The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: A half-remembered fairy tale from childhood

A book that feels like it’s made up of offcuts and dreams.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman
Headline, 256pp, £16.99

Neil Gaiman made his name with The Sandman, a sprawling comic book series released over the course of seven years from 1989 to 1996, which starred Morpheus, the embodiment of dreams (and imagination and art and invention – it was a broad remit).

So wide-ranging was The Sandman, wheeling from a game of thrones in Hell in one book to a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in another, that Gaiman has been touching on its themes ever since, perhaps attempting to reach those highs again. Neverwhere (1996) is an adventure through a world parallel to our own; American Gods (2001) explores the relationship of deities to their believers and asks what happens to a god who no one remembers; Coraline (2002) warns that we might not always want what we wish for. In tone and temperament, “Gaimanesque” is well defined.

In recent years, Gaiman has shifted from genre fiction for adults towards work for children and young adults. Coraline was his first volley and The Graveyard Book, a spin on The Jungle Book, came a few years later to great acclaim. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is thus heralded as Gaiman’s return to adult fiction but it bears more of a similarity to Coraline than his other novels. Both books feature a child plunged into a world of magic, where they must adhere to sets of rules they can never quite comprehend while enduring a subversion of expectations of parental responsibility.

Coraline tells the story from a child’s perspective but in Ocean it is recounted by the protagonist some 30 years later, as he returns to his childhood home for a funeral. The story isn’t filtered through the sensibilities of a child – the narrator occasionally comments on his naivety –but the plot can adopt the sort of logic that works best with a young protagonist: the ability to take odd occurrences as perfectly natural, while asking the sort of questions that might seem mad coming from an adult. It’s a smart way for Gaiman to have his cake and eat it.

Some of the plot is drawn from traditional myths of fairies and strange places – there’s a power in true names, don’t let go of your guide, keep an eye out for the maiden, the mother and the crone – but other parts are new inventions, deftly folded into the fabric of the story so that they feel older than they are. As this process is gradually revealed, the narrative begins to feel rather more episodic than it ought to. At several points, an end appears to be close, before a new quirk in the magic is introduced and the problems begin all over again.

At the start of the novel, a gathering of not-quite-witches reveal a spell that can splice a memory out of existence. Take someone’s clothing, give it a snip here, a stitch there and you can change their past. Ocean could have been made through the same process.

Gaiman has written a book that reads like a half-remembered fairy tale from childhood. It has the easy flow of a story already heard, deeply known, and slots perfectly into the canon of British magical fiction. But it also feels like it’s made up of offcuts and dreams. For a book that plays so constantly with memory, perhaps that’s appropriate.

Alex Hern is a staff writer for Newstatesman.com

Out of the blue: Gaiman writes of myths and magic. Photograph: Millenium Images, UK

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

Getty
Show Hide image

Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories