Neil Gaiman's 'Neverwhere'

Disappearing into Neverwhere


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.

The Invisible Man, by H G Wells: A Note From A Lost Generation


Never have I so romantically been engaged in the reading of a book as I was this one. It happened some years ago now, in my first year at university. Desperately unhappy, as I am often found to be, I was seeking solace on my own and slowly discovering the power of fiction to console me in those moments of solitude. One day, as the fire alarm went screaming above my head, rousing me in a panic from an uncomfortable sleep on the thinly mattressed university bed, I had an idea. It was a scheduled thing – the alarm, not having ideas – every Wednesday morning, some time around 8, that the alarm test was performed – woe betide any student foolish enough to have earned a hangover from the night before – in that moment, I decided that I would no longer be there for that goddamned screaming red bell. Instead I would take a beautiful battered old book and have breakfast in the cafe on campus. 

A large black Americano coffee, strictly no sugar, and a plate of Belgian waffles generously drizzled in warm, silken Canadian maple syrup. I do hope you will appreciate the further joy that this literary, gluttonous breakfast afforded me on those mornings (usually ice cold, in January and February): people watching. At a university this means world renowned academics trundling in, looking downtrodden and anguished in their long clothes and achingly artistic fashion sense. I hoped the anguish was at the state of the world in some deeply philosophically cruel way, but it may have been sleep deprivation. 

The book I chose was The Invisible Man, by H G Wells – to date the only one of his I have read. I picked it up in a charity book shop in the city. The city was Canterbury, England, by the way, where the head of the Church of England resides some of the time and where you will hear some of the greatest buskers that this country has to offer. If you’ve never been, visit, but don’t live there…live near there if you must.

In the cover, this note is the first thing after the pencilled pricing that you see. I have always wanted so desperately to know who these people were. Lovers? Family? Friends? And why was the book a gift, for what occasion? But more gravely than anything, these other queries fade into insignificance to my overriding worry: did they know what was coming? Did they outlive the next four years of hellish brutality just across the channel?

This book provided me with an escape and the opportunity to begin forging the identity I wanted, I needed, to be true. Although I was terribly alone at university, fraught with fear and anxiety, this tale of an invisible man tortured by his own monstrosity, as well as the world’s, was enough to keep me going from day to day. Whatever happened to Brian and Peggy, I’ll probably never know.


The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis: On Death, Literary Fiction, and Max the Cat


I don’t know if I was already thinking about mortality so intensely before reading this book, but I’m now in a thanatopic loop after finishing it. I’ve read more upsetting books on this topic, granted (Night, by Elie Wiesel), but this one seems to scream and lurch inside me when I read it, and why? Because its monstrosity comes from the mundanity of human beings.

Moral Contemplations of a Murderer

Holocaust Memorial Day passed a little while ago and the false memory of my family hung over me, as if I’d known them. I’m told there was a six year-old in that train whose blood, under a microscope, looked a little like mine does now. Alongside that faceless child, there were many more, distant aunts, uncles, traditions and stories, all murdered, all now a full-stop in my family’s history. I don’t even know their real name; British Border officials tried their faithful best, but Yakob’s surname, a now disturbingly rare and glaringly Jewish amalgamation of nouns that followed my great-grandfather, my grandfather and then my mother, is really just a Anglophonic guess at a funny foreign name. When Szmul, the only Jewish narrator in The Zone of Interest, works with the trains unloading new arrivals destined for the showers and the vans and the rifle butts, I wonder if he ever met them.

In my previous post, I quoted Paul Doll’s repeated claims of normality, then later in the novel (p.222), in another moment of introspection (sans the self-justified intentions of rape), the reader is audience to odd, near-moral contemplations. Could it be that Paul Doll is feeling the membrane of the Nazi bubble thin? Whether it be intentionally so or not on the part of Amis or his narrator, there appears to be a suspect ignorance that sits beneath these lines – it almost feels as though Doll is asking the questions simply to be viewed as moral by the reader. He swears never to allow them to recur, but would they have any effect if they did? Perhaps the only moral truth demonstrated is that Doll clearly knows that they are the right questions to ask oneself.

“If what we’re doing is good, why does it smell so lancingly bad? On the ramp at night, why do we feel the ungainsayable need to get so brutishly drunk? […] Why did the lunatics, and only the lunatics, seem to like it here? […]
. . . There is a placard on the office wall that says, My loyalty is my honour and my honour is my loyalty. Strive. Obey. JUST BELIEVE! And I find it highly suggestive that out word for ideal obedience – Kadavergehorsam – has a corpse in it (which is doubly curious, because cadavers are the most refractory things on earth). The duteousness of the corpse. The conformity of the corpse. Here at the KL, in the cremas, in the pits: they’re dead. But then so are we, we who obey . . .”

