Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review - The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman

Short review: Delirium wants to find Destruction, so Dream decides to humor her. But Destruction means change, and for the Endless, change is dangerous.

Delirium seeks
Dream is morose but he helps
Destruction means change

Full review: After spending six volumes establishing the permanence and indispensability of the Endless, Gaiman reverses field in Brief Lives with a story that suggests that the Endless may not be necessary at all, and not being necessary, may not be eternal. The story itself takes the form of a travel tale, with Dream and Delirium setting out on the road (literally) in search of their long lost brother Destruction. Along the way, the pair come across some individuals that we might count as extraordinarily long-lived, but for Dream, Death, and the other Endless, are merely ephemeral beings of minor consequence.

The volume starts and ends with Andros, the patriarch of the family charged by Dream with the task of guarding his son Orpheus' severed but immortal head. For him and his clan, their vigil has been interminably long, but it becomes clear that for Dream, their watch has been nothing more than the blink of an eye. The book shifts away from the main story several times to interludes featuring those who walk among mankind living lives that span vast numbers of generations of ordinary people. But as Death remarks when the fifteen thousand year old Bernie Capax finally dies and looks to her for reassurance that he managed to do well by living so long, he only got what everyone else gets - exactly one lifetime. Compared to the supposedly serene and unchanging lives of the Endless, no matter how long a mortal lives, one life is pretty much just as brief as another.

But Dream's journey in this book calls this alleged truth into question. In a moment of odd clarity, Delirium manages to gather her thoughts enough to start trying to seek out the missing member of the Endless, first asking Desire and Despair to help her, and when they refuse her, she turns to Dream for help. Even though she does not expect him to consent to aid her, Dream is in a funk after being dumped by his most recent love, and decides to use the quest to find Destruction as a diversion from his moody misery. And so this odd, but strangely well-matched pair set out on the road in the waking world.

Although Dream is most often matched with Death in the Sandman series, probably as a reference to the Greek myth that posits dreams as the only thing that makes sleep something different than a temporary death, pairing him with Delirium seems to be the natural match-up. The somewhat random free-association that Delirium engages in seems to be very much like the chaotic and bizarre landscape that most people find in their dreams. The two of them together find the mundane waking world to be a strange landscape, and react in very different ways. Dream regards all of those he encounters with disinterest and mild disdain, while Delirium wanders through like a careless child caught up in the excitement of a strange new place. But hidden within their characters is a common callousness, as Dream's concern after the death of their guide Ruby is that some force may be trying to impede their quest rather than remorse for the woman's death, while Delirium's only reaction is the gleeful realization that she will be allowed to drive their car. Later, Delirium's casual cruelty manifests when she off-handedly condemns a police officer who was doing nothing more than his job to a life of torment, an action that Dream does nothing to prevent or ameliorate. To the Endless, mortal lives are of no import.

The key to the story, however, is the mortal characters that populate the story. From the guardian Andros, to the long-lived but ultimately unlucky Capax, to the diminished deities Ferrell and Ishtar, to the ambitious and ill-fated Ruby, to the disembodied Orpheus, and even to the melting chocolate lovers left on Delirium's plate when she decides she isn't hungry, it is the frantic and hurried actions of the mortals that create meaning in the world. And that is the secret that Destruction seems to have discovered, and the truth that Dream knows but does not want to acknowledge - the mortals do not need the Endless, but the Endless need the mortals. Destruction is change, and Dream fears change as evidenced in this volume by his extended brooding over a love-affair gone wrong. Despite this, Dream is forced to acknowledge change, resorting to meeting with his son Orpheus for advice, even after he said he would never see him again.

Ruby, short-lived though she is, serves as a metaphor for the entire book. Despite her very short existence, she is one of the few individuals in the book who express a desire to actually do something more than continue to exist. Despite his fifteen thousand years of life, Capax has left almost no mark on the world. When he senses danger approaching, the Alder Man is content to erase his own existence in order to ensure his personal survival. Ishtar lives on faded memories of a distant past. And so on. Only Ruby wants something more than she has, wants to do something with her life, because she realizes that she only has so much time to accomplish something, and that gives her actions a sense of urgency. Despite her untimely death, she is one of the few characters in the book who seems to have truly lived instead of merely existing.

And this is what Destruction has come to understand - he isn't necessary. Humans can live their lives without the need for him to manifest change and guide their destinies. This reality is what disturbs and unnerves Dream, because if Destruction is not needed for change to happen, then Dream is not needed to make humans dream. Similarly, without Death things would still die, and without Desire, humans would still indulge their passions. But if the Endless are not necessary, that means that they can be eliminated without damaging the fabric of the universe. And this fact serves to turn the entire series upon its head, because it means that the Endless might not be as endless as the reader had been led to believe to this point.

This volume marks an important turn in the Sandman series. Dream ends up killing his own son - at his son's request - but in doing so he finally kills one of his own family members, which is what some of his siblings have been goading him to do in previous stories. We see what Delirium looked like when she was Delight, and combined with the knowledge that what had been described as the responsibilities of the Endless are not so dependent upon the existence of the Endless, the book foreshadows change in the offing. Not only that, but change that Desire, Despair, and even Dream fear. But most of all, as its title implies this volume highlights that it is not the Endless who are the critical forces in the universe, but rather it is those like Andros, whose lifespans are measured in finite numbers of days, months, and years.

Previous book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections
Subsequent book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 8: World's End

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