by John Pistelli
[2011 Preface: This post garnered a fair amount of attention when Gaiman himself linked it. It was written in 2008 in response to a debate happening in the literary blogosphere about novels that typified either the 1990s or 2000s. I've deleted my prefatory linking, which was excessively punchy in its commentary on the material linked, and I've also revised the prose for clarity. I stand by most of it, though I am far less interested now in using works of art to make historical or political diagnoses. This was written at the tail end of my interest in Marxist criticism, and all it needs to be an example of such criticism is an explicit discussion of how Sandman reflects the contradictions of the lower middle class that largely produced and consumed it in the context of late twentieth-century capitalist retrenchment. As I said, I'm no longer sure of the value of such interpretations.]
One will quickly go astray if one looks for evidence of ’90s or ’00s fictionalization just in material that takes the headlines on directly. Case in point: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which in 2008 had its twenty-year anniversary. Not a word was mentioned in Sandman about the Clinton scandals, the Contract with America, the Rwandan genocide, the siege of Sarajevo, the dot-com bubble, the rise of the militias, the expansion of the internet or the End of History, and yet it’s difficult to imagine a piece of fiction which more clearly enters a number of conversations about ethics and aesthetics that were going on in the ’90s.
(For a plot summary of Sandman, see Wikipedia.)
I had a very typical reading experience with the book: I read it in collections in the mid ’90s; I began reading with Dream Country when I was 12 or 13, and I was 15 when the final collection, The Wake, came out. All through high school, I loaned the books out to people, mostly women. In her interview in Rain Taxi, Sandman‘s editor, Karen Berger, stated that she was most proud of the fact that the series had become a literary rite of passage, something that teenagers read, a millenial Catcher in the Rye or Slaughterhouse-Five. Sandman certainly worked that way for me, and, as one of the most allusive teenage rite of passage books, it sent me directly out of comics and sf/fantasy to Homer, Shakespeare, Keats, Milton, Joyce and Faulkner.
Recently, however, I sequentially re-read the series, in my old trade paperbacks with the original Dave McKean covers, each a depiction of a face. I only made it through Brief Lives, but I was struck first of all by the coherence of what had initially seemed to be a meandering series, and also by the thematic cohesiveness. Honestly, the book could never mean as much emotionally as it did when I was 15, but I had no idea how richly it repaid a reading at the age of 26 (close to Gaiman’s age, after all, when he began writing it). What seemed to have been an elaborate allegory about the emotional weather of high school actually turns out to concern the decisions one makes about how to be an adult, and the options Gaiman presents have a distinctly ’90s inflection: it may be Gen-Y’s gateway drug to high literature, but it’s every inch a Gen-X book, a compendium of slacker lassitude, dot-com ambition, Starbucks ennui and battle-of-Seattle fury.
Sandman asks these ethical and political questions: Is it better to accept that the world is the way it is and that its constant awful tumult will never cease? If so, should you then do your work to the best of your ability? Or drop out and do your own thing on the fringes? On the other hand, should you refuse to accept the reality principle and hew to ethical absolutes with the purpose of making the world better than it is? Other options besides these are presented, of course, including the enactment of absolute evil (The Corinthian), self-enslavement to addictive forms of fantasy (Barbie, Rachel), etc., but the two choices above seem to be the ethical foci around which the ellipse of the text turns.
I take Death to represent the it-is-what-it-is-and-get-on-with-your-work position; her motto might be Wallace Stevens’s line, “The imperfect is our paradise.” She stands for personal responsibility, the local amelioration of suffering, the value of being-here-now. She is genuinely kind, which goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of a character who so represents the ethos of the service industry. Ray Mescallado long ago noticed that she was cute, but not exactly sexy: this is because outright sexiness would introduce passions that her prudent, pragmatic, sarcastic character negates.
Destruction is similar to Death in his common sense and his insistence that each individual take responsibility for him- or herself. His mode of responsibility,though, is not the practical performance of necessary tasks in an imperfect world, but rather disengagement from a world he knows to be unjust. A more romantic figure, he stands for a kind of anarchism, but he’s an aesthete and an independent craftsman, a burly localvore dropout rather than any kind of brick-thrower.
