I’ve never really done more than get my feet slightly wet in the sea that is the Neil Gaiman phenomenon, having once read American Gods a while back; it didn’t leave much of an impression on me then. Now that I’ve had the chance to read Neverwhere, I’m still not yet quite sold on his widespread appeal.
That’s not to say that Neverwhere is a bad book. It’s short and moves along at a brisk pace, a good length for an authorial debut. It’s a self-contained story, a nicely-bound narrative package, with a coherent beginning, middle and end (a breath of fresh air after 1Q84). Its strongest quality is its imaginativeness, an evocative sketch of a London hidden from view, a shadow culture that inhabits its forgotten spaces, vast, gnarly and ancient. Eldritch horrors that lurk in the tunnels of the Underground, vast labyrinths within the centuries-old sewers, and markets that never stay in the same place. Places whose natures reveal the ancient and unexpected double meanings behind their names – Knightsbridge, a bridge cloaked in a darkness that torments those who cross it with nightmares from which they may never return, or Blackfriars, housing a community of monks in black robes, et cetera.
Gaiman has some fun drawing out the comedic potential of these names, through the use of his narrative avatar, Richard Mayhew, an initially hapless denizen of London Above who gets dragged into the novel’s main conflict, when he finds and helps an injured girl from the other London. Mayhew is a convenient plot device by which to introduce Gaiman’s vision of London Below, and his incredulity at his new surroundings is an easily-exploitable source of dark humor. There is a palpable sense of ‘lived-in-ness’ in the depiction of London Below, a place that has gone on long before Mayhew entered the scene and will go on long after he has left. Indeed, the concept on London Below is the novel’s chief strength and a good indicator of Gaiman’s early imaginative chops.
However, Neverwhere betrays its status as a first-time attempt in the way it fumbles through plot, prose and dialogue. Plot-wise, the novel is unremarkable; a boilerplate fantasy tome that sketches out a very ordinary heroes’ journey for Richard Mayhew. The narrative relies on plot armor to protect Mayhew throughout the novel – he undergoes trials that he would, as an ordinary person, have no expectation of passing, and the novel never explains precisely why or how he manages to do so – like surviving the Black Friars’ ordeal when so many before him had failed, killing the boar of the London labyrinth. Some might attribute it to a wish to show that normal people like Mayhew can overcome adversity if their intentions are pure, but this strikes me as a little trite and unrealistic. The climax and denouement is cliched supervillain-reveals-his-evil-plan stuff, and is undone by his own hubris and the quick-thinking of the plucky heroes. At the end of his hero’s journey, Mayhew finds himself back in the normal world, but he is a transformed man, and no longer sees value in the accoutrements of his old life to which he so aspired before, and goes back to London Below – a little bit of a twee ending, if you ask me.
There are also a few silly plot-holes that are hand-waved away without much explanation. The Black Friars hand the key to the prison of the big baddie to the protagonists even when they know it’s a trap, dismissing it as “not being their responsibility” to inform the heroes of the true nature of things. Then there’s also the question of why Door made the imitation key – was she so paranoid? Anyway, the villain’s plot was overly intricate and there was no reason why Islington couldn’t just have not revealed Croup and Vandemar until after Door had opened the door. This is decidedly the too-complicated-for-its-own-good plot macguffin.
Other than the plot, Gaiman also has a tendency to be a little too enthusiastic in his cleverness, laying the quirk a little thick. Case in point: they way in which Mister Croup and Mister Vandemar, the two main antagonists of the book, are hammed up to the skies. Gaiman doesn’t hesitate to show us just how weirdly horrible these two gentlemen are – Vandemar, a dull-witted tough who kills and eats small animals for fun, Croup, the brains of the pair, with his extra-flowery way of speaking and his predilection to eat Tang Dynasty porcelain just to derive the satisfaction of having something beautiful taken out of the world; the ill-fitting suits that they wear in a poor attempt to blend in with their surroundings – this is all old-hat stuff, amusing to read but a little overdone.
Then there’s the writing and dialogue in general – which is a bit rough and of uneven quality. There’s also a preponderance of adverbs, like how the marquis de Carabas keeps “yawning hugely” or Lamia “grinning widely”, which are never a good thing to leave lying around in a book – they make the writing seem lazy.
In sum, Neverwhere is a novel of considerable imaginative potential that is nevertheless still hobbled by deficiencies in plot and craftsmanship. For me, its not a novel that would encourage me to take the time to read his other offerings, especially with the backlog I have, but it’s also not an indictment. But its flaws are ones that are usually remedied by experience. I suppose the jury is still out, and I should read more of his books to form a more informed impression of Gaiman’s body of work. Perhaps Sandman…
I give this book 3 out of 5 fops-with-no-names