Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Magic of Short Stories: A Review of Neil Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors

Title: Smoke and Mirrors
Author: Neil Gaiman
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: Avon Books (1998)
Pages: 365
How I Came By This Book: I purchased this book, along with three others, at Borders shortly after I started this blog (see this post).
Challenges: Read Your Own Books Challenge, GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge

Synopsis: In the deft hands of Neil Gaiman, magic is no mere illusion...and anything is possible. In this, Gaiman's first book of short stories, his imagination and supreme artistry transform a mundane world into a place of terrible wonders--a place where an old woman can purchase the Holy Grail at a thrift store, where assassins advertise their services in the Yellow Pages under "Pest Control," and where a frightened young boy must barter for his life with a mean-spirited troll living beneath a bridge by the railroad tracks. Explore a new reality--obscured by smoke and darkness, yet brilliantly tangible--in this extraordinary collection of short works by a master prestidigitator. It will dazzle your senses, touch your heart, and haunt your dreams.

Review: Apparently May is Short Story Month, which I wasn't aware of before I started blogging because, frankly, I've never really been a fan of this genre. Neil Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors may have just converted me.

I rave constantly about Gaiman, who is my favorite contemporary author. Except for two books, Stardust and The Graveyard Book, I have loved every single one of his books. That doesn't mean that I didn't approach his short stories with a little trepidation. I needn't have worried.

Gaiman's particular brand of dark humor, horror, sex, and violence serve him well throughout this book. In fact, there wasn't a single story that I can point to and say, "Yeah, I really hated it." There were a few that I didn't exactly love, "When We Went to See the End of the World by Dawnie Morningside, age 11 1/2" being the one that most fits this bill, but I still enjoyed reading them.

Neil Gaiman

Each of these stories, with few exceptions, are stories that take what's in the world around us and morph them into something else, something with a hint of magic--thrift stores, jack-in-the-boxes, male escorts, Penthouse magazine. Most of them seem, on some level, entirely plausible and give you a momentary sensation of hope that someday you could be walking along the street and find the Holy Grail or meet a fallen angel.

His stories are tight, his characters are intriguing, and his skill as a writer is evident. From the first story, which happens to be in the introduction, to the last, there is a painful humanity that pulls you in and leaves you sad to move on to the next story. You come to really like these characters and to enjoy exploring these mini-worlds created right from our own backyards. Unlike The Graveyard Book, these short stories were full of life (no pun intended) and a richness that I have come to associate with Neil Gaiman's work.

I'm having a really hard time choosing my favorite story, but I have it down to two: "We Can Get Them for You Wholesale" and "Murder Mysteries." Honorable mentions go to "Snow, Glass, Apples" and "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar." In order to give you a sense of what you'll find in this book, I'm going to be doing mini-reviews of these four stories.

-"We Can Get Them for You Wholesale"
In this odd but funny tale, a bland young man named Peter, whose fiancée may have cheated on him, gets in over his head with a bargain. Angry at her betrayal, he seeks out a hit-man in the phone book and finds one listed under "Pest Control." When he meets up with their sales rep, Burton Kemble (who, if they ever made this into a film, should be played by Michael Palin), he's told that he can get a two-for-one deal. Peter, who can never turn down a sales offer, decides that, instead of killing just the man she cheated on him with, he will also have his fiancée killed. But, the sales rep tells him, ten people is even cheaper. And a thousand even more so! So it goes until Peter makes a decision that he will regret for the rest of his (short) life. It's funny and dark and Burton Kemble's character really stands out. Definitely a must read.

Michael Palin of Monty Python fame.
He's also the only person named Palin that I can stomach.

-"Murder Mysteries"
An unnamed first-person narrator meets a strange homeless man on the street right after meeting up with an old girlfriend. The man bums a few cigarettes and, as payment, he tells the narrator a story--of when he used to be an angel. The tale becomes an intriguing (albeit short) murder mystery whose setting is the City of Angels...and I don't mean Los Angeles. Right before the creation of the Universe, before Lucifer even fell, these angels each served their purpose in helping the Name (God) work on the prototype. They created concepts like "love" and "green" and they help Him to carry out His plan by performing assigned tasks. The angel the narrator meets was assigned to be the Vengeance of the Lord, to find who murdered one of his fellow angels, and to mete out punishment. This story sticks out in my mind because of the concept; it's like CSI: Heaven. It also, however, gets a nod because of the (sort of) unexpected ending--not the ending of the angel's story, which was amazing, but the ending of the narrator's story.

-"Snow, Glass, Apples"
I will never, ever look at the story of Snow White the same way again. This terrifying, strangely sexual version of the story of the girl with the blood-red lips is haunting and, at times, repulsive...but not in a bad way. Gaiman is at the top of his form in this fairy-tale retelling, narrated by the step-mother, whose story is much different from the one we all grew up hearing. With a scary Snow White, a necrophiliac Prince, and a surprisingly sympathetic step-mother, Gaiman has recreated the tale and I have to say that I like this one a lot better than the original, even if it did make me a little nauseated.

-"Shoggoth's Old Peculiar"
I think I would have liked this story even more if I had actually ever read H.P. Lovecraft. One of my exes kept begging me to do it, but I just haven't gotten around to it. This story, as well as another one in the book, have made me want to get into his Cthulu mythos. As Gaiman explains in the introduction, this tale of a young American doing a seaside tour in England only to find something unexpected and terror-inducing, was inspired by an alcohol-aided conversation he had at a convention once, during which he and his new-found friend John "began talking about Cthulu in the voices of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore." I kind of wish they'd gotten that on tape.

One character that stood out in this book above all the rest was Lawrence Talbot, the werewolf adjustor (sic) from both "Only the End of the World Again" and "Bay Wolf." I was intrigued by him and am now under the sad delusion that one day Gaiman might write a novel about him. It won't happen, but a guy can hope.

I'm giving Smoke and Mirrors five out of five Gabriels. Gaiman completely redeemed the short story for me, unlike David Sedaris, who should really stick to writing essays.


PS: I've come to the conclusion that Neil Gaiman deserves his own tag. I talk about him enough on here that he should get one.

1 comment:

  1. you had me at the title, 'Snow, Glass, Apples'! Sounds great, I'll be checking it out of the library asap