Review: The Sandman – The Doll’s House

If Preludes and Nocturnes introduced us to Dream, then The Doll’s House, the second volume in the cult Sandman graphic novel series written by Neil Gaiman (collecting issues #9 through #16, if you’re counting*), really starts fleshing him out.

For the confused: Dream is one of the Endless, who personify human concepts like – to name some of Dream’s siblings – Desire, Delirium and Death. In Preludes and Nocturnes Dream escaped the clutches of a cult who had kept him magically imprisoned for seventy years, and set about reclaiming three magical artefacts that were stolen from him. The Doll’s House sees him start to repair some of the damage his long imprisonment has wreaked both on the world and on his psychic realm, the Dreaming.

But it seems to me that what the volume is really concerned with is Dream’s relationships: with his lover, his friends, his siblings, his dream-subjects, with the humans he comes across in his work. I like the way the volume unfolds this, across eight stories with a range of tones, settings and styles: the folk tale Tales in the Sand, which tells of Dream’s only human love; the dark, almost Twilight Zone-ish horror of Collectors, which sees two humans wander unwittingly into a convention of serial killers; the (relatively) light-hearted Men of Good Fortune, which zips through a century every double-page spread or so.

Dream is referred to in Preludes and Nocturnes as the “master of stories”, and there’s certainly something of a Neil Gaiman self-insert in him, so it feels appropriate that he can move through a number of story types and play a number of different roles (for example: abusive lover in the style of the Greek gods; knight in shining armour come to rescue the damsel in distress; morality figure trying to teach someone a lesson about life). He’s a trickster figure, a creature who can control, and slip between, seemingly fixed narratives. That’s why, I think, The Sandman works so well as a graphic novel: it can, to a certain extent, go beyond the linguistic surfaces of traditional narrative structures, the better to allow us to peer into the (wordless) collective unconscious, where reside the fundamental concepts that underpin those narratives – the raw stuff of Story. It’s here that Dream lives. It’s here that lies behind all the roles that Dream plays, all the stories he passes through – so, by extension, here must lie the true reality.

That’s at once the series’ strength and its downfall. As I noted in my review of Preludes and Nocturnes (almost exactly a year ago, wow), Gaiman’s work is powerful – it tugs on our imaginations – precisely because it taps into our collective unconscious, the treasure-house of narrative which we use to read the world. Gaiman knows that we know, on a fundamental and unconscious level, that things always come in threes, that you should be careful what you wish for, that dreams are never just dreams. We know these things because we’ve been told them, over and over again, in books and films and TV shows and anecdotes – in stories. And Gaiman is one of the best writers out there at laying them bare and expressing them in their purest form.

But, by the same token, Gaiman’s work is problematic because (in my opinion) it doesn’t ironise those concepts enough. In particular, it treats that collective unconscious not as culturally specific and contingent upon certain assumptions about what kind of person it’s worth telling stories about, but as global, universal and timeless – literally, in the case of The Sandman. Which means that it’s eternally trapped by the very concepts it exposes; it always, quietly, insidiously, unconsciously encodes nostalgic, conservative, oppressive structures into itself.

To take an example from The Doll’s House: the first issue in the volume, Tales in the Sand, is, as I’ve said, framed as a folk tale about Dream’s human love, Queen Nada. Nada knows (as we all know, from folk tales like this one) that loving a deity is a bad idea, so she rejects Dream, repeatedly and vehemently. He ignores her, repeatedly; pushes her boundaries; has sex with her, against her express wishes. (But it’s OK, because she was turned on by it, so obviously it was Meant to Be.) The sun rises on them together, and, horrified by this unnatural pairing, destroys Queen Nada’s city, at which point she dumps Dream. The spurned Endless sends her to Hell, proving that she was right all along that their coupledom would only bring disaster.

Now, there’s a scene in the middle of this tale when Nada, driven to desperation by Dream’s refusal to leave her alone, takes her own virginity with a sharp stone – in the belief that he won’t want her any more if she’s not a virgin.

The series constantly ties women’s worth and character to their physical appearance or their sexual attributes, while it’s reticent to the point of prudishness about male sexuality and nudity. Although it’s clear that Nada’s belief in virginity as the basis of love is rooted in the fact that she’s a character in a folk tale (this in itself is problematic, though, as the tellers of the tale are non-white desert-dwellers – who the collective unconscious is fond of casting as backward and regressive), what’s jarring is that, despite the fact that Dream proves himself outside that narrative by refusing her non-virginity as a reason to leave her alone, he never manages to ironise her action. The narrative wants us to see it as heroic, self-sacrificing if futile, rather than a stupid thing to do; in short, it sees the virginity = desirability equation as a function of how the world is, one of the narrative archetypes out of which Dream’s world is made. Dream is not trapped by it, but the work is. It doesn’t apply to Dream, but only because Dream is special, and can escape it.

And that, dear reader, is my problem with Neil Gaiman. I like engaging with his work – especially, I has to be said, the Sandman series – and I like arguing with it, because it’s fun and useful and helps me draw out my thoughts about narrative and fairy tale and Story. But actually reading it often makes me feel – uncomfortable.

*Incidentally, Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge also informs me that the first collected edition of The Doll’s House started with issue #8, The Sound of Her Wings, which I think makes more sense thematically than shoving it at the end of Preludes and Nocturnes. Anyway.

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