Quick Blurb: Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

Currently, I am reading Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, a series of graphic novels by the author of American Gods, Coraline, and Stardust, the last two of which were made into movies. If you’ve seen his films, you really get an idea as to the author’s mind—he’s the kind of writer bursting with creativity and who has a very unusual (and sometimes disturbing) perspective on the world. If there is one author today I would call a successor to Lovecraft, much as I loathe to make comparisons between writers, it’s this guy. I don’t usually review graphic novels as I feel they are outside my area of knowledge, but if there are a couple of series that really elevate the medium, one would have to be Alan Moore’s Watchmen and the other Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.

The Sandman is the god of dreams. One hundred years ago, he was imprisoned by a cult, and by the time he got out the whole world had gone to hell. Last night I was reading about a serial killer convention. It was so disturbing I almost had to put the book down. But the author justifies all that comes before in the conclusion.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Gaiman does not glorify gore (which I detest) but he is not afraid to show us the darkest side of humanity. In the end, it turns out that serial killers in general have been largely influenced by a nightmare that got loose from the dream world. Instead of punishing or killing the serial killers, the Sandman simply forces them to realize the awfulness within themselves.

It’s very dark, mature and complex, but for those who can stomach it—and those old enough not to take the wrong message from it—I can’t recommend The Sandman enough.

