Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review - The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

Short review: A collection of eighty-five works of nonfiction covering a range of topics from book stores, to the comics industry, from boons to video games to movies, and from authors to refugees.

Pull up a chair and
Listen to Gaiman expound
On almost all things

Full review: The View from the Cheap Seats is an eclectic mix of selected nonfiction drawn from a wide swathe of Neil Gaiman's career. The works include the transcripts of speeches, introductions to books, memorials to departed writers, liner notes from albums, interviews, and pretty much every other form of writing that one can think of. The topics covered range from libraries to bookstores, from authors to books to music, and from comic books to refugee camps. While this volume is not a complete collection of Gaiman's nonfiction (assembling which would likely be a nigh impossible task), it does contain a broad spectrum of his work, both in terms of style and substance.

Normally, I would describe a volume like this as a collection of essays, but in the case of The View from the Cheap Seats, that would be a misnomer, as these are, for the most part, not essays, but other pieces of writing. The various pieces in this volume are grouped into ten broad categories, each with a relatively loose theme. Because these pieces appeared in a variety of outlets often separated from one another in both time and venue, many of them return to the same themes (and in some cases, the same anecdotes) so reading them one after another can be a little repetitive at times, as Gaiman returns to the same rhetorical well in one article after another. This is somewhat exacerbated by the groupings, as, for example, Gaiman's thoughts on what he believes generally have similar tempos and hit the same notes over an over again, which means that putting them all together in the same section has the effect of highlighting their similarities.

That said, this is Neil Gaiman's work, and as a result, it is almost all top notch, even when he does repeat himself a bit. The sections are: "Things I Believe", which are mostly speeches and articles in which Gaiman expounds upon some element of art, myth, or writing. "Some People I Have Known", which are either introductions to books or memorials to authors who have passed on. "Introductions And Musings: Science Fiction", which are introductions to books and one Nebula Awards speech. "Films and Movies and Me" which is basically Gaiman expounding upon film, mostly filmed work he has been involved in. "On Comics and Some of the People Who Make Them", which consists of articles about various comic book properties and creators as well as some insightful speeches about the genre. "Introductions and Contradictions" which is a grab-bag of introductions Gaiman wrote for books that don't really fit in any of the other categories. "Music and the People Who Make It" consisting of album liner notes, a couple of stories about Amanda Palmer, and his interview with Lou Reed. "On Stardust and Fairy Tales" a section that, given the title, has far less about Gaiman's Stardust than one would think, but a lot of commentary about fairy tale stories. "Make Good Art", which is the only section that is comprised of a single essay, whose title is the same as the section. "The View from the Cheap Seats: Real Things" the last and probably most personal section has essays that are clearly important to Gaiman but cannot really be categorized with the rest of the material in the book, and includes both his harrowing article about visiting a Syrian refugee camp and his intensely personal essay about the loss of his friend and collaborator Terry Pratchett. Every section contains brutal, brilliant, and insightful pieces in which Gaiman explores such a wide variety of topics that one has to wonder how he keeps up with all of them.

The most notable thing about The View from the Cheap Seats is that, with two notable (and entirely understandable) exceptions, Gaiman is relentlessly positive. I suppose it is kind of sad that a collection of writing that is almost entirely about how much the writer loves the things he is writing about is unusual in that regard, but it does make reading this book an enjoyable experience. It doesn't matter what Gaiman is writing about, he seems to always try to find what he loves in the subject. If he is writing about libraries and bookstores, he writes about the things that he loves about libraries and bookstores - even when writing about the creepy adult book store that somewhat inexplicably had a stack of old science fiction paperbacks on a back shelf. When he writes about books, he focuses on the part of the book that he found transcendent and sublime. When he writes about authors, he writes about the things they created that moved him.

Gaiman even generally keeps the tone positive when writing memorial pieces about authors, which he seems to often be having to do. It is probably a function of Gaiman coming to prominence at a relatively young age, but he seems to now be in the position of being the one who is called upon, by virtue of his relationship with the deceased, to write a tribute to an author or artist who has passed away. He is, to a certain extent, now in the role of being the man who remembers the great authors, artists, and singers of the past for those of us who were not fortunate enough to know them. For the most part, these memorials are sad and wistful, but focus primarily on what great art the departed made while they were alive, and how they touched the lives of others in beneficial ways. The one time Gaiman lets his anger at the loss of someone shine through is late in the volume, in A Slip of the Keyboard: Terry Pratchett, his essay about the passing of his friend and collaborator, but in the end he turns to focusing on the good things about Terry and leaves behind the fury at having him taken away too early.

The one essay which sees Gaiman angry is his piece about Syrian refugee camps titled So Many Ways to Die in Syria Now: May 2014. This is markedly different from the other works in the book, because its subject matter is the human tragedy playing out in dusty UN refugee camps in the Jordanian desert rather than books, music, authors, or artists. Without denigrating the rest of the work in this volume, this essay is definitely the most powerful and moving in the book, in large part due to the seriousness of the subject matter, but also because the plight of the Syrian refugees seems to bring out the very best in Gaiman as he works very hard to make sure their voices come through in his writing. Gaiman has done some news articles in the past, although most of his work seems to have been fluffy celebrity pieces - he did, after all, get his start writing a book about Duran Duran, but this article shows that if he hadn't moved into comics and fiction writing, he'd have been an excellent news correspondent.

In the end, The View from the Cheap Seats is five hundred pages of Gaiman writing about the world around him, and mostly writing about the things he loves. To a certain extent this book can be seen as Gaiman's attempt to pass on the things he loves to the reader, hoping that by extolling their virtues, his enthusiasm will rub off on his audience. By and large, at least for me, this worked, and I came away from the book with a list of new writers to read, music to seek out and listen to, and movies to watch. This is an excellent survey of Gaiman's work, that is likely to appeal both to those who have never read any of his nonfiction work and those who are hardcore fans of his, and is definitely worth reading.

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