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Feature:
Gaiman's Coraline
By Josh Buchin

07.07.02


An Almost-Fireside Evening with Neil Gaiman:
A review of his new book Coraline



Coraline is the newest book by author Neil Gaiman, and, like all his work, it tells a disturbing story of an off-kilter world thatís just familiar enough to be unsettling.

It is the tale of a young girl named Coraline who lives in a big boring house, or at least, what she thinks is a big boring house. When she stumbles into a locked room that leads to an alternate dimension of sorts, she quickly finds out that things are far from boring. This other part of the house is filled with excitement; toys are alive, the parents that inhabit this strange world are kind to her (more so then her real parents); cats talk and rats sing. Itís a perfect - albeit extremely twisted - world and Coraline is quite happy there - until she returns home and finds that her real parents have disappeared and that the mysterious dwellers of the other part of the house are responsible. It is up to Coraline to save them and to stop the evil lurking in her house.

Coraline is a groundbreaking work for Gaiman because it is the first book heís written for ďall ages.Ē On a number of occasions, Gaiman has said that he wrote Coraline for his young daughters and he has succeeded in crafting a book that children could enjoy (although in all fairness, they might be slightly disturbed by some material in the book), but also spinning a tale that adults could read as well. At times, Coraline is an incredibly creepy book. Much of the horror in it young children probably wonít pick up, reserving these frights for adults who can understand the bizarreness of the world Gaiman creates.

Ultimately, thatís what Gaiman accomplishes with Coraline. He crafts a unique universe, where everything is wrong, even when things are supposed to be right. Itís a magnificent fairy tale that dwells in an obviously fairy tale world. At the same time, itís an unsettling place and Gaiman tightrope walks successfully; he doesnít fall off to either the too-enchanting side or to the too-dark side. Sometimes the writing is scary, other times humorous. Thereís a dry wit coursing through the whole book. Even during the dark sections, Gaiman boldly strikes a match of humor. It may sound tonally malleable, but itís not. The world is believable and consistent throughout the whole of the book.

The premise of Coraline isnít all that original. The idea of an unhappy girl discovering a secret room in her house where things are better and stranger is far from new or novel. But the details that Gaiman infuses this old clichť with are so remarkably bizarre and imaginative the reader can forgive the author for setting up the story in an almost formulistic manner. After all, there are only so many stories that can be told and therefore, itís the way the stories are told that matters most. And no one could do a better job revitalizing this classic premise and making it seem interesting and fresh again than Neil Gaiman.

Pen and ink illustrations are scattered (periodically, maybe fifteen illustrations total) throughout the book, drawn by long time Gaiman collaborator, Dave McKean. McKeanís line work is at its best here and perfectly compliments the story. Similar to the story, McKeanís style is a real-but-slanted one. Character line-work is expressive but purposely sloppy. Lines donít connect at a perfect point, nor are they totally straight. Perspective is off in most of the drawings, tables taking funny slants, glasses leaving odd shadows. All art is done masterfully, of course, and the odd nature of the drawings adds to the odd feeling of the book.


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Tuesday July 2, 2002: Gaiman was in the San Francisco Bay Area, giving a full reading of Coraline. The event was organized by Codyís Books (one of the largest independent bookstores in Northern California) and held at a local church, with tickets going on sale for ten dollars for adults and five for people sixteen and under. While much mention is made of the book being for kids, the theater was jam packed with adults, perhaps an expected (or unexpected?) side effect of having a three-hour reading begin in the evening.

The show was delayed and the six-thirty start time quickly dragged on and became seven. Roaring applause echoed through the large church as Neil Gaiman walked onto the stage, clad in what could easily be mistaken for a biker motif-black, steel-toed boots, black pants, black shirt, black leather jacket. In fact, with his long scruffy hair and heavy stubble, Gaiman looks like he could blend in at a Hellís Angel drink-up just as comfortably as he could stand up in front of a large audience and read for three hours.

There were two 90-minute reading sections with an intermission in-between. Gaiman read excellently, changing his voice to suit different characters, slowing his words to toy with the audience and most importantly reading clearly, concisely and eloquently. His seventh grade teacher would be beamingly proud-every syllable of every word was clearly enunciated. He gave off an air of relaxed, casual confidence that transferred straight to the audience. Everyone listening in the hard, church seats felt wanted there, felt like Gaiman was the best friend who had grown up down the street from them.

An electric current ripped through the audience as Gaiman spoke-he had everyoneís full attention. When a joke was told (and occasionally when one wasnít), people laughed. During moments of suspense, the theater was silent enough to hear a pin drop, except for Gaimanís skillful reading as he dragged out the words to edge the suspense.

Mention must be made of the idea of reading the whole book. The concept of renting out an auditorium (or church), filing it with people and then reading them a complete beginning-middle-end 160-page book in its entirety (not just an excerpt) is a new and great one. Gaiman and Codyís Books demonstrated a terrific amount of bravery for staging such a mad, crazy show. The fact that it worked out so well is a testament to the type of intelligence that everyone involved possesses.

Receiving a story by auditory means is an odd experience, one that most American adults arenít used to. More focus is required then is necessary to follow along with a movie, but the needed effort you have to put in is worth the work, especially when the reader is as talented as Gaiman. Hopefully, there will be other full readings of Coraline and with a little luck, of other short books as well.

Although at times it became tiring and uncomfortable, hearing Gaiman read his own complete work was a treat to be savored. If the Coraline tour (assuming it is a tour) comes to your town, take the opportunity to hear him. Otherwise, just buy the book (or the audio tapes, which Gaiman also reads). You wonít be disappointed, even if you are left with an unsettled, double-check-behind-the-curtains-before-you-fall-asleep kind of feeling.

 

 
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