Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You

The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Who owns our dreams? That’s the implicit question underlying the whole Sandman series, but, to my persistent irritation, Neil Gaiman has always seemed to blink in the face of it. He’s asking a deeply human, deeply personal question, but he’s allowed much of the series so far to deal in cosmologies. Sometimes that’s been the generally satisfying cosmology of Morpheus and his siblings. Other times it’s been the less rewarding appropriation of extinct mythologies.

Here, for the first time in my experience, Gaiman gets it right. He gets it brilliantly and beautifully right in the way he stares at the deep question of what it means to claim a dream. That carries with it the question of how we understand creativity (and possibly creation itself) and also how we, as humans, need others for our own completion.

Somewhere in the Dreaming there lies a tiny island, a skerry, first brought into the quasi-real by Morpheus for Alianora, a beautiful girl who needed (or simply asked for) a space she could populate with the sorts of comforting childhood fantasies that live in places like Oz or Narnia. What began as her place, though, passed on to others after she died. One young girl after another found her way to the tiny place and added to it. It became a kind of communal dream, a place open to a select few – one at a time – who peopled it in their dreaming and may have only dimly remembered it in their waking. In other words, Alianora did not own her dreams any more than the others who came after her. In an unacknowledged Jungian sense, there was a collective unconscious – or perhaps collective semi-consciousness – that tied a handful of strangers into a genealogy of demiurges.

Our main protagonist, Barbie, is the last of those dreamers, and, without knowing it, she’s the victim of the Cuckoo, a creature whose impulse is to worm her way into the nest of another and kick out the legitimate offspring. The Cuckoo has taken control over most of the skerry, claiming its dreaming for herself at the expense of its existence. She believes that destroying it will free her to fly elsewhere, to dream in new ways or, more sinisterly, to supplant the dreams of others elsewhere.

Our story spans the dreaming and the waking, and Gaiman handles that juggling act with much more finesse than he has in earlier volumes. Barbie has a coterie of friends – all women, though one of those is a former man transitioning – who live in a small apartment building together. When Barbie gets summoned back to the skerry, to serve as the dreamer (and bearer of an ancient dream/real artifact) who can overcome the Cuckoo, her friends split up, one to protect her helpless sleeping self and the others to venture into the dreaming through the power of the moon and in opposition to Morpheus’s decree. (And what a beautiful stroke of creativity to assign the moon a kind of backdoor status to dreaming. It fits in a fresh and mythical way.)

In the end, [SPOILER] our heroes fail. The Cuckoo has an irresistible hypnotic power, and she forces Barbie to break the artifact, which summons Morpheus who’s pledged to destroy the skerry in such a case. He explains the facts of dreaming, and he gathers the wonders of the generations from Alianora to Barbie, taking in their quirky dreams and converting them back to the sand that gives dreams to others. If that suggests at first that all dreams belong to Morpheus, though, there is a compelling sense that he merely directs their flow, a flow that he acknowledges is greater than himself. (Gaiman has hinted at this in earlier volumes but never to the poetic effect of the conclusion here.) As dust, these rich imaginings are recycled into the seeds of others’ dreams to come.

Even more striking, it becomes clear that Barbie herself is a kind of dream. She is, as the story tells us, recently divorced from Ken. We also see, in the moments after Barbie arrives on the skerry, a Mattel Barbie doll on which she dreamed as child. Someone has infused her with the dimensions of a real girl, and that someone seems equal parts Neil Gaiman and a generic little girl humming to herself before her private “Dream House.”

In the introduction to this volume, Samuel R. Delany talks of Gaiman’s capacity for infusing the everyday with mythic qualities. In the earlier volumes, I’d disagree and say he’s doing the opposite: what else is happening when a demon like Azazel or a cat deity out of Egypt gets coopted for a kind of Demonic Celebrity Apprentice? Those stories bleed the mythic from myths and give us gods and demons as human-sized characters.

Here, though, as Delany says so strikingly, Gaiman takes the toys of childhood and raises them to the status of archetypes. Barbie’s dreamworld quest alongside animated stuffed animals feels eerily familiar, a twist on the adventures we all know from Alice or Dorothy, but it feels new as well. It’s as if he’s re-opened a door that only our most expert dreamers have managed before.

All of this works because it insistently reminds us of the degree to which our deepest wonder comes not from our private dreaming, but from our attempting to claim someone else’s dreams only to discover ourselves in some new place. We are all, in one degree or another, cuckoos who insinuate ourselves into others’ creations, and as such we simply follow our nature (as Morpheus explains the Cuckoo is indeed doing through her impulse to destruction) when we take the wondrous and claim it for ourselves.

In another context, the change from one illustrator to another would really irritate me. (Especially because I think Colleen Doran is so perfectly suited to the material that I find the other five wanting in comparison.) Here, though, it amplifies the sense that we depend on others for the beginnings of our dreaming and for taking what we dream someplace beyond our private imagining.

In the end, this volume gives us what the others have so far only vaguely gestured toward: Morpheus alone can navigate the twisted paths of the dreaming, but the place belongs – in its fragmented and directionless fashion – to all of us.

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