The 13 Clocks

By James Thurber

All Posts Contain Spoilers

And now for something completely different.

“Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales.” (p. 1)

Sometimes, I feel as though I’m the youngest living person who loves James Thurber. Thurber, who died in 1961, was a humorist and cartoonist, publishing most often in The New Yorker, and perhaps most famous as the author of ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’

My mother, who thinks he is hilarious, used to read me Thurber essays when I was kid. He is hilarious, in a dry, folksy sort of way. I see his collected essays and humors in used bookstores from time to time, and I always pick up a new title. I have never, however, encountered one of his titles still in print, on the shelves of a new book store.

Until now. Right before the holidays, I was wandering around the Brookline Booksmith when I spied, on their Fiction and Literature shelf, a novel by James Thurber that I had never seen before. It was a bright and colorful new printing of a novel called ‘The 13 Clocks‘ with an new introduction by Neil Gaiman, of all people! In which introduction Neil Gaiman describes ‘The 13 Clocks’ as “probably the best book in the world”.

OK, so I can admit this: I have some ego on the line where books are concerned. I’m not the best-read person on the whole planet, sure, I know that, but I’m no slouch. So I was a little miffed not to have even heard about a book written by an author I love, and I was super miffed not to have heard of it given that it might be “the best book in the world”. I expect myself to have heard of the best book in the world.

Creepy, right?

So I bought ‘The 13 Clocks‘, and I read it immediately.

And I can set your mind at ease, I think: ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is not the best book in the world. I can say that with some confidence; let Neil Gaiman come and do his worst.

The 13 Clocks‘ is the story of the wicked Duke and his niece, the beautiful princess Saralinda. The Duke is a cold man, and he is afraid that one day, a suitor will come and win the hand of Saralinda, which hand is the only warm thing in the Castle. So he has frozen time, and stopped all 13 clocks in the castle. Each suitor who comes to try for the hand of Saralinda is subjected to impossible tasks and, usually, terrible deaths.

However, one day, disguised as a wandering minstrel, the Prince Zorn of Zorna arrives at the castle, and falls in love with the Princess Saralinda. With the help of his friend, the ambivalently helpful Golux, he will try to rescue Saralinda from the Duke and restart time.

If that sounds to you like a child’s story, you’re not wrong. ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is one of those stories that is written for children, but with deep metaphorical meaning that is meant to move adults.

The cold duke

It has many characteristics of that kind of story: a simple story which ripples with deep, creepy currents; faint echoes of existential terror and deep grief hidden under alienating silliness; little word games, meant to sound to funny to children and clever to adults; cute absurdist paradoxes; witty illustrations.

A great example is the Todal. The Todal does not appear on screen (as it were); rather, it is a sinister force which threatens the Duke if he fails. It is described as a “blob of glup”, and is “an agent of the devil, sent to punish evildoers for having done less evil than they should”.

Do you see what I mean? Do you see the tension there between something frankly childish and silly (or, if you like, stupid), the blob of glup, and the more adult, sinister idea, the Satanic agent which punishes failure? That tension lasts throughout the book – you are always watching the childishness for the quick flicker of darkness which will move behind it.

“Something moved across the room, like monkeys and like shadows. The torches on the walls went out, the two clocks stopped, and the room grew colder. There was a smell of old, unopened rooms and the sound of rabbits screaming. “Come on, you blob of glup,” the cold Duke roared. “You may frighten octopi to death, you gibbous spawn of hate and thunder, but not the Duke of Coffin Castle!” He sneered. ” Now that my precious gems have turned to thlup, living on, alone and cold, is not my fondest wish! On guard, you musty sofa!” The Todal gleeped. There was a stifled shriek and silence.” (p. 107)

And, mostly, it’s pretty charming (that’s pretty clear from the excerpts, right?). So, why do I say with such certainty that ‘The 13 Clocks‘ isn’t the best book in the world?

Well, because something can be very sweet and very charming and very clever without shaking the foundations of the earth, that’s why.

I don’t think that the only role of literature is to move the world, to wrench and rip open the fabric of complacency which covers our eyes, and I don’t think that that is the standard by which all books should be judged.

