There is a convention that governs and safeguards from undue literalism any novel told, usually in the first person, as Ocean is, by a protagonist whose life and memories reflect those of the named author: it is the claim that the author neither wishes to be (nor in fact is capable of being) the figure he has created to tell his story. Given the nature of Ocean’s ending, it is very important to keep this distinction in mind. Neil Gaiman the author, who is able to tell the story of this book, survives the book. His unnamed protagonist is not exactly as lucky.
It might also be noted that Gaiman, who has been influenced in the past by Gene Wolfe, does not employ the device Wolfe has used to lock verisimilitude into his major confessional novels: the novel that purports to be a literal manuscript composed by its protagonist; a manuscript readers must witness, as though we were auditors in some Club Story of the mind. Here, the protagonist is “simply” a first-person narrator, which is to say a rhetorical instrument authors and readers collaborate in believing able to transmit its story through the magic aether we all inhale within the frame of art. This makes the ending possible.
The OCEAN at THE END of the LANE is a short novel, and may seem straightforward, even though the narrator tells us little about himself, not his name (nor the name of any other human in the book), nor his profession (though it has something to do with making art), nor his age (we guess he may be about as old as one of Robert Aickman’s older protagonists), nor the actual nature of the ceremony he has returned to Sussex (which is named) to attend. Almost certainly this is the funeral of his father (Gaiman’s own father died recently; the narrator seems aware that when he eventually describes what goes on between him and his father he is describing deep damage).
We begin, significantly, with a description of the formal grief-gear costume the narrator has worn to the ceremony. Afterwards, he leaves, and in a quite extraordinarily stilted paragraph containing sixteen uses of the first-person singular, as though each “I” were a literal stilt to walk on (Gaiman does not write like this unless he intends to), describes himself driving “randomly” down some country roads, only to realize, suddenly, that there has been nothing random about his route, for his “chosen” path has led him toward his old family home, “a house that had not existed for decades.” Memories of childhood start to well up through the carceral plaque of his adult self, he recollects “the green circle in the grass we called the fairy ring” (which evokes in the reader’s mind a flash of Kipling’s Puck of Pook's Hill , and though the tale does not abide there, it returns at an important moment); and he drives down a deeply familiar LANE until he reaches THE END, where finds intact the old Hempstock farmhouse, which he had forgotten until this moment, and which has been occupied from time immemorial by the three Hempstock women. He “remembers” that the youngest of them, his childhood companion Lettie, “had gone somewhere” (this is a false memory, it will be peeled off soon enough); and he remembers her telling him that the duckpond at the bottom of the path was in fact the OCEAN. Remembering this (as though the Ocean were Proust’s madeleine), he begins to remember everything, or as much as he is going to remember; and the tale begins.
He is seven, a lonely, markedly passive child, prone to proleptic fears of “anatomy” lurking beneath the skin (see below); he seems to be Jewish, or half-Jewish (a condition that intensifies the sense of internal exile that fills these pages); his relatives tend to call him a “little momzer,” a Yiddish term for the offspring of a mixed marriage — or it can simply mean a monster. His family life seems, all the same, no more than routinely and unmaliciously dysfunctional, until a man who has been rooming with them steals the family car in order to kill himself in it. Traumatized by this irruption into his existence, he meets Nettie for the first time (or she meets him), and goes with her to the farmhouse, where he enters for a nonce into something like paradise, something without bottom. Childhood should be like this? we are meant to ponder. Or maybe: This childhood should be remembered? Lettie says the Hempstocks had come here from the “old country,” but their farmstead is listed in the Domesday Book. Lettie seems unimpressed, however, by the antiquity of the Domesday Book, and in any case we have already been told, in a floating passage that prefaces the tale, that the Hempstock family precedes Atlantis. But a bad thing is beginning to happen, for a sixpence she finds in the belly of a dead fish from the ocean warns her of a far more deadly irruption into this world: the suicide’s money-obsessed death has aroused a kind of monster from the depths whose only purpose is to fulfill wishes. Now that she has broken through, she can help “the little people” (us) by answering any prayer, whether or not spoken, involving money. But all Answered Prayers cost dear.
We now learn that the Hempstock women, who are clearly not human, are guardians who maintain watch and ward over the human race — in a review for the Wall Street Journal, Tom Shippey identifies them as clearly resembling the Hogbens, a family of “hillbillies” concealed in America since before the Flood, who appear in a series of Henry Kuttner/C.L. Moore tales, the first of them in the November 1941 pulp Thrilling Adventure. So Lettie must take action.