The Window

by Nick Alimonos 
Once there was a man named Fred who worked as a file clerk at the law firm of Eumus & Kant. Fred was a typical man, of typical height and appearance. His upbringing was typical, as he was raised by typical parents who taught him the typical things. The school he went to was also typical. And when it came time, in his mid thirties, for him to find a job, as was expected, he found it only reasonable to work at Eumus and Kant. After all, the hours were decent and the salary satisfactory.
            With his typical job, surrounded by typical coworkers, Fred learned to be content with life. He even settled down with a wife, two kids and a mortgage. He expected a paycheck every week, and every month on the 10th made sure to pay the bank for his house, content in knowing that, when he would be sixty five, he’d be the owner of his home.
            Then one day something very atypical happened. Fred was sitting at his office mid-afternoon, collating contracts—his thoughts occasionally wandering to the long grocery list his wife had given him that morning—when he realized he’d run out of staples. He first checked the stapler to make sure it wasn’t jammed. He then checked every drawer in his desk. Once assured there were no more staples in his office, he neatly stacked the loose papers in a corner and walked over to the copy room to see if there was any he could borrow. It was on the way over that he spotted it, between 2B and N2B, a window.
It wasn’t as if he’d never seen a window before. In fact, his office building had one hundred and thirty seven of them. It was just that—the view from the window was like nothing he’d ever seen. It was, in a word, breathtaking. Instead of dark gray asphalt and rows of cars and neatly trimmed hedges, there was green cliff faces, dropping for miles to a river cutting like a golden serpent through the valley between the hills. Hanging from those cliffs, for as far as Fred could see, there were chimneys, and little blue doors, and little blue shutters for windows. Stairwells were cut into the rock, so closely to the edge that Fred almost missed them; they zigzagged across the valley, a few so ancient that the structures they’d been built for were long crumbled away. Most remarkable of all, however, were the zeppelins. They floated in the haze, like clouds, from peak to peak. Seagulls circled lazily about them as they drifted in and out of the valley. But they were nothing like those in the old WWII videos—these were majestic, mahogany, flying works of art—galleons in the sky.
Something unfamiliar stirred in Fred’s soul that day, something atypical. His first reaction was to press his nose against the windowpane, and when he squinted he could just make out, far and away, a family crossing a bridge from one tower to a waiting zeppelin. They were colorfully dressed in pastels, a man in a pinstripe suit and bowler hat carrying his infant daughter. The woman beside him, maybe his wife, was twirling a parasol and laughing gaily as the wind tugged at her hair. 
Suddenly the phone rang. It had been ringing, actually, for quite a length of time. Someone would have to answer it. Fred tore his nose away from the window and stumbled back to his desk. His hand was trembling when he picked up the receiver. He heard nothing but a dial tone. The person on the other end of the line, tired of waiting, hung up. Fred felt a pang of guilt and hoped the person would call back. After all, it was among his duties to answer the phone.
For a while, Fred stared blankly at his desk. It was the same he’d been at for twenty years. Never once had he considered what color it was or the wood grain along its tabletop. He supposed that, had someone asked him about his desk, he would have to guess or lie about it. In truth, Fred never really saw his office before, nor had he ever noticed the simple contents of the space aside from the single picture frame with his wife and children on it. He discovered, with a strange sense of discomfort welling up from his gut, that his office was quite plain looking, quite typical.
Finally, Fred remembered the staples. With a small sense of purpose, he walked back across the hall, part of him frightened of the window, another part exhilarated at the thought of it. What he decided he would do, was go around another way, get the staples, and on his way back take a second look out the window. For a moment he feared the window might not be there, but when he came again he was elated to find it, as breathtakingly beautiful as before.
That night, when Fred came home, greeting his children first as they came running into his arms and then his wife, the little joy he found in coming home felt somehow muted. It was not as if he no longer loved his family. But the entire half-hour drive home, Fred could not stop thinking about the window. At dinner, he usually asked the kids about school, or talked about his day with his wife, but that night he didn’t feel in the mood. His wife, always perceptive of his moods, asked him if anything was the matter. What could he say? He considered, briefly, telling her about the window—he tried hard to think about how he might approach the subject, but try as he may, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. The words did not exist in him to make her feel, or understand, what he did.
The next day, Fred went to work eagerly. He even skipped breakfast, preferring to drink his coffee in the car. He spent the first hour and a half at work simply staring out the window. If not for his feelings of guilt, he might have stared out the window for the remainder of the day.
When he went to his desk, Fred found work difficult—not that it was hard—he simply had trouble concentrating. What contented him before now made him bored and frustrated. He tried to find some beauty in collating papers and filing documents, but there was no beauty to be found in it. Sometimes, he found himself doodling in the margins of his giant desk calendar; he drew cliffs with chimneys, and zeppelins, many, many zeppelins.
At the water cooler, Fred tried to bring up the topic of the window. He was amazed that nobody at Eumus and Kant ever mentioned it. Whenever he brought up the subject, however, he was met with indifference. Sometimes, he’d wait for someone to cross into the hall and then with some pretense call them over to talk by it. But though all of his coworkers noticed the window was there, nobody ever seemed to find anything remarkable about it. “How about those zeppelins,” Fred would say, but they’d simply roll their eyes at him or make some excuse to leave, or, if they were kind, nervously change the subject as if he’d brought up something offensive.
As the months went on, Fred’s thoughts about the window persisted. On more than one occasion he attempted to broach the subject to his wife, but even when he did manage the courage, she was very brief with him. “That’s so nice,” she’d say, or she’d bring up something inane, the shoes on sale at Macy’s. Fred became so frustrated by her responses or lack thereof, that he decided it better not to bring it up. At work, he felt increasing alienation, despite a few attempts to share his passion. It was not long after he’d determined that no one but him cared about the window—and the world beyond it—that Fred began to distance himself from his family and coworkers. Discussions at the dinner table and in the bedroom became mundane exercises—he told his wife only what was expected and she responded in kind. At Eumus and Kant, he went about his duties mechanically, finding small joys during the brief periods when he could sit beside the window and stare at the passing zeppelins. His productivity reports showed an overall decline, and it was not long before he began to show up late for work, unshaven, with his clothes a mess.
Some days, Fred daydreamed himself beyond the window, climbing those ancient steps to look through the blue shutters, greeting the man in the pinstripe suit and bowler hat, taking a journey over the gold tipped river in a zeppelin. During those brief episodes of joy, he imagined bringing his wife and children to the window, watching their excited faces as they joined him in that world beyond. But the same old concerns brought him crashing down. Where would they go to school? Where would he work? What would his housewife do, if not at home? It couldn’t be, he told himself, over and over.
At night, the world beyond the window became a recurring dream. But every morning upon waking, he’d remember the colorlessness of his existence, and meet the world heavily. 
Finally, one afternoon, Fred found himself unable to continue focusing on the contract he was reading. Everything around him, the legal language, the office, and even his family—it all felt unreal. The artificialness of life had become unbearable. He dropped his pencil and marched over to the window, fully intending to open it and step through, but there was no latch, nothing to hold on to. But that did not deter him. He decided right then and there to return the following morning with a hammer from his garage, to break the window, even if it meant cutting his arms, even if it meant falling from the cliffs to his death.
When Fred returned early the next day, hammer in hand, he felt his soul drop into his stomach as he came to a brick wall where the window had been. Desperately, he circled the office floor, searching for the window between offices 2B and N2B, and only after a long time of searching did he come to accept that the window was no longer there. Hot, angry tears rolled down his cheeks as he chipped at the wall where that vista to the other world had been. But the wall was unyielding.
“Fred!”
It was his boss, Mr. Kant. He walked up to Fred, who laid whimpering and sweating against the wall. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Fred?” he barked.
“N-Nothing,” Fred replied. “I was trying to . . . to find something.”
“You were looking for that window, weren’t you, Fred?”
Fred nodded nervously. He was too ashamed to admit anything more to Mr. Kant.
Mr. Kant sighed. “Do you think you’re any different, Fred? Do you think you’re special? Do you think you’re the first person in my office to notice that window?”
“No, sir,” Fred answered, though he wasn’t really sure.
“Everyone’s looked out that damn window at one time or another. I know I did, when I was a young boy, when my father ran the company.”
“What did you . . . what did you do?” Fred asked, wondering how Mr. Kant could go on living, though he couldn’t quite express the sentiment.
“I learned to ignore it,” Mr. Kant said, “just like everyone else does. Of course, I realize that some people have more trouble ignoring it than others, which is why I had it walled up earlier this morning.”
Fred managed to find the floor. He tried to button his collar but was trembling too much. “But . . . but sir . . .,” he stammered, “what about those people, on the other side, who were those people?”
“Those were children,” Mr. Kant replied.
Suddenly Fred remembered things he’d not for most of his life. He remembered sitting up in his crib, watching zeppelins soar over his head. He remembered his crayon renditions of those same hills with the blue shutters—they’d adorned the fridge for years in his mother’s house. But they weren’t all children in that other world. He’d seen the families—the man in the bowler hat. “But, Mr. Kant, they’re not all—”
They’re all children!” his boss insisted. “Now what you’ve got to do is grow up. Forget about that window and go back to your office. Productivity has fallen ten percent in the last quarter.”
“Yes, Mr. Kant.”
Quietly, and without looking back, Fred returned to his office door. It was a typical office, full of typical things, a Formica desk, some paper for the fax machine, a cup full of pencils and a box of staples. There was no view to the outside. Eventually, Fred boxed himself in. And he never spoke about the window to anyone again.
  
