Review of Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fiction and Illusions by Neil Gaiman
Started out strong but ended up inconsistent.
Whereas the much-touted Gene Wolfe produced unpredictable story collections of genre-bending, unconventional tales of varied length culled from a wide selection of magazines over decades, IMO any of Wolfe’s collections are better than the totality of Gaiman’s output. It is not just that this collection is inconsistent, but the stories lack the consistency of good stories. There are plenty of moments when cleverness is evident, but far more where cleverness is all-too-absent. The author knows how to put a sentence together, but some of the sentences he inserts, some of the images, some of the stories themselves, read like what I’d expect from Stephen King. We’re talking King after about 400 pages. When he’s writing on autopilot. Such as in the story of a clueless American who stumbles into a pub in England and talks about Lovecraft with cultists (and that’s all that happens). Or in the one where a man purchases the services of an exterminator [to exterminate every human on Earth? A graphically naked troll under a bridge might surprise you in one story, but the logic behind what the troll does will likely confuse you. A quaint, Pythonesque grail story: A skillful demonstration of ye olde writing style but absurd and inadequately delineated – not just in how the world of the story operates, but in the lack of character motivations. If you turn your brain off, it works. A little poem here or there about Santa Claus and werewolves. Little boys in showers laughing at each others’ willies. Story after story made me say “so what” internally. Some of them made me gag. To be fair I enjoyed parts of the screenwriter story. I suspect this was an excision from an early draft of American Gods. It combined a nostalgic aura with a few good quips and an appreciation for bygone values. But the repetitions and meandering could’ve been edited out. Most of the stories wanted a little honing. I still think, as a writer, he is more careful and calculated than Stephen King, but King seems more humble to me, willing to admit that what he is producing is not literary, but pulp. These are simply my feelings. The legions of fans are justification enough for such work, but in this review I’ll try to limit myself to what I’d want to know if I was about to jump into this sizable collection. The essences of several stories were intriguing. Usually the ending would reveal piss in the soup. The structural integrity of these narratives are fragile. Without adequate justification, the far-flung ideas come off as mere exercises instead of viable microcosms. Silverberg’s Majipoor Chronicles had a similar cobbled-together mystique. You can fly through a crappy Silverberg book, but Gaiman demands time, reads kind of slow. The pacing is glacial.
The Introduction did not help me enjoy the stories. I don’t need to know how he lit upon the ideas for each story, how he expertly weaves together the elements and tropes and allusions, according to the theories he’s expounded in every interview, Master Class, and Introduction as if he invented the medium. If he wouldn’t mention how he was best buds with Gene Wolfe so often I wouldn’t be tempted to compare Gaiman’s watered-down storytelling to The Grandmaster Big Daddy Baby-Faced Emperor of Fantasy World Building.
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