Unfortunately Lettie’s binding of the monster is thwarted when against strict instructions the narrator lets go of her hand at the height of her conjuration, and the monster establishes a wormhole access through his flesh into Sussex where, calling herself Ursula Monkton, she transmogrifies his father into a grotesque creature whose bondage is encoded in sexual misdemeanor and weirdly mechanized brutality to his son. She is now out of control. She is “a cardboard mask for the thing that had traveled inside me as a worm...” She is a Fuhrerkontakt basilisk: once within reach of her Touch, humans cannot prevent themselves from swallowing her gifts. Lettie must therefore reveal more of her chthonic puissance, and calls down aid, creatures she calls “hunger birds” and her grannie calls “varmints,” to destroy the monster; and they do so:
They fell from the sky onto the thing that held me, nightmares tearing at nightmare, pulling off strips of fabric [i.e., sails, skin, painted pomp: the essence of any puppet: for the monster is hollow inside], and through it all I heard Ursula Monkton crying. I ONLY GAVE THEM WHAT THEY NEEDED, she was saying, petulant and afraid. I MADE THEM HAPPY.
"You made my daddy hurt me," I said....
But the varmints are not finished, for an immedicable pinprick wormhole stain of Ursula still seethes poisonously within the narrator, a wrongness that laces the dimensions together, and they begin to tear him apart to excise the lesion between worlds. Lettie forbids them to rip his skin off. She leaves him within the fairy circle. He refuses all temptations to leave, even a voice from within, a voice that knows the future of this boy and the kind of man he will become:
“How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart.... There can never be a time when you forget [those who call to you through the vacancy within], when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the last time, until your loved ones give you poison and sell you to anatomy....”
Lettie returns. The narrator attempts to save her by taking his hand away from her again (a second reading of Ocean might tell me if this is the third and final time), and runs desperately across weird fields into the claws of dismembering, in order sacrificially to die for her, and the farm, and the world. But Lettie finds him, and covers him, and the maw sucks her dead. Lettie’s grandmother appears at last, and restores order, effortlessly as expected of one who has guarded the worlds since before the Big Bang. She tells the narrator that Lettie is gone, but will return in time. The narrator then tells his readers, though speaking through some occulting accordion of distance from his seven-year old self: “I felt guilt then, guilt beyond anything I had ever felt before.”
And the long framed tale ends, the narrator returns to his once-again-familiar home and begins to forget. The tale has been dark, but dark, it is possible to think, in a manner familiar to readers of Gaiman’s large oeuvre: with consolations....
We approach the hard part, because The Ocean at The End of the Lane is a hard book whose consolations are enclosed within refusal. The tale begins with an epigraph by Maurice Sendak: “I remember my own childhood vividly.... I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” First time around, this seems to be an appropriate flourish to signal the beginning of a tale of retained anamnesis: a tale whose central revelations, which the narrator has returned home in order to recover, will change him: that he has buried these memories until now, when he is old enough to bear them, now that his father is dead. The burnt-out case we meet in the first pages of Ocean — a figure strongly reminiscent of the protagonist of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953) — is precisely a “case” which is to say a casing, a paper face stretched thin over anatomy, Serkis Inside. But we think Ocean may be a tale of hope: that his memories are going to fill the hollow, are going to overwrite the encased passivity that marks him as so deeply puppet-like. (The only time he is called anything remotely personal in the entire text is when his father addresses him as Handsome George: which is the name of a well-known puppet.) He is going to get himself at last!
But of course that will not do. There is an epilogue. We are back in the present, thirty or more years later. The protagonist has finished narrating (but has not written down) the tale of his childhood, and speaks in a tone that allows us to think for a moment that these recovered memories have been clarifyingly good for him to recall, that he has been charged with self-knowledge at last, which will carry him through the years. But we soon note that his grip on the hole in his heart is already beginning to fade; that he has already forgotten what had happened to Lettie, thinking now she has gone to Australia. Grannie Hempstock brings him some tea, and corrects his assumption that this is the first time he has come back to the farm. (And a chill goes down the reader’s spine.) No, she says, you came here when you were 24, when you were scared; and you came here again in your thirties, when you were scared; and you came again now because of the funeral, which scared you. She does not tell him these visits did him any good. Nor does she tell him that in any traditional tale that invokes the rule of three you must understand that three is all you get.
So when we return to Sendak, we realize that the narrator cannot have been responsible for the epigraph; that it is the author in his own voice who places this terrible admonition at the head of his text. Because what he tells us through Sendak is that the narrator of Ocean is a goner: that instead of retaining his childhood as a secret and a fount and a weapon and an affirmation of superba, like Sendak and like Neil Gaiman, he has lost himself again, and for the last time: that the Attempted Rescue (Robert Aickman’s title for his own autobiography) has failed. The Ocean at The End of the Lane is a novel with lots of surface gifts to convey, in Gaiman’s best Artful Dodger way, of which he has become a master, and for which he has received just acclaim. It is also something harsher and more moving. I read it as a tale of farewell. I think he has written this book to flay himself of the narrator of this book. This seems brave. It cannot be an easy thing for an author as exposed to public view as Neil Gaiman to become anatomy.