June 11th, 2009

Mortal wound

So One of Us Is Living

Only Neil Gaiman—or Roald Dahl—would begin a children's book by murdering the protagonist's entire family. Welcome to The Graveyard Book, ladies and gentlemen.

Nobody survives the brutal act committed in the first few pages. That is, Nobody survives. For Nobody is the protagonist! At least, that is what he is christened by his dead parents. No, not his actually dead parents, but the ghostly Mr. and Mrs. Owens, who adopt him. Nobody—Bod for short—grows up in a graveyard like Mowgli grew up in a jungle, if you catch my drift. His guardian, Silas, is not a ghost (but is not a living human either) and so can leave the graveyard to acquire food for the boy...and be on the lookout for the man Jack, who killed Bod's family and will not rest until he finishes his task.

I was halfway through the book when I realized that nothing had really happened for 150 pages. It's a good sign that I didn't notice and didn't care. The majority of the book is basically Nobody Has Wacky Adventures Growing Up in a Graveyard, and it works because of Gaiman's storytelling style. He has a very keen sense of audience, and he is intensely aware of A) what the reader should know, B) what the reader should not know, and C) what the reader should be able to figure out on his own. He creates a surprisingly cohesive mishmash of fantastical concepts while, of course, introducing an original creature or two. The book is almost like baby Neverwhere in the way it blurs the line between reality and fantasy, allowing that the two worlds coexist without much issue.

To my delight, the whole Jack Is Still Out There Waiting to Kill Bod plotline doesn't just get dropped but instead becomes kind of awesome...until it becomes kind of anticlimactic in typical Gaiman fashion, but this time, I let it go because the rest of the book was good enough to make up for it. There may have been a CAPSLOCK E-MAIL involved.

I enjoyed The Graveyard Book more than Coraline. I thought it was richer and the characters were more endearing and interesting. It felt like a world one would want to return to. I loved the way it treated life and death. Even though death is not The End, life is still to be treasured. But death is not to be feared, necessarily. There is one chapter that has one of the most creepily beautiful sequences I've ever read.

Appropriately, on the night I finished The Graveyard Book, I saw Up, which also makes you feel good about life and living it. After it rips your heart out, of course. The first fifteen minutes comprise an Oscar-worthy short in themselves. As with WALL-E, the Pixar team prove themselves to be masters of visual storytelling, able to be emotionally affecting with no dialogue at all, just images and implications.

The rest of the movie, the one the trailers promise, is about an old man and an Asian-American boy having wacky adventures in a flying house. And the plot itself is kind of silly and somewhat predictable, and there are fewer snappy lines and quirky characters than in, say, Finding Nemo, but, for me, the major strength of the movie is the same thing that's so strong about The Graveyard Book: what's left unsaid. In The Graveyard Book, Gaiman doesn't tell you everything about the world and how it works, and he doesn't tell you why the characters act and think how they do, but he trusts you to use your imagination and intuition. Up has an intangible Something where the script may never tell you what the themes and messages are, but the story does, both through what happens in general and little moments here and there that, again, usually require no dialogue to get their points across.

Both the book and movie have left me thinking about life, how long and short it is, and how best to make the most of it.