Tag: neil

5 Word Challenge: Sestina

Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions

I wanted to do something different this week, but couldn't think of what until yesterday.  I came across my first sestina in Neil Gaiman's book Smoke and Mirrors.  The sestina's form and repetition amazed me.  Although I am in no way comparing my writing to that of Mr. Gaiman, I knew that at some point in the future I'd have to try my hand at a sestina.

This sestina is dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut, and the first of his novels I ever read, way back when I was 12 years old.  If you haven't ever read Slaughterhouse-Five, this sestina may not make a lot of sense to you.  I recommend hurrying to your nearest bookstore, purchasing and reading a copy, and then come back and give this a second pass.

So It Goes

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
He knows the sands of the desert and the ocean's wave.
He never knows when he will wake,
or who he will see and who he will miss.
"Poo-tee-weet" is the sound of the bird's cry
following a massacre, at the sun's next light.
Death is not heavy on the heart, instead it is light –
for everyone is alive all the time.
Do not sorrow, do not cry,
or lift your hand in a goodbye wave.
For every boy and girl, mister and miss,
exists in the ship of time's froth-filled wake.
If you must console someone's loss with a wake,
hold candles and cherish your fate with their light.
You talk of "Free Will", but you will not miss
the path you have been set upon in time.
Light exists as both a particle and a wave –
as you too exist, both before and after the trumpet's cry.
Lead us all in a cheerful cry,
and we will say 'So it goes' when next we wake.
When mustard gas and roses hit us in a wave
and the ground is lit by a single star's light,
you cannot object to the tricks of time.
The past, present and future are all something to miss.
Aim for your fate, and you cannot miss –
in everyone's life there are tears you shall cry.
But when all is done, and you look at the time,
the furor of fatalism in yourself will wake.
By seeing the light,
you can accept the Tralfamadorian's wave.
As you rise up and down on time's great wave
and think of all the things you will miss,
remember your life, the dark and the light
is always existing, behind someone's cry.
A bombing will produce ruins in its wake
'So it goes', all the time.
Billy's version of time is like a wave.
Sometimes he will wake in a zoo next to his miss.
But he does not cry, for he has seen the light.

So it goes.

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Ross Reads: Smoke and Mirrors

It's fitting that I started reading this book on the flight over to the UK, and will be finishing it here.  Or rather, it just fits.

Neil Gaiman, known best for his graphic novels (Sandman, etc) and full-length novels like American Gods and Stardust, can really tell a story.  And in this book, he tells not one, but 30 'short' tales (including one hidden in the introduction!) that range from a 100-word story about a fictional figure we all know (and most of us love) to an account of Mrs. Whitaker, who finds the Holy Grail underneath a fur coat at a secondhand-goods store.

I say that the book fits, because almost all of the settings take place in England.  The few that haven't so far have instead involved British folks visiting the US.  Either way, Neil Gaiman is able to imbue his characters with lives of their own, complete with joys, worries, trials and tribulations. 

Not all of the stories end happily; as Neil puts it, "sometimes the only way I would know that a story had finished was when there weren't any more words to be written down".  But the stories (in some cases, masquerading as poems or fictional excerpts of the work of a famous historical writer) all have the power of a great storyteller behind them.  I have yet to read one that does not invoke a strong emotion in me, be it the whimsical fancy of a man who "cures" cancer but provides some interesting side effects with his solution, or the despair and determination of the man who spends most of his life searching for a girl he once saw in a Penthouse magazine when he was nineteen.

I picked this book up from the bookstore on a whim, to round out the balance on a gift certificate.  I am a fan of short stories, but had no knowledge of Gaiman's short-fiction writing abilities prior to just digging in to the book.  I'm glad I chose it, and will gladly purchase any future compilation of short stories he chooses to publish, without question.

Just to give you a small feel for Gaiman's style in these stories, I'll point out a small excerpt from the story "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar", wherein our protagonist has his first alcoholic drink ever, and does some gazing into the depths of H.P. Lovecraft's soul:

Ben shook his head.  He seemed to be discussing literature with two strangers in an English pub while drinking beer.  He wondered for a moment if he had become someone else, while he wasn't looking.[…]

Ben was mildly surprised to find that he seemed to be drinking another full-bodied pint of Shoggoth's Old Peculiar.  Somehow the taste of rank goat was less offensive on the second pint.  He was also delighted to notice that he was no longer hungry, that his blistered feet had stopped hurting, and that his companions were charming, intelligent men whose names he was having difficulty in keeping apart.  He did not have enough experience with alcohol to know that this was one of the symptoms of being on your second pint of Shoggoth's Old Peculiar.

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