Both of these characters, as well as some others (Rose Walker, Hazel and Foxglove, Hob Gadling, Lucifer, Matthew, Emperor Norton, Ben Jonson, etc.), stand for what came in the popular mind to be called postmodernism. They have no ethical or metaphysical universals to which they would submit the world, because they know the world’s watchword is “change” and that it’s no use trying to step in the same river twice. That’s why Death “sees everybody,” as she always tells us, and we presume that she finds it futile to judge any of them except on the scale of their own ability to accept the world’s impermanence.
Dream, on the other hand (and not only Dream but also Orpheus, Delirium, Lyta, Remiel, Duma, Haroun al-Rashid, Robespierre, and Wanda), cannot go with the flow. To the postmodernists they reply that some things are too important simply to accept as impermanent, and that our lives may be brief but that for them to be worthy they must hang on a strong nail of meaning. Dreams’s duty, Delirium’s openness to all experience, Orpheus’s sorrow, Remiel and Duma’s God, Haroun al-Rashid’s Baghdad, Robespierre’s revolution, Wanda’s female gender, cannot be cast blithely on the flowing waters. Identity is what we refuse to give up; I can only change so much before I am no longer me. And if I go to work at a job I hate, I cannot be me; but also if I quit the job that I hate I cannot just decamp to the country with my dog and paint pictures, because the world that creates such jobs is broken or out of control. The world must be fixed, in both senses.
I gather teenagers love this book because they have just had their hearts broken by their first love or they have just fought with their parents about their futures. These first experiences of adult loss and adult conflict, which they cannot just bounce back from, puts them in the camp of the absolutists, insisting on the primacy of their own ethical and emotional directives. But then they find those perfect friends, Death and Destruction, to talk them down, to tell them that there are other fish in the sea and that college won’t be so bad and that, after all, you only get a lifetime and so you might as well make the best of it rather than moping around in the rain. The book is cheering to the heartbroken 16-year-old because it delivers the lesson you need to hear at that age: it’s compromise or suicide, and compromise is more fun.
Sandman is a different book at 26, however, because you’ve made all your compromises, you’re beginning to rethink all your compromises, and suddenly Death and Destruction’s encouraging voices no longer sound so friendly. Dream’s resolution unto death (or Death) begins to seem more appealing.
Note Gaiman’s intellectual honesty here: the valorization of change for its own sake is ultimately the valorization of death and destruction. Hence, what prompts Destruction to quit his post is the invention of scientific ideology in the Enlightenment, that intellectual movement which will spread the pro-change mantra, in capitalist and communist forms, to the four corners of the globe. Sandman‘s earth-toned color palette, its air of wooden furniture, green-glass wine bottles and old libraries indexes what change and death and destruction are taking away from us; it reminds us, at the End of History, that “progress” comes at a great price.
From another perspective, Destruction’s retreat is reactive and self-serving, a personal lifestyle politics that doesn’t attempt to intervene in the world it finds so oppressive. Dream, for one, rejects the postmodern insistence on impermanence, hybridity, pragmatism and openness; he cleaves to his ethical absolutes and to his duty. What happens? All of the bad things that postmodernists warn us about: not to put too fine a point on it, Dream oppresses women, and, in the worst case, he robs a black woman of her freedom. He reminds us that western empire is not just change, but also a plan to put the world under one rule, and when Nada will not agree to live in his world he consigns her to hell. The absolute and the unyielding exact a toll, just as change and the acceptance of impermanence does.
The book never really chooses sides, but exhibits admirable negative capability. It’s up to us to decide how we wish to act in this most imperfect world; Sandman does not answer our ethical questions, nor should it, but it asks them with great wit and intensity.
What makes it a superb work of art is the fact that the ethical quandary expresses itself at the formal level. Generically, Sandman is a taut Shakespearean tragedy attenuated within a cantering, leisurely magic-realist novel: imagine Macbeth pieced out like breadcrumbs through a Rushdie tale. In other words, the two forms, the premodern one made to describe the unyielding soul’s crushing encounter with fate, and the postmodern one that embodies multiple perspectives, colliding communities, and meaningless but celebratory metamorphoses, coexist uneasily, as the text’s two worldviews jostle each other. It’s as if Gaiman, realizing the triumph of the postmodern, the reign of change and of acceptance-of-death, wanted to write one last tragedy. That is a greater ambition than most other writers showed in the same period and, strange as it seems, Gaiman managed to get that period into a work which looks like it’s about every time and no time; and, if I may venture a severe and absolute judgment, that makes it a book for all time.