I just finished reading (well, listening to the audiobook, which was fantastic) Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I really liked it, overall. Goodreads automatically generated a tweet that I had finished it, as per usual, but unlike the usual going unnoticed, this one actually sparked a bit of conversation with one of my friends.
I know that Neil Gaiman has, like, tons of fangirls and fanboys. I’m not one, not because I don’t think he’s talented, but just because I haven’t read a lot of his work. Whenever it was that Coraline the book came out, I heard about it and needed to read it because it reminded me a lot of a recurring nightmare I had as a kid. Then the Stardust movie was coming out, so I got interested and read the book. And that’s it. Maybe some short stories. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him, just that I hadn’t gotten around to reading the rest of his books. But we bought The Ocean at the End of the Lane this year at work, and a lot of my most trusted student book recommenders loved it, so when I saw it while scanning the audiobooks at the public library, I figured I’d give it a try.
So yeah, I can see the point that this book is a sort of Coraline for adults, and that’s maybe a bit weak. It’s also understandable, since even the most creative of us would tend to have a driving inspiration or interest that would crop up a lot. I liked Coraline and enjoyed this book, a lot more than Stardust, which was fine but just not all that compelling for me and what I like to grapple with in books. The former two are really about childhood in a lot of ways, and the conception of what it means to be a child is fascinating to me, especially when you can compare one author’s perspective and how he approaches it for child readers and how he approaches it for adults. (I will qualify this statement to say that I am slightly uncomfortable with making it, as I think the best creators believe you should just write a work and later find out who it’s best marketed to, and also, I really hate colonizing children and attempting to tell them what childhood is, but it’s a necessary evil when analyzing stuff, so I’ll go on.)
One of the things that did it for me in this book – and Coraline, if I look back a bit, is that Gaiman seems entirely comfortable implying that being a child is awful, and that resonates with me. I hated being a kid. That’s not the same thing as having a bad childhood, which I should have said better on Twitter. But it really sucks to be a kid. I am a firm believer that everyone has a general age in which they settle into, kind of like how you have a body shape and weight that you tend to hover around, and for me, that’s my midtwenties, now. There is nothing between the ages of 10 and 22 that I remember fondly, I mean in terms of feeling like myself. Again, I did not have a joyless childhood; I had friends, I had fun, etc, but it was not an overall happy or even comfortable time. My entire life I was planning for when I would live in a city by myself, in an apartment by myself, and have my own schedule, my own projects, my own lifestyle. Being a child meant having people tell me how to define myself, meant not ever doing things right, meant not ever being socially adroit, meant obsessively wanting to follow the rules but not actually liking or respecting the adults that made them most of the time. Being a teenager meant having people tell me how great it was to be me, how awesome college would be for me, how who I was would get me ahead in life, but not actually having any opportunities or evidence that that was true. It was awful.
Obviously childhood is inevitable, and adult guidance and overseeing is necessary, but that doesn’t make it suck less. Adults are awful to children, even if they mean well, even if they do actually respect kids, even if they love them. I know this because I experienced it as a kid (as did you, and everyone else), and I know it because no matter how much I actively try not to be the kind of adult that defines or controls childhood, it is mostly inevitable when you are one. That’s just the way we work. We can only try to modify or be aware of what we’re doing. It’s the people who aren’t aware of this, who think that “innocence” is a real thing (it’s not, except in the judicial system), who do the real damage to children by assuming they aren’t capable or that they aren’t responsible or that their feelings aren’t real or that their experiences are invalid. Children aren’t adorable and cheek-squeezy and in need of protection. They’re just people trying to live, like the rest of us. But also we need to feed them and remind them to turn the bathwater off, because they’ve lived less long and have less in the way of routine and memory to draw on when they’re doing their ideally-semi-autonomous life-living.
Anyway, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Coraline are both fantastic at being on the child’s side of the fight, if you will. Both of the protagonists, the unnamed little boy in the former and Coraline in the latter, are disregarded, ignored, or misunderstood by the adults in their lives, even though, as we should know, they are pretty much always right. That’s the thing about stories like this, right? Villains target children (in real life and in literary tropes) because they know children are extra vulnerable (again, gatekeepers, this is not because they are “innocent” but precisely because we define them as such anyway, and also, again, because they just have less experience, less physical power, and less social power to protect and defend themselves) and that they won’t be believed. The thing in Ocean bullies the little boy because she knows he can’t convince anyone else it’s happening. That’s how bullying works. You guys, adults are probably the biggest bullies of children, and magic realism like this allows us to transfer it to a supernatural being so we can see how it works. And also so we as adults can feel less guilty and complicit.
I think both of these books are incredibly valuable because they validate that experience, and in the meantime they tell a damn good story.