Last month I looked at two books that changed the way I look at life. This month I look at two books that changed the way I look at writing.
6. Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
|This may well be the first book I ever bought|
based solely on the cover and author. I didn't read
the summary until I was standing in line to pay.
However, in 1996, while wasting time at a local stripmall bookstore in Carrollton, GA, I came across a book that was listed as fantasy but seemed like no fantasy novel I'd ever read as it was set in modern-day London's subway tunnels.
Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere tells the story of Richard Mayhew, a young Scottish everyman who finds himself drawn into the dark and feudal world of London's homeless when he attempts to save a wounded ragamuffin girl bleeding on the sidewalk. In his attempts to get her back home and discover who murdered her family, he encounters magical bums who talk to rats, meets the actual earl of Earl's Court, and has tea with the angel who destroyed Atlantis.
All while avoiding two antagonists whoappear to have sprung fully formed from the
opium-addled nightmares of Charles Dickens
The second thing I learned from Neverwhere is more technical: one of the easiest ways to inject a sense of magic and wonder into the ordinary world is to ignore metaphors. In Gaiman's world, metaphors are literal: There are actual black-clad warrior monks guarding Blackfriars Bridge. The Angel, Islington, is an actual angel. And you don't even want to know about Knightsbridge.
5. A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
|Despite the cover, this is not the heartwarming |
story of a stone-cutting armadillo.
Then, the spring of my junior year, I saw A Prayer for Owen Meany in the mall bookstore and bought it.
If I were doing this list in order of importance, this novel would be in the top three, quite possibly the top one. Irving's seventh novel has so many things going for it I can't even list them all. It has what, for my money, is the best first sentence in any novel I've ever read:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.It tells you everything you need to know about the novel without actually telling you a damn thing. Who couldn't keep reading after that doozy of a sentence? And thus begins the tale of Little Johnny Wheelwright, the fatherless son of the the best-breasted mother in town and his best friend Owen Meany, the dimunitive, gravel-voiced son of Meany Granite Quarry.
Part retelling of The Scarlet Letter, part idyllic memoir of a New England childhood, part scathing critique of the Vietnam War and the Reagan Era, A Prayer for Owen Meany is so much more. If Gaiman shows us how to make the mundane magical, Irving masterfully makes the magical mundane. Only John Irving can fill a book with prophetic dreams and visions, near-divine miracles, and at least one visit from beyond the grave and make them all feel perfectly normal, like they ain't no thang.
I warn you, though; this is one book you definitely want to read. Do yourself a favor and avoid the train-wreck of a film they made from it. Jim Carrey's ham-fisted framing story is only the least worst thing about it.
Emily's Stitches could exist without Irving's influence, and my short stories "Misdirection" and "Gods for Sale, Cheap" both owe much to Gaiman's style.
Next month, we go into the ancient past and back-and-forth through time and space.