Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Going Neverwhere

Once upon a time, I wrote a post about commas and what they're for and what they're not for. It's a good post and one that's absolutely true. The fact that people are constantly starting sentences with a conjunction and, then, throwing a comma after it to show me that they are pausing after they say it drives me crazy. I don't care if you're saying, "So," and taking a breath; that comma doesn't go after it. For instance:
It is not:
"So, do you want a piece of pie or not?"
It is:
"So do you want a piece of pie or not?"
If you want to indicate the pause to the reader, use, "So... Do you want a piece of pie or not?"
The point being that the way we say this culturally, right now, is just that: it's the way we say it right now. Five years from now, we may not throw those pauses in all over the place while we speak, and I don't need you to show me how you're saying it. I just need you to convey the correct meaning.

Anyway... The post about the commas coupled with this more recent post about following the rules when you write serve as the backdrop to this review.

Neverwhere was the last book by Neil Gaiman that I hadn't read. I'm not sure why I hadn't read it; I just missed it somehow and, then, kept not getting around to it. But, finally, I did get around to it. It has displaced, surprisingly, The Graveyard Book as my favorite Gaiman novel. I say surprisingly because, at first, I was a bit confused by it. Not the story. I was confused by Gaiman's sudden inadequacy with the comma. They were all over the place and in places they didn't (and shouldn't) need to be. What the heck? None of Gaiman's other books have comma issues; why would this one?

Have you ever heard Neil Gaiman read one of his stories? Well, I have, and he has a particular cadence when he reads, when he's doing any public speaking (heck, for all I know, he always talks like that), and I realized by the time I had finished the prologue that the extra commas were there because Gaiman was, in fact, telling me how to breathe. Where to pause. When to go on. In effect, he was creating a particular atmosphere, a rhythm, that was just as if I was sitting here letting him read it to me. And it was awesome.

But, see, that's what you can do when you know what you're doing with the rules. It's knowing the rules and taking them and bending them to your purpose. Sure, probably more than half of the commas (actually, I'd bet more like 2/3 of the commas) don't belong. They're in places where they shouldn't be. But, then, you'd read too quickly and lose the atmosphere, the creepy, of the story. Gaiman wrote it to give you the effect of being underground, in tunnels, lost, confused. Of not knowing what's going on, whether your sane, or, even, if you are who you think you are.

I loved it.

And, now, I've flipped. I've gone from having his most recent novel as my favorite to having his first novel as my favorite. I don't think, either, that it's just because it's the one I've most recently read. I don't remember ever reading anything where the author paid so much attention to the atmosphere he was creating through his use of punctuation. Not that he necessarily did it on purpose, of that I have no idea, but he did do it.

And we haven't even started talking about the story yet. Which is great. Disconcerting. Full of interesting characters. The marquis. Croup. Vandemar. Things are rarely what they seem. Even when they are. "I've saved  his life four times today already." [Or something like that. I couldn't actually find the quote in what I felt was a reasonable amount of time.]

Best of all, though, it doesn't end the way you expect these kinds of stories to end. The way they usually end. And I would talk about that, but I don't want to talk about the ending, so I'm not going to. All I can say is that you should go read it. I'm fairly sure I'll have to read it again one of these days, and I really don't do that rereading thing, so that's saying quite a bit.

"...if this is all there is, then I don't want to be sane."

[If, by chance, you do want to listen to Neil read, you can go to here. I've only listen to the first two so far, but they're worth it. (The January one reminds me of something Briane Pagel would write.)]


  1. I read 'Neverwhere' while in Paris and left the book in the rental apartment so someone else could enjoy it.

    I liked the book a lot, and I never even considered the commas. He kept surprising me with that double world he created.

    Now I'm paranoid about my commas.

  2. College Humor made this graphic that's a colon, semi-colon, and maybe a comma and a period, and they've suggested we stop using anything else and just start putting those everywhere in out text to avoid all that punctuation confusion.

