No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, August 02, 1994

Death: The High Cost of Living / Sandman: Fables and Reflections -- Neil Gaiman

Death: the High Cost of Living is the tale of Didi, an orphaned teenager who befriends a suicidal geek and makes him see the value in life. It is also the tale of Death’s day of mortality; one day in every century she must take on mortal flesh, ‘the better to comprehend what the lives she takes must feel like’. Sexton (the geek - a peculiarly apt name for Death’s mortal companion) thinks Didi’s cute but unhinged. And Mad Hetty thinks Didi will help her find her heart - which she’s hidden so well from Death that she can no longer remember where it is (but then, she is over two hundred years old).

Nowhere does Gaiman state that Didi really is Death, one of the seven Endless who are older than the gods. Sexton’s suspicions could be perfectly valid. But Didi swans through New York, bathing in the life of the city, as though she owns the place; people give her things, let her into gigs for free, look after her. But life isn’t all roses. There are people out there who know her for what she is, and want her power for themselves. This day of life is a hunted day - but still, it’s life, and Sexton finds himself appreciating it again.

Didi gives Sexton the last of her cash - two pennies - and suddenly she is dead, her last words a plaintive, ‘No. Please. I ...’ Later, she says ‘ I wish it didn’t have to end like that’. And Death, her alter ego, says ‘It always ends. That’s what gives it value’. The artwork, particularly in the meeting between Didi and Death, is superlative, and uses strong but subtle symbolism to get inside the reader’s head.

This volume also contains the piece ‘Death Talks About Life’; Death presents a show about safe sex and AIDS, which is tastefully and wittily done, and may yet influence people who find Government health warnings meaningless and cold.

Sandman: Fables and Reflections is a collection of single-issue stories, each illustrating a simple moral in an innovative and sometimes unsettling way. There’s a lot of wisdom to be gained from dreams, and from Dream. Some of the tales are stronger than others, but each displays a quality of storytelling, mythmaking and symbolism (both graphic and verbal) which is rare.

‘Three Septembers and a January’ is based on the true story of Joshua Norton - Norton I , self-declared Emperor of the USA Here, he is a pawn in a family squabble between the Endless. But Norton’s tale is also that of a dignified man of principle, whose dreams keep him alive - and, as Dream says of him, ‘His madness keeps him sane’.

In ‘Thermidor’, Johanna Constantine (ancestress of the more famous John) is retained by Dream to recover the head of his son, Orpheus, from a crypt in Paris during the Terror. Robespierre wants this ’object of superstition’ destroyed - but there is more to this myth than mere superstition. Orpheus becomes the nemesis of those who would destroy him.

‘The Hunt’ is a tale told by an old man to his impatient, modern granddaughter (who would rather being watching the television). Dream makes only a fleeting appearance in this tale, of a young man who earns a favour from Dream. But, as Dream knows, it is a double-edged boon - ‘Wishes are sometimes best left ungranted’. There’s an unexpected twist in this story which invites the reader to re-read with more understanding.

‘It’s mid-day. Only mad dogs, Britons and beggars stay out in this heat’ says the dwarf Lycias to his companion, the disguised Emperor Octavius, who is hiding from the gods and planning the future of the Roman Empire. There are two possible futures for Rome - and in this tale, ‘August’, the reader learns - as the dwarf does not - why the Emperor has chosen one future rather than another. This is one of the more unsettling of the tales in Fables and Reflections; Gaiman’s view of history is intriguing and can’t be faulted on historical grounds - and there is a disquieting ring of truth to the Sandman’s actions.

‘Soft Places’ offers, almost as an aside, a glimpse into a part of the Dreamlord’s history which is, as yet, undocumented. A young Marco Polo is lost in the desert, but he is also lost in dreams, and not all of them are his. The desert is a place where reality is thin, a ‘soft place’ , and Marco Polo, as an explorer, is to blame for the gradual loss of these places where a different reality can be glimpsed. Nevertheless, he is returned to his own place, rewarded for an act, the significance of which he will never understand.

‘Orpheus’ is the tale of the wedding of Dream’s son to Eurydice, and the true tale of what happened afterwards. The wedding is a true family affair; all of the Endless make an appearance (including the first appearance of Death and Dream’s missing brother...) and act according to archetype. Although this is Orpheus’ tale, we learn a lot about Dream’s character, the flaws that have often been apparent but have never been discussed. The Sandman is not without honour, but ‘Orpheus’ illustrates that honour is not always enough.

In ‘The Parliament of Rooks’, little Daniel (the son of a superhero) wanders into Dream’s realm and is entertained by some of its older, and odder, denizens. Eve tells a tale of Adam’s wives; Cain teases Abel - and the reader - with an invitation to ‘tell the story of the lily that wanted to be an eye? ... or the girl who could drink only tears, and how she fell in love with a woman who had never learnt to cry?’ Abel ignores his brother (never a wise move). Instead he tells a charming tale of how he and Cain came to Dream’s realm when Death and Dream were just children. ‘Children? They didn’t even look remotely human. None of us did back then’, Cain interrupts scornfully. Despite this possible inaccuracy, the pastel artwork is hilariously kitsch; it may not fit with ‘dinosaurs and cavemen’, but who ever said there could be only one truth?

The last story, ‘Ramadan’, is a tale drawn from the world, and the art, of the Arabian Nights. . Haroun al Raschid, wise and wealthy ruler of Baghdad, is uneasy. He fears the future, and summons Morpheus to preserve something of his city’s present idyllic state. Morpheus is no man’s servant, but perhaps a compromise may be reached ... Again, the twist in the tail throws a new light on the story; but this may be the weakest tale in Fables and Reflections.

Like all myth, however, each tale in this volume can be read in several different ways. This is not comic art, but a book of stories set within their own illustrations; the quality of both text and artwork is high, and many readers may find these short, contemplative pieces more satisfying than the ‘Sandman’ graphic novels.

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