Death and cadavers, it reads a little cheaply to me if taken wholly seriously.

Literary Fiction, An Awkward Fit

“The person who deserves most pity is a lonesome one on a rainy day who doesn’t know how to read [literary fiction].”
― Benjamin Franklin (apparently)

Have you ever finished a book and wondered if you actually got it? Coming away from a book about the Holocaust and then reiterating that the Holocaust was bad is, sort of, well, obvious, after all. Barbarism is laid out in the novel, given more room for cognition, breathing replaced with an arrythmic stutter, and it made an impact, an original one at that, but did I miss something? I feel like I did.

For example, whilst I noticed Doll’s narration continuously using numerical figures where the actual noun would have been standard – “1stly” instead of “firstly” – I’m not exactly sure why Amis did it (and it does feel like Amis did it, not his narrator). Reluctantly, I searched online and found nothing substantial enough to answer me – I suspect that until a specialist in Stylistics writes on the matter, I won’t be satisfied.

I mentioned in the previous post that I was tentatively enjoying the lack of description for physical surroundings, and although I remain happy with such an approach to a novel, then add in a somewhat disorientating pace to the final third of the novel and the whole thing began to thoroughly confuse me

My point is that I finished what was a powerfully savage, and sometimes exquisite, book feeling unsure about what had actually happened from start to finish. And so it joins the ranks of those novels that I have loved the process of reading, though perhaps not found enough of a story to feel connected to it by the end. Was this literary fiction, and therefore the reason I didn’t keep up? 

I think Michael Hofmann did a superb job in reviewing the book less favourably than I would and that’s where I take some reassurance that my confusion isn’t without some grounding at least.

Max the Cat

Max, perhaps

As I researched around cats in literature, Alison Flood reminded me in her Guardian Books blog of the wonderful tale of Emir Filipović, an academic who, whilst researching his PhD, came across a 15th century manuscript stained by the pawprints of a cat, doubtlessly vying for the author’s attention. “[T]he past was full of ‘normal’ everyday events, just like today,” Emir tells Alison, “and a picture such as the one with the cat pawprints tends to remind everybody that people who lived in the past were not much different than ourselves.”

Max, whose mousing skills I quote in my previous post, is character who has no dialogue. Some would say not, claiming he’s just a literary device, easily disposed of when the time comes, and that’s fine, if you’re willing to say the same of the Jews who are wordlessly loaded off the trains and murdered, but still, just like Max, form a living, feeling force in that fictional world. 

This legendary mouser, no doubt, mirrors the plot and the ideologies within it: a ferocious killer unconcerned with either end of the scale, at cruelty or compassion, who eventually turns on those he serves. The idea that he serves anyone but himself is dubious, of course, and I’m reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ comments, “Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.”

And so here it is: I’ve always entertained my own brand of rebellion, one encapsulated by the very philosophy that I believe cats too embody, the basic and life-altering, “Fuck you.”

It’s not grounded in morality, a sadist can use it as much as a pacifist can, after all, but instead it’s looking at those in power square in the eyes, unmoving, those who would rule you totally given the chance, and saying, fuck you. When Max coolly clawed at Thomsen, drawing blood, I smiled reading it, envisioning this cat empowered by a simple philosophy. Perhaps too disposable is the idea that this feline betrayal mirrors Thomsen’s changing values in the story, or his odd humanity in the constant setting of his depravity, far too motif/thematic, too school literature lesson, perhaps; I honestly cannot pin any real, justifiable analysis on Max. But it is a glorious Fuck you, in any case, and for that I won’t forget him.

I whipped my hand away – but not fast enough; there was a thin red stripe on the base of my thumb, which in a minute or so, I knew, would start to seep.
“You little shit,” I said.
He didn’t flee, he didn’t hide. He lay there on his back staring at me with his claws unsheathed.

– p.260

Lightning over a dark horizon - Stephen King's "Revival"

Religion, Music and Drugs in ‘Revival’ by Stephen King


I finished Revival  – and without taking the planned break at page 300 to write a post marking the milestone, whoops. Instead I found myself obsessing over the story and was helpless but to relentlessly tear through the rest of the novel at every available moment. What follows however is not a review, I’m simply not one to be trusted on that front, and so instead I present a discussion of what interests me most about Revival.


On Religion

Stephen King is a believer in God. He told Rolling Stone magazine last year, “I choose to believe that God exists, and therefore I can say, ‘God, I can’t do this by myself. Help me not to take a drink today. Help me not to take a drug today.’ And that works fine for me.”

