Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

"Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren't."

In an attempt to better understand the entertainment shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit my latest review of books impacting a YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at how the story reflects and shapes the readers' worldview. 

This review will look at The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the latest from best-selling author Neil Gaiman. The film rights were optioned even before the book's publication date, with no less a name than Tom Hanks attached to the project.

When the unnamed narrator was a child, a monster began to haunt his town when someone with an unfortunate request released it from its prison:
"Something came to me and pleaded for love and help. It told me how I could make all the things like it happy. That they are simple creatures, and all any of them want is money, just money, and nothing more..." 
But, as Chesterton said, happiness is a hard taskmaster, and there is always something more. When the narrator wakes up with a coin in his throat, he goes to the family of Lettie, a mysteriously ancient girl who claims the pond in her backyard is an ocean. Lettie allows the narrator to accompany when she binds the creature provided he does not let go of her hand. He lets go, of course, and becomes the conduit through which the monster can now readily access the world. That's not good. As Ginnie Hempstock notes, "It's a dangerous thing to be a door."

This being takes on human form and moves into the narrator's house disguised as a nanny named Ursula Monkton. She quickly ensnares his father, body and soul. How suddenly the search for happiness moves from things to people; how quickly the narrator's father shows that the undisciplined pursuit of pleasure will "get a man’s soul and give him nothing in return."

At one point, the narrator notes:
"Small children believe themselves to be gods, or some of them do, and they can only be satisfied when the rest of the world goes along with their way of seeing things... I do not actually remember being a monster. I just remember wanting my own way." 
He is referring to himself, but this clearly describes both Ursula and his father. This is, perhaps, the essence of being a monster: an all-consuming desire to want your own way.  The young narrator helplessly watches as his father slips away from him and into the arms of a woman other than his mother. "I want to talk with my dad," he begs Ursula, but without hope. Though a child, he realizes that his father's affair with Ursula has changed everything.
"My parents were a unit, inviolate. The future had suddenly become unknowable: anything could happen: the train of my life had jumped the rails and headed o across the fields..."
This dilemma is ubiquitous in today's stories. If there was ever a question of whether or not the breakdown of families impacts children, let the literature that speaks for them make the case. When Lettie shows up to banish Ursula, the broken-hearted son gives Ursula the only justification that Lettie needs: "You made my daddy hurt me." 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane lingers with me. There is something here that taps into our deepest hopes and fears. At the heart of Gaiman's mythic world a conflict rages between destruction and creation, between hope and fear, between the rapidly receding innocence of childhood and the encroaching reality of life. At one point the monster mocks him:
"How can you be so happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow. There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and you life, until you close your eyes for the final time..."
Is this not one of the deepest fears we have? That the simplicity, wonder and love of life will leave us, and nothing will ever fill the void? Some refer to it as angst; I prefer what Pascal wrote in Pensees:
"What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."
Part of our universal human experience is a sense that something is missing, even in the midst of the pursuit of happiness. Our hearts are restless. Fortunately, the narrator realizes that there is more to life than emptiness and destruction. When he hears Lettie's family speak ancient words of life and power as they fight against the encroaching void that seeks to annihilate him, he knows there is an answer:
"In my dreams I spoke that language too, the first language.. nothing said in that language can be a lie... Once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed and breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, 'Be whole,' and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer..."
Ah, yes. That is indeed the answer. If only someone had the power to bring beauty from despair, to heal broken bodies and souls. It's the greatest hope that counters our bleakest despair. It's a story that never gets old.

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