    Anyway, I liked Neverwhere, but it's folks like him that have ruined commas for the rest of us. I have used that book to justify, to myself, my usage. Figures.

  3. I've only read Stardust.
    I wonder if those pauses will be present in the BBC radio adaptation of Neverwhere coming out soon?

  4. I had to go look at the description for "Neverwhere" to remember if I read it. I had, but that fact tells you what I thought. It was okay; I thought it was a fairly typical "hidden city, etc" story.

    If you liked "Neverwhere," though, I would highly recommend "Kraken," by China Mieville. It's one of my top books, ever. It has Neverwhere-ish, Gaimainesque elements but is far more imaginative and includes some sci-fi, too.

  5. So, you're saying, you liked, Neverwhere, it's a novel, and that's the guy, you reviewed?

    Yep, one of my favorites; commas: or no commas!

  6. If it was his first novel then I suspect the real reason was that he was too green to follow your draconian comma rules and too unimportant as yet for an editor to waste time on the issue.

  7. Brilliant writer. There was a TV adaptation of this on the BBC back in the Eighties and it was seriously weird.

    As regards the 'piece of pie' thing, in my view the pause could also be indicated like this:

    "So. Do you want a piece of pie or not?"

    That kind of leeway within dialogue, in the UK, is pretty common.

    I have to say that the comma thing you mention is one of the few grammatical issues that I am absolutely not bothered by as a reader. In fact in the UK I think we see that kind of "So, do you want a piece of grammatical advice or not?" thing a lot more. I'm pretty sure I'm guilty of that kind of usage once or twice too.

  8. I'm a comma freak because I had a law professor who would take off points on our legal briefs for technicalities like commas. Never mind the legal issues or arguments, but you damn well better have commas everywhere.

  9. Never read it. I like Stardust. I find so many punctuation errors these days, I begin to despair.


  10. D.G.: Everyone should and should not be paranoid about their commas. I can't believe you left the book behind. I think that's awesome and dreadful at the same time.

    Rusty: LOL Well, you know... actually, I don't know.
    I forget who it was suggested we not use any punctuation except the occasional period. But, then, I can't follow her writing except when she's reading it, because there are no commas, and I get tired of reading all the sentences three or four times to figure them out.

    Alex: I actually liked the movie of Stardust better, but it's a good book. I'm not sure about the radio thing.

    Briane: Ah, I wil go look that up. Bah! The Kindle edition is as much as the paperback! Well, it's on the list, but it will be a while till I get to it.

    L.G.: Yes, this is the review I was talking about that everyone was so sorry for the guy for.

    PT: Gaiman was already a huge name before this novel. He'd done a novel with Pratchett and Sandman and, well, all kinds of things, so it wasn't getting stuck with a bad editor.

    Neil: That's true; there could also be a period. I was just giving an example because the comma is wrong. However, British rules are not quite the same as American rules, and I can, of course, only speak for the American rules.

    I've seen the TV show way back sometime. I'm pretty sure the novel is the adaptation. Rather like the novel of Hitchhiker's was the adaptation.

    JKIR,F!: The commas and semi-colons are incredibly important in legal documents, because they use them to their intended purpose: meaning. If you leave one out, it can change the meaning of the document. I used to work as a proofreader for a lawyer, so I have some experience with that.

    Michael: He is. You should follow that link I included.

    Jo: Like I said to Alex, Stardust is a good book, but I actually liked the movie more. You should try some of his other works.

  11. Jo: Yeah, I own that one, too. Speaking of, I need to watch it again.

  12. I've fallen asleep to Neil Gaiman reading -- mostly last fall when I was stressed as hell about my thesis and was having trouble sleeping.

    I feel a bit weird about that, but DAMN the man has lovely cadence.

  13. Callie: I can see that. What's to feel weird about?
    Have you listened to his Calendar of Tales?

  14. I don't know. And yes, I did hear it. He is an amazing storyteller. If I ever meet him in real life, I'm probably going to be a stuttering fool.

  15. Shh... Don't tell anyone; he's going to be here in July.