I read a Guardian Long Read a while back about a young man named Christopher Knight who inexplicably abandoned society one day. He’d driven until his car was out of fuel and then started walking with only the most basic of supplies in his pack. It was difficult to become totally lost, even finding himself back in his own neighbourhood at the beginning of his travels. But then he began to adapt and understand his newfound invisibility. He wasn’t seen again by general society for almost a quarter of a century.
Knight said that he didn’t really know why he left. He had given the question plenty of thought but had never arrived at a specific answer. “It’s a mystery,” he declared.
Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere isn’t about a man who chooses his fate in the same way that Knight did, but it is about someone who one day disappears, nonetheless. I wondered to myself, reading Gaiman’s novel, whether there’s a point in the kind of invisibility that Christopher Knight achieved, versus the one Richard has flung at him.
I have wished I was invisible more than once. I do not fit in, simply put. At parties, I see only tight knit circles of friends, all with their backs to me, all in private conversations holding private jokes, talking about the things normal people talk about, leading terribly, terribly interesting lives. If not for the pitied half conversations that strays make with me for matters of politeness, I’d be invisible already. I have been in parks and on grassy fields when an errant football rolls by, kicked astray by some more physically fit person than I, “Oi, mate, chuck over that ball!” I cringe inside, not least because I can neither throw any better than I can kick, but also because I have become noticed and I have been entered into a social contract that I never agreed to. And how I long in those moments for total invisibility, a disappearing act.
Richard becomes a non-person, not in the Orwellian malicious sense, but in a very true, historical sense, where the memories of you are overwritten by fact; you never existed, so nobody can remember you. Knight, on the other hand, remains very much real, though a little mythologised – his own disappearance, at the young age of 20, must have caused pain to his family or friends. And whilst Richard finds himself in a fantastical world of fiefdoms and floating markets, creatures in the depths and bird-men living on roofs, Knight was in the woods, stealing from holiday cabins.
Neverwhere answers those urges to remove oneself from society with stories of wonder and excitement, but never fails to ground it in sneaking reality. At the end of the book, as Richard talks rabidly to the homeless woman, you feel unease that this may have all been some sort of mental breakdown, what’s believable and what’s not suddenly becomes a little more fragile (again, Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four and its ending is strangely relevant). It not Gaiman’s duty to tell you, Hey, don’t run away from your life because I wrote about living in sewers, that should hopefully be implicit. What he did instead is to have offered you that escape anyway. I have rarely been so enraptured by a book, rarely lost myself and my surroundings so intensely. Almost every morning reading it on my commute into central London, I have nearly missed my stop, barely lifting my head in time to see the platform racing into view. Now I’ve left the incredible world of London Below, I feel at a loss, but it has left its mark on me – and I’ll never forget to Mind the Gap, either.
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