Weird combinations and scary dreams

“Little Nemo”, by Winsor McCay, comic strip published 1905-1926

Yep, I’m definitely craving odd-ball books these days. Here are 2 more for your consideration:

Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman (2006, 2013, NYPL e-book). Another collection of Gaiman’s writings, most of which come a là macabre. The book includes short stories (Gaiman’s take on horror, sci-fi, fantasy, fairy tale, gothic, etc. genres), a novella, an excerpt from The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a lecture, a verse or two, and a short sequel to American Gods. So, something for everyone.

Most of the contents were first published between 1990 and 2006. The lecture, “Make Good Art,” is a 2012 graduation speech he gave at the University of the Arts (Philadelphia). Easy to say, not so easy to do — but what a thrill it must have been for those students to hear Gaiman encourage them to go out and be fearless about their work. (YouTube carries some videos of the full speech.)

Gaiman’s fiction is certainly fearless: a sci-fi spoof of Sherlock Holmes; a collection of flash fiction, each of which represents a Tarot card — from a set designed for vampires; an end-of-the-world tale that reverses the first couple of pages of Genesis; a gothic story with a 16-word title that includes the phrases “forbidden brides”, “faceless slaves”, “secret house” and “dread desire”; a nearly fatal magic show; a sequel to the Narnia books (which addresses some of my complaints about Lewis’s series); and so on. Some are funny, some gruesomely violent, some just plain weird — but in a good way!

Some memorable quotes: From “A Study in Emerald”, the Holmes-like character quips, “If there’s one thing that a study of history has taught us, it is that things can always get worse.” From “The Problem of Susan,” a dream sequence that posits a new Mary Poppins book, Mary Poppins Brings in the Dawn:

She … reads the story waiting for her: Jane and Michael follow Mary Poppins on her day off, to Heaven, and they meet the boy Jesus, who is still slightly scared of Mary Poppins because she was once his nanny, and the Holy Ghost, who complains that he has not been able to get his sheet properly white since Mary Poppins left, and God the Father, who says, “There’s no making her do anything. Not her. She’s Mary Poppins.”

And, in “The Monarch of the Glen,” the funniest thing I’ve heard said or written about people from the Lone Star State: “He thought about saying something about Texans believing that Texas was actually in Texas, but he suspected that he’d have to start explaining what he meant, so he said nothing.”

Well, I warned you in my last post that this may be the Year of Gaiman for me (lobbying hard for The Graveyard Book as Witch Week 2020’s read-along!).

Not to worry. I’ll read books by other authors, such as:

The Organs of Sense, Adam Ehrlich Sachs (2019, NYPL e-book). How do you like your philosophy? Neat? With a twist? Shaken? Stirred into something bubbly and sweet? I’d say you get all of the above in this novel, about the sense of sight, but also about utter nonsense and the way philosophers can spend a lot of time and energy debating the most absurd questions.*

Sachs takes some true-to-life historical figures from the HRE, circa 1600, throws in Leibniz, who, in a brief tangential-to-his-career effort to understand the human mind, has visited a blind astronomer to wait with him for a solar eclipse this blind astronomer has predicted, thereby possibly proving the astronomer’s sanity.

Got that?

Let me tell you, Sachs’s book is so much more confusing. First of all, the long sentences (which rival Proust’s for complexity):

But there was, as [Leibniz] explained to the Philosophical Transactions, a fourth and presumably final possibility, a possibility as intriguing as it was improbable: that he would encounter up there in the snowy mountains of Bohemia a man of reason, a man of science, whose prophesied flash of darkness would actually come to pass, who in other words stared up at the sky with his empty sockets and saw somehow what no other astronomer in the world could see, foresaw with no eyes what they could not foresee with two.

That’s a bit below average, as many of Sach’s sentences go, but it gives you a hint of the flavor. Then there’s the frequent repetition. To quick-start his failing career, the astronomer’s father is inspired to create a clockwork head:

And how his father seized upon that head! ¶ All the faith he had put in the box now went into the head, right into that head. “He put all of his faith in that mechanical human head.” The few new commissions that still came in he declined. “Everything now depended on that head,” the astronomer told Leibniz.

The nesting of narratives within narratives is another challenge for the reader. (I’ve seen this in only one other author’s work, that of WG Sebald.) Here, the biggest box is the narration itself (Sachs as fictional narrator, telling us about Leibniz’s attempt to delve into someone’s mind). The next box, of course, is Leibniz’s writings, as published in Philosophical Transactions, although we rarely get direct quotes from those publications. The next box is the blind astronomer, speaking to Leibniz during the 4 hours they await the predicted eclipse. And the next box is — well, someone talking to the astronomer, perhaps reporting something that someone else had said (another box), quoting another person (a fifth box) — with Sachs neatly reminding me every few pages, that this is person X quoting person Y as she speaks to the astronomer, and Leibniz is carefully noting all this down for his own article.: “… I am quoting the Emperor here, the Court Chamberlain said, the astronomer told Leibniz.”

Arcimboldo, “The Water”, 1563-64

But let me also add that this book grabbed me from the start. During the 4 hours that Leibniz and the astronomer are together, the astronomer stops every few minutes to put a blind eye to his telescope and then jot down several number in his notebook (with a quill, no less). Leibniz notes each instance with almost the same words: “The astronomer pressed an eye socket to his telescope. Then he picked up his quill and wrote something down.” Leibniz wants to look at the notebook, to see what the astronomer has written; he longs to look through the telescope to see what the astronomer is looking at. More than anything, he wants to get inside the astronomer’s head, to understand his thoughts. And I want him to as well, so that he can write about it for Sachs’s narrator to find and tell me what Leibniz wrote.

There are lots of heads in this book — an Arcimboldo painting, a clock-work head that the astronomer’s father presents to the Holy Roman Emperor, the Emperor’s daughter’s constant headaches, doubts about various person’s sanity (their “heads”), children’s heads to be filled with knowledge — or plumbed for information.

In the end, that’s what this book is about — how can we bridge the chasm between our own heads (our thoughts) and others? how can we know — truly and without questions — what they are thinking? Leibniz takes a tiny philosophical detour away from positivism, and finds himself deep in the quagmire of making sense of the connections between our senses and our minds. And what a mess these minds are. No wonder Leibniz quickly abandons this quest and goes back to positivism. So much easier to handle.

*I’m reminded of the scene in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, when Kaspar is being interviewed by a professor. In response to the old riddle about the town of people who cannot lie and the town of people who can only lie. What’s the one question you can ask to determine which town a person is from? Kaspar thinks for a moment and then proudly answers, “I would say to him, “Are you a tree frog?”

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
This entry was posted in Am reading, Fantasy, Fiction, Gothic, Historical research, Horror, Humorous, Macabre, Science fiction, short stories and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Weird combinations and scary dreams

  1. buriedinprint says:

    That add-on to the Narnia stories sounds like fun. I might have to track down the collection just for that. Have you read Laura Miller’s book about revisiting/rereading the Narnia books as an adult? I enjoyed what she has to say about that kind of return-to-childhood-favourites and how dis/satisfying some stories can be at different times in one’s reading life. But back to Gaiman, I loved that speech about making art. Even if it is an odd combination, this collection with the philosophy book, I read that way myself, mixing everything up – I love it.

    Liked by 1 person

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