The relentless onslaught of weekly mini book reviews continues.
Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow, 2006). In reviewing an earlier short story collection by Neil Gaiman (bestselling novelist, author of the Sandman comic book, Friend of Tori, inadvertent goth icon) back in 1998 for Mother Jones, I wrote: "Short fiction like Gaiman's, in the tradition of Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury, rarely gets the respect it deserves. But Gaiman knows what all the best fantasists know: The impossible is sometimes the best way to illuminate certain out-of-the-way crannies in the human soul, as he does here to heartbreaking effect."
It's still true. This new collection, by the by, is dedicated to the two writers in whose spirit I detected Gaiman working–plus Robert Sheckley, who I would argue, despite his many merits, isn't in quite the same class as those two, or of Gaiman himself, who continues to create a body of witty, smart, emotional contemporary fiction in worlds of magic and the impossible, rich in character and invention, that makes him a true master of his form equal to any predecessor.
In this volume, highlights include tales of a wanderer who carelessly picks up the life of an missing anthropologist and finds himself deep in the mysterious muck of New Orleans voodoo ("Bitter Grounds"); a couple of adventures of strangely endearing henchman Mr. Smith's bizarre errands for the ridiculously rich and impassively sinister Mr. Alice ("Keepsakes and Treasures" and "The Monarch of the Glen"–the latter also intersects with the world of Gaiman's very good novel American Gods and functions as a modern retelling of Beowolf); an unpleasant dinner companion falling under the spell of a circus of dark whimsy and absurdist-frightening mystery ("The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch"); a lonely awkward outsider teenager trying to make it with alien girls at a dreamlike party ("How to Talk to Girls at Parties"). Gaiman offers skilled and affectionate pastiches or homages to the worlds of Narnia, the Matrix, and R.A. Lafferty, and there's not a limp stalk in the bunch, every story or vignette marbled skillfully with fine, spicy veins of the strange and disturbing winding through worlds, and hearts, solidly and touchingly real.
Don't let not being as impressed by Sandman as the rest of the world seems to be stop you–I'm no Endlessophile myself, but this stuff'll bust your brains out. Even the short fantasy poems sprinkled throughout are winners.