Fortunately, the Milk, Neil Gaiman’s latest book for young readers, is more of a yarn than it is a novel. It’s fast-paced yet rambling, full of all sorts of improbable, delightful leaps. One page you’re reading about a minor domestic dilemma – the family has run out of milk, and the kids need it for their cereal, their father for his tea – and then next you’re on the end of a pirate ship’s plank, dangling over piranha-infested waters.
Keep turning the pages and you’ll find yourself riding in a hot-air balloon with Professor Steg, a world-famous inventor who also happens to be a stegosaurus. Then there are the black-haired jungle savages and their angry volcano god, vampires, and aliens who may or may not be giant piles of snot. Oh, and all of this is wrapped up in a plot concerning “transtemporal metascience” – that is, space/time travel and the quirky laws that govern it. (And as if this isn’t exciting enough, the whole book is stuffed full of Skottie Young’s fantastic illustrations.)
In other words, the book is a surprising one. And as such, it is the perfect introduction to Neil Gaiman’s varied, but invariably excellent, body of work.
While there are certain themes and tones that run through Gaiman’s books – and humor, too; he’s always funny – you really never know what he’s going to come out with next. Last year, along with Fortunately, the Milk, Gaiman released a novel for adults (The Ocean at the End of the Lane), a children’s book (Chu’s Day, wonderfully illustrated by Adam Rex), the two-volume omnibus of his Sandman comics, and the text of a commencement address he gave at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts (Make Good Art). He also edited a couple story collections and collaborated with other writers and artists on a handful of additional projects.
The guy is prolific, and brilliant. But what I want to say here is that his prolificacy and brilliantness are, in part, products of his refusing to be hemmed-in, pigeonholed, or otherwise categorized.
People have a tendency to categorize. It’s helpful. It allows us to assimilate and store information, to make sense of a big, busy world and the new experiences we are constantly having within it. But people also have a tendency to get pretty pissed off when someone or something disrupts those categories. Because it means work. It means we have to sit down and rethink things, accept that our previous understanding was faulty (which can be a hard thing to accept/admit in itself) and then come up with a new one.
Think about how mad some people get when a favorite character on a long-running TV show or in a series of books does something unexpected? It can feel like a betrayal. Or have you ever discovered something strange and new about a longtime friend?
Not too long ago an old friend casually mentioned to me that she was excited for the upcoming weekend since she finally had time to go back to the humane society at which she regularly volunteered. I was furious. We’d been friends a long time – how come this was the first I was hearing about these human-society visits?! Thirty seconds earlier, I wouldn’t have even said that she, my supposedly good friend, was someone who had a particular fondness for dogs and cats.
But the fault wasn’t hers. And it wasn’t really mine, either. I’d found out something new and unexpected about a friend, that’s all. And as soon as the initial annoyance passed – which it did (and within seconds) – I was actually excited to have done so. The discovery led me to reevaluate my friend, to adjust and even do away with the categories into which I had previously fit her. It brought to mind a fact that I’m aware of, but conveniently forget on a day-to-day basis – that the human beings around me are every bit as complicated, various, and in-flux as I myself am.
This, in my opinion, is a very good thing to be reminded of now and again. It brings about empathy. And that (to begin getting back to the original topic of this post) is also what good books do.
Which is why we’re lucky to have a guy like Neil Gaiman out there, surprising us not only within the covers of a single book, but over the course of his entire career. He reminds us that expectations are a form of narrow-mindedness, and that if you insist too much on seeing the world categorically, you’re not really seeing it at all.
This is one of the main reasons I read – to be constantly reminded of these things. It can be difficult and exhausting to try and always remember that everyone – artists and non-artists alike – has their very own big and intricate inner life. But it is essential that we do try. It will help make sure that we don’t miss out on any great books lurking inside of authors such as Neil Gaiman, but it will also help make the world a little bit nicer of a place to live in.
So try it. Go about your everyday life, but as you do try to remember that every person you encounter – the barista making your coffee, the telemarketer who calls at an inconvenient time, your girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, or wife, your best friend, your kid, your sibling or your parent or your colleague – is just as complicated, just as difficult to categorize and wonderfully un-simple as you are.