my favorite authors since I first read him, but in this book, once I cracked open its cover and began to read it on my train ride back from New York City, I discovered that he had created a character so extraordinarily true that the floodgates of my empathy burst. I was thinking and feeling for the unnamed narrator even when I wasn’t reading his words. Because the book was so short, I made myself slow down so as not to finish it too quickly. I couldn’t bear to leave the child-adult’s head.
Many who read it see in The Ocean at the End of the Lane a beautiful fantasy story. If we have to pigeonhole it, which I’d rather not, it would be placed, along with Gaiman’s other books, in the fantasy rather than the literary genre.
But I read it as the story of a terribly lonely, hurt and intelligent child expressing his way of handling a world that he isn’t quite right for and hasn’t yet found a place in. It is a story of escaping one’s upbringing, of guilt, of terror, and of the way these things haunt us for the rest of our lives. It is the story of an artist who will forever live with the burden of feeling crazy, in more ways than one, and of his memories of a time in childhood when there was a place that accepted and loved him, both despite and because of his madness. It is a story of how much it hurts to understand that one’s family isn’t the place where one finds acceptance. In other words, though I don’t deny the magical elements that make up much of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I found them far more transparently allegorical than in any of Gaiman’s other books.
They have always been at least partially allegorical or metaphorical. In Neverwhere, the secret world of the London Underground belongs to those homeless and abandoned people that society refuses to see anymore and who have a rich, though dangerous, culture that excludes the staid normality above. In Coraline, only the neglected child can cross the mirror to the other part of the house, and it is she who ends up being able to save her parents, whom she loves despite their neglect, from the creepy, mothering, button-eyed villain. In American Gods, that masterpiece of epic and well-researched urban fantasy, the gods of yore still exist, immigrants to a country founded by immigrants, and they battle for power with the newer gods of capitalism that have apparently taken over our greedy little lives. And yet, in none of these books does the magic feel anything other than real. It is necessary to those worlds, not a gimmick. The interweaving of magic and metaphor is seamless, and never heavy-handed.
In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, though, Gaiman appears to have done something different. The incredibly personal “I” gave me pause, as did the set-up of the story as a memory being pulled up quietly out of a pond that is also an ocean. Here, I did not see magic as something to be taken for granted, even though the child, our narrator, does. He remembers the events that changed his life in a few short days as a child of seven, but the reader must be more careful. I am not seven years old, and it is not my place to travel trustingly along with a child’s beliefs. My place as the reader is with the older I, the framing I dressed in funeral black, who sits by the ocean-pond and remembers the seven-year-old.
The book feels like a confession. I was being told that magic is an escape. Just like reading, which is an escape for anyone who loves books, magic and the fantastical are ways to approach the pain of childhood memories without being burned by them. As one of the Hecate-like women of the Hempstock family points out toward the end of the novel, no two people remember things the same way. There are parts of our lives that will seem magic to us all, always.
Let me be clearer. Things can be true and untrue at the same time, just as two things of opposing nature can be true at the same time. In Gaiman’s work, the pond is an ocean but it is also just a pond. The Hempstocks are women who live down the road from the child-narrator, but they are also the crone and the mother and the maiden as well as a thousand other myths. The narrator witnessed magic and fantastical elements of cloth and flapping nothingness as a child, but he also—and this, to me, is the heartbreaking truth—experienced a traumatic event: the first friend he ever had died, and he believed it to be his fault. The line where reality ends and fantasy begins is blurred, as it always is in memory. The narrator, who becomes an artist as he grows older, comes back to the pond that is also an ocean to remember things. To see if he is strong enough to. To find memories worthy of being dredged up from the deep. His guilt and repressed recollections—or, if you take the magic for truth, the recollections that were memories that were stripped away by magical touch—bring him back to the pond, time after time.
I will read this book again and probably see something different in it. Every few years, when I pick it up, I will notice nuances that I hadn’t seen before. It is the most complex and “grown-up” book that Gaiman has written. It reminds me of Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince. Both books deal with the poignancy of childhood, the loneliness of adulthood, and the weight of grief. Both have a grownup narrator remembering a time in his past when he found acceptance and love. And both books creatively deal with creativity itself, that indescribable thing that brings to life a child-like liveliness in the most cynical and world-weary among us.