This particular use of belief as a tool for support or strength that King seems to have plays into the novel. Where faith parts with Jamie Morton, drugs and alcohol appear to take over; where faith parts with Charles Jacobs, obsession and amorality. Both are examples of one such supportive crutch being replaced with others. Whilst this may have been the doorway to a novel that battled faith against atheism, I was glad to see King refrain from doing so.

You’re not real!‘ I shouted. ‘You’re not real! It’s all a bunch of tricks! Damn you, Jesus! Damn you, Jesus! Damn you, damn you, damn you, Jesus!

Those words are spoken by our narrator as a young boy marking the end of his belief. I like to believe that King used damn intentionally, a nod to the pervasiveness of adoptive theological language in our everyday tongue, ironically even in the renunciation of faith itself. 


On Music and Drugs

I recently spoke to an old friend of Stephen King. He’s a musician from Chicago, who fell into addiction at the same time that King was climbing out of it. Michael McDermott’s music (think Springsteen, Chris Rea, Dylan, etc.) made such an impression on the novelist, in fact, that an essay penned by Stephen now takes pride of place on his website. I mention Michael because I saw him, for better and for worse, in the pages of Revival. Taken in by the rock’n’roll lifestyle, both our narrator and McDermott fell into addiction at a young age and subsequently saw big-time success slip away – and just like Jamie, McDermott is now clean and sober. 

Jamie’s story feels genuine because it echoes much of what Michael has told me in our conversations: the helplessness of addiction, the hypnosis of playing rock’n’roll live, and the longevity of love through it all. Did King draw from his own experiences of addiction and those of his friends then? It seems likely.

“Nobody lives one day at a time like a drug addict. You don’t think yesterday or tomorrow. You just think now, where is it? I was high much of the eighties, and I’m not a very reflective person, so it never crossed my mind that it was an existential thing, or that it was wasteful or anything else. It was just what I was doing that day.”

– Stephen King, Guardian interview, 2000

“I went to jail for it (I was facing 3 to 6 years in prison), that didn’t stop me. Ruined relationships, that didn’t stop me. Became a car thief, that didn’t stop me. Overdosed, that didn’t stop me. […] I would be asked to speak at churches and between services I would be outside in my car, drinking whiskey and snorting cocaine.”

– Michael McDermott, in a forthcoming interview on my Huffington Post UK blog.

“The future was looking brighter. I would score at the fair, find a place to crash – maybe at a local homeless shelter, maybe outside – and tomorrow I’d ride the big gray dog to Shytown. There was a musicians’ exchange there, as there is in most big cities, with players sitting around, telling jokes, swapping gossip, and looking for gigs. For some this wasn’t easy (accordion players, for example), but bands were always looking for competent rhythm guitar players, and I was a smidge more than that. By 1992 I could even play a little lead, if called upon to do so. And if I wasn’t too wrecked.The important thing was to get to Chicago and get a gig before Kelly Van Dorn put out the word that I was unreliable, and the pisshead just might.”

– Jamie Morton, Chapter 5, Revival



100 Pages in… Revival, by Stephen King [No Spoilers]


kinghciar1One hundred pages in and I’m reminded of something: Stephen King is effortlessly absorbing. And he is a master craftsman in world-building. So, put those together and you find yourself often in Derry, Castle Rock, Dallas, or Harlow, without so much of a scuff of your feet as you hit the dusty road. After a slightly drab, though ultimately cathartic, stumble through Mr Mercedes, Revival has me hooked again, feeling the heat and smelling the electrified air.

Both in time and space, Revival‘s narrative takes over the steering wheel. In some novels, I find myself making a concerted effort to drive the narrative on with my attention in tact, identifying reasons to be intrigued and indulging in intricacies of language where plot offers only nuances of change. Now, that’s no negative aspect, as far as I’m concerned, because sometimes a story requires less adrenaline, less races of the heart, and more inspection of the finer details – it can often to be the clue to the whole thing being really rather beautiful – but it’s nice to get inside, feel the tug and shove of relentless shifts of time and place, and simply enjoy the ride, however bumpy it may be.

I was bound to love this story, as it turns out. Science, religion, music, sex, drugs and violence – it’s a list to entice most. And although I know there were some mediocre reviews for this book, I sit happily in the knowledge that the experience is subjective to the reader. I relate to the above topics, especially religion and drugs and music, so I’m completely invested in knowing how everything turns out.

My Uh-Oh moment so far? When King’s narrative monkey jumped on the shoulder’s of relative strangers. When that happens, you know something terrible, something utterly awful is going to happen. Well, it did.

And I loved it.