Sandman, Angst and Change

I just stumbled into an excellent critique of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’, here at Grand Hotel Abyss. My soft spot for teh Sandman stories is pretty well catalogued, but I found a whole bundle of insights i this essay that I now thinking through with fascination.

What makes it a superb work of literature is the fact that the ethical quandary expresses itself at the formal level, for generically Sandman is a taut Shakespearean tragedy attenuated within a cantering, leisurely magic-realist novel, as if Macbeth were pieced out like breadcrumbs through a Rushdie tale.

From a writerly perspective that feels like the statement of a idea which has been lingering around the edges of my thoughts for some time. I’ve thought quite a lot about the post-modern and magical realist elements of Sandman, but managed to overlook the classical tragedy that is the over-arching plot of the entire series.

One of my Clarion classmates (who knows who he is) identified the key strength of each of our tutors over a typicaly grusome meal at the Canyon Vista cafeteria. We all agreed that Neil’s great strength was theme. He lays them out, story after story, deep themes with almost universal meaning that millions of readers see their own reflection in. Durig his wek at Clarion, Neil talked explicitly about how he shapes theme in a story, finding what the theme of a story is and emphasising it during the process of rewriting.

Both of these characters (Death and Destruction), as well as some others (Rose Walker, Hazel and Foxglove, Hob Gadling, Lucifer, Matthew, Emperor Norton, Ben Jonson, etc.), stand for what came in the popular mind to be called postmodernism.  They have no ethical or metaphysical universal to which they would submit the world because they know the world’s watchword is “change” and that it’s no use trying to step in the same river twice.

I’ve lived with a many definitions of post-modernism over the years, but this is probably my favourite. Perhaps it has meaning for me because my own life is currently caught up in a coflict between a modernist desire for principle, or for certainty, and a postmodern slide into change, change and more change. I can’t decide which side of that conflict I’m on, but its presence in sandman is likely what has brought me back to reading it in recent months. Sandman isn’t just for angsty teenagers. Angsty  thirty somethings also have something to find there.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s