October 29, 2009

The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman

The Wolves in the Walls is Neil Gaiman's second picture book, and it's full of all the things that people read Neil Gaiman for - it's darkly imaginative, charming and a little bit unsettling in an oddly breezy way. It's wonderfully illustrated in a sort of collage / mixed media form by Dave McKean, whose work effectively reflects the aesthetic of Neil Gaiman's prose. The first time I read The Wolves in the Walls, I gobbled it up and smiled. The second time however, when I started to really look at it, I was disappointed. This is not because Gaiman's story did not hold up - it did. In fact, the second reading impressed me insofar as Gaiman's ability to tap into the darker corners of childhood fear. What disappointed me, in the end, was the execution. Let me explain.

The Wolves in the Walls is loooong by picture book standards - over 2000 words, when the average is about 700. This is not necessarily a problem if the writing is tight, clear and efficient. If the writing isn't tight, clear and efficient, the length of the book works against you, so that by the end of it, the reader has ended up having a pretty muddy read. It isn't enough that the prose be tight and clear - the story itself can't have any fat, no areas or episodes or moments that don't drive the narrative forward or in some way feed the rhythm of the book. This is where The Wolves in the Walls disappoints.

The basic concept - that a little girl named Lucy hears wolves in the walls and her family doesn't believe her - is awesome, especially because it turns out that Lucy's right. The beginning starts out slowly, but that's not a bad thing as it built up a sort of mild, creepy suspense. But when the slowness continues through the entire of the story it doesn't work so well - there's little sense of disaster when the wolves do come out of the walls, and little sense of climax when the family reclaims their house. The high stakes and suspense are all muffled under cluttered prose and Lucy's overly talkative family. One severe edit would have done the trick, but without it, The Wolves in the Walls is only half of what it could have been.

I find this with a lot of Neil Gaiman's work. He's brilliant and I love the way his brain works and so desperately want to whole-heartedly gobble up everything he writes, but he's undisciplined. The only reason The Wolves in the Walls got published without the edit it deserved is because Neil Gaiman's name would make it sell. If his craft were as developed as his conceptions, he would be amazing, but it rarely is, so I always end up feeling teased by the book's potential. And that's how I feel about The Wolves in the Walls - it's so damn close I could smell the smoke, but no cigar in the end. :(


Anonymous said...

I tend to either LOVE Neil Gaiman, or be very unimpressed. With Wolves in the Walls, the first time I read, I didn't like it. The second time I read it, I thought it was cute and wonderful for four and five year olds (my four year old nephew loves it) but I thought Cinderella Skeleton by Robert D. San Souci (which I bought at the same time) was much better, with better illustrations.

Madeleine said...

I loved "Cinderella Skeleton", and the illustrations make it. I'm reading "Coraline" right now. So far I'm really liking it, and I really, really, really want it to stay that way :)

JimDesu said...

I concur, but have to give him the cigar anyway because of the elephant....