  

This Book’s No Phony: My Thoughts on J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

The first thing I noticed about The Catcher in the Rye was the cover; the back flap is identical to the front, title and all. There are no reviews from critics. No description to lure you into picking the book off the shelf. I found this refreshing, considering the usual nonsense publishers insist on—getting critics to gush over the brilliance of this or that author. You’d think geniuses are a dime a dozen these days. The only visual you have as to the book’s content is an abstract of a horse on a carousel, a perfect metaphor for its story, which I cannot go into without spoiling it.

I can remember feeling much like Holden Caulfield, the novel’s protagonist, at sixteen. I used to argue why I should tell every customer at work to “have a nice day”. It may sound selfish, but how much do we really concern ourselves with a stranger’s day? And yet, society demands this kind of conformity. You either give in to it or become a social recluse. Of course, this makes us all—every adult on the planet—phonies. It’s in the nuances of social interaction that we come to understand the necessity of small talk, that a level of “phoniness” is necessary. If the Internet proves anything, it’s that we can’t all go around speaking our hearts and minds. But passing from childhood into adulthood, from innocence to cynicism, can be a painful transition. It’s the angst of this middle stage of life—of being a teenager—that The Catcher in the Rye brilliantly captures.

As much as Holden Caulfield rails against phoniness, the exact opposite quality, sincerity, is the novel’s greatest strength. Reading it makes you realize how artificial other books can be. Caulfield is a protagonist only by the strictest definition; you identify with him because he isn’t larger than life: he’s you and me. Reading this book is like talking to a close friend. There is little plot, and hardly any conflict to drive the story forward, yet you get the sense that if there had been, it would only seem contrived. It is, rather, a coming of age story, a journey through the varying stages of life, from the disillusionment of youth to the eventuality of pragmatism and conformity.

The Catcher in the Rye touches a nerve in you. It speaks to that which so many feel but can rarely voice—a sense that the society we live in is, as Holden Caulfield would likely call it today, bullshit. What are contracts, and lease agreements, and signatures, and credit scores, if not bullshit? Even the people telling you to sign the damn things don’t expect you to read them.

If J.D. Salinger read this review, he’d probably call me a phony too. However I am loathe to admit it, I write these reviews to show off my knowledge of literature—which I hope will translate to people thinking I’d make a good writer. Sadly, we are all vying for attention. We are all trying to prove our worthiness to be loved, and in doing so, are just as phony as we’ve ever been.