Is the Novel dead? Can it survive in an age where other forms of entertainment and information readily seem to fill its shoes? When DVD players are small and portable enough to challenge the convenience of a paperback, is the novel doomed? “I’ve never been very good at either privileging art forms or declaring any of them dead,” says Neil Gaiman pensively down the phone when asked . “Declaring art forms dead is what journalists do,” the former journalist comments wryly. As old and hackneyed as the argument may be, Gaiman is perhaps the perfect person to dismiss it, being a succesful novelist, script writer, poet, comic writer, and soon to be film director [he has in fact already directed one short film, A short film about John Bolton, and will direct an upcoming adaptation of his own story Death and the High Cost of Living ]. Gaiman is an artist who works in various formats, and yet comes back to the novel, with his latest, Anansi Boys, due out in September. “It fills column inches, – he continues – This week let’s declare that the movies are dead. Now let’s declare television dead, then novels. Nobody’s declared graphic novels dead yet, but that’s because they’ve only recently admitted that they might possibly be alive. Nobody’s declared the radio play dead because everyone presumes that it is dead, so we can go off and continue to make good dead things! As far as I’m concerned the novel is just another way to tell a story. It’s a marvellous, solid way to tell a story”.
The opening lines of one of his poems, Locks, begins “We owe it to each other to tell stories, as people simply, not as father and daughter”. “It’s one of the things that makes us human, – he explains, – the urge to tell stories, and to listen to stories, to receive stories.They’re magic. Stories for me are important, they’re what gets you through the night. Where the urge comes from I don’t know, but I do know that I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”
Anansi Boys willed its way, it would seem, into the form of a novel. “Originally I had the idea for Anansi Boys back in 1996, and I thought maybe it was a play, or probably a film. I actually wrote about three scenes in script form, and they weren’t really very good. It wasn’t alive, and I wasn’t sure who these characters were. The only one who seemed interesting was Mr Nancy, and he wasn’t much of a character, in that he was going to die before Anansi Boys started, or just as it started. So, I put it on the back burner, not really being sure what it was. Then when I went to write American Gods [Editor’s note: where Mr Nancy is one of the characters], it was fun to go and get Mr Nancy and put him in as a visiting guest star from something that I hadn’t yet done! I think I thought, after that, thatAnansi Boys was going to be a novella, it wasn’t going to be long enough to be a novel, or that there was going to be enough plot. I remember telling my editor, Jennifer Brehl, at our very first meeting, when she asked me what I was doing next, that I was thinking of doing a book that collected three novellas. I started telling her the stories and when I got to the Anansi Boys she turned to me and said, ‘that’s a novel’. I said, ‘is it?’, and she said ‘yes it is. [with a determined tone] I’m an editor’. And so, trusting her, I thought I’d give it a bash and try to work it out as a novel”.
Anansi Boys is a comic novel, telling the story of Fat Charlie Nancy, a man who isn’t actually fat, who at his father’s funeral learns that Mr Nancy Sr. was actually a God, an incarnation of the West African spider god Anansi. Learning this, he asks, not unreasonably, why as Nancy’s son he has no supernatural acumen. His mother responds, nonplussed, ‘Oh, your brother got all of those’. Describing the book, Gaiman comments that it is a “funny, scary, romantic comedy, thriller about Gods and the Supernatural and the power of stories and so on. I guess it’s about how to survive families”. The seeming non sequitur is carefully calculated, as Gaiman believes firmly in playing within genre, using its forms both to leverage and dismiss reader’s expectations. “I’m always fascinated by genres that actually need to create effects. The most obvious, and I assume the easiest, is probably pornography, but moving on from there (and I’ll probably get loads of people writing to me saying ‘no, no, no. Pornography is really hard!’), but horror and humour are both in the same category. If you’re not scared, it hasn’t worked, and if you’re not laughing, it hasn’t worked. I probably write like I cook, that’s to say with the same attitude. Who’s to say you can’t add this to that? I tend not to believe wholeheartedly in genre, and I get bored easily. I tend to use genre as a condiment rather than the main dish. Anansi Boys is spiced with horror, and it has humour in it, and it has myths and detectives, and balls to the wall horror and thriller stuff and so on, but that’s not what it is. What it is is a book about people, but I get to do all these other things.”
As a comics/graphic novel (depending upon your prejudices), writer Gaiman is well versed in both the argument that comics aren’t a serious art form, thankfully less and less prevalent these days. Less obvious is the tendency to dismiss humourous novels as unworthy of ‘serious’ attention. “People have a very odd idea,” says Gaiman, quoting, perhaps unconsciously, his co-novelist Terry Pratchett [Gaiman subsequently pointed out that both he and Pratchett were quoting G.K.Chesterton. The Monkeys stand both corrected and shamefaced], “they think that funny and serious are mutually exclusives. They think they’re opposites, and that’s not actually true. The opposite of funny is unfunny, the opposite of serious is not-serious. There’s a humour that is serious. I think Chris Morris’s work is terribly serious and very funny. Humour is really hard on so many levels. The biggest level is that you can tell immediately whether or not it works. American Gods was a nice, long, serious novel. Anansi Boys is a funny novel, a funny book. That’s what it’s meant to do, that’s what it’s meant to be”.
In one of the earliest reviews for Anansi Boys, American writer Jenny Davidson enthusiastically places it in a tradition of British sketch comedy where the humour is founded on repetition and context. Gaiman isn’t so sure: “it goes back much further than that. You’re talking about humour traditions that, for me, go back to people like A.A.Milne. I probably first noticed it as a reader in the writing of Alan Coren, who was the editor of Punch and also had to write something funny in Punch every edition. He was a remarkably funny writer, who never particularly got his due as a writer partly because what he was doing was topical. P.G.Wodehouse was a huge inspiration for this, and again is one of the places where you learn how these things work”.