Though this reviewer counts himself as one of the uninitiated, Neil Gaiman is said to possess a large, devoted fan base. A cursory investigation on the Internet reveals that this base is, in large part, composed of black-clad teenage girls enamored with his dark, rumpled appearance and wily British ways. That’s all well and good, but can the man write? Many sources reply with an emphatic yes, regarding his work as fantasy without the puerile trappings to which the genre often falls victim. Fragile Things, his new collection of “short stories and wonders,” provides a glimpse of the writer’s appeal, but unfortunately, the bits and pieces that have found their way into the book never coalesce into anything substantial.
Then again, perhaps that was his intention. In the compilation’s lengthy introduction, Gaiman expounds upon the origins of the project in general – originally intended, for example, to contain only prose; a handful of poems were added because “the book would cost you the same with or without them” – and of each story and/or wonder in particular. While useful – sometimes the context these blurbs provided proves necessary for complete comprehension of the stories – the effect of all this explication will primarily communicate the following to the common reader: that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fans out there more intimately familiar with the works of Neil Gaiman than you will ever be, people who salivate over each and every one of his words. While you may be left cold by a lot of this stuff, these fans are on their third re-reading already.
That isn’t to say that the content of Fragile Things is mediocre fluff palatable solely to diehards. Several of the stories included are prestigious award-winners; the best of the bunch, a merging of the worlds of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft, received a Hugo Award. However, just like the images placed upon its oddly designed cover, the pieces seem to have been inserted into its pages without rhyme or reason. Their original venues of publication range from McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales to official website for “The Matrix.” A real-life ghost story here, a poem about returning to nature there, a short scrap of fiction that loops infinitely in on itself after that; the unpredictability is fun at times, but it can’t be called a smooth ride.
The book is an uneven showcase for Gaiman’s skills. At his best, he breathes life into the sorts of scenarios one might idly wonder about but not carry to their logical conclusions. What if a harlequin left the world of the commedia dell’arte for our modern one? What if things could go on living, despite being eaten? What if the Bible had one last, very brief, book? These questions and more are, after a fashion, answered, and cleverly so. At his worst, Gaiman’s writing feels enslaved by its affections. (This is an impression one gets from his more devoted followers as well.) Some pieces are spun out too far from conceits too short, as when the months of the year are personified as campfire-sitting storytellers or a group of gourmands wearily seeks out an apocryphal bird.
It is at the intersection of myth and reality that Gaiman’s work resonates both the most and the least. If this compilation is any indicator, what happens when the two meet constitutes Gaiman’s staked-out territory, and the results are alternately brilliantly amusing and slightly flat. It’s distinctly possible that this release isn’t intended for the casual Gaiman reader. (That the final 54 pages constitute a novella revisiting American Gods, an earlier novel, attests to that). While often more entertaining than not, Fragile Things might be best left to the girls in black.