But books do this – books have done this. Not all, but many. And some have even done it while being charming and clever and sweet. Some have even managed to do it while being beautiful.

And while those books exist, shaking the earth, there is no way ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is the best book in the world. It’s super cute, a great little read, but the best book? No.

Although, there is something I have not considered: perhaps Neil Gaiman lives (tragically) in a world without great books, without ‘East of Eden’, or ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, or ‘Brideshead Revisited’, or ‘The Screwtape Letters’ (which is the best book in the world). Perhaps Neil Gaiman lives in a world where the only books in the world are ‘The 13 Clocks‘ and, like, ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac.

In which terrible case, he is absolutely correct: ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is the best book in the world. But, Neil, get out of there.

American Gods

By Neil Gaiman

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It’s so sad to see a good premise wasted.

‘Wasted’ is perhaps too strong a word.  It’s sad to see an execution which fails to live up to its premise.

In fairness to Neil Gaiman, this doesn’t always happen because the execution is terrible; sometimes it happens because the premise is so good that almost no execution could justify it.  Sometimes, a premise is so excellent that even a good execution is disappointing.  That’s probably the case with ‘American Gods‘: the execution of this novel is decent, totally solid.  But the premise is awesome, and so decent just won’t do.

American GodsWhen the protagonist of ‘American Gods‘, Shadow Moon (this terrible cliche of a protagonist is one the things dragging down the execution of this novel) is released from prison, he is offered a job by a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday.  Moon’s beloved wife has just been killed, and, having nothing else to live for, he accepts the strange offer.  As it turns out, Mr. Wednesday is none other than the Norse god Odin, and Shadow is now his body man.  Shadow learns that the gods of the Old World have been carried with each wave of American immigrants to the New.  These transplant gods have been slowly forgotten as their worshippers have Americanized or died and so they are left to wander, shrinking and predatory, in the modern American landscape.  Every manner of mythical or supernatural creature is here: gods, fairies, furies, djinn, leprechauns.  If someone once believed in them, they are among us, scraping to get by.  And they are about to go to war with the new gods, the gods of modernity and technology, to fight one last battle, to see who shall rule America once and for all.

It’s a magnificent premise, and credit should be given to Gaiman for coming up with it at all.  I mean that honestly and without the slightest sarcasm: most writers will go their whole lives without coming up with one story idea that has this much juice.  And ‘American Gods‘ is…readable.  I don’t mean to damn with faint praise – it is a difficult book to put down; the pages seem to turn themselves.

Neil Gaiman.jpg
I’m really not being fair here – there are many pictures of Neil Gaiman where he doesn’t look posed and pretentious (he actually looks rather lovely and likable in most of them), but I’ve chosen this one, from variety.com

And maybe I should leave it there, declare that ‘American Gods‘ is a great beach read and call it a day, but I’m not going to.  Because I have the sneaking suspicion that Gaiman would be offended to hear ‘American Gods’ called ‘beach reading’, or ‘genre fiction’.  I might be wrong, but that’s my hunch.  Perhaps it is the long dream sequences*; perhaps it is the easy metaphor of the old gods battling the new; perhaps it is the pedantic obviousness of the character names (Mr. Wednesday, Shadow Moon), but something tells me that Gaiman has aimed higher than he ought.  I don’t think he meant to write a great yarn; I think he meant to write a Great Novel.  And not just any Great Novel – I think he meant to write a Great American Novel.

Now, it’s not really fair game to blame novelists for what you think they’re going for.  You don’t really know – it’s usually better to take the novel as you found it, not judging it against the novel you imagine the novelist intended.  However, a novelist will occasionally communicate ambition.  They do this any number of ways: explicitly, in interviews, or implicitly, through heavy-handed metaphor or prose, elaborate and abstruse plot.  And when that happens, when you can see the self-satisfaction of the narrator peeking through the finished work, it’s difficult not to hold the it against them.

I think that Gaiman wants to have his cake and eat it.  He’s tried to write a novel that is both cool and deals in Big Important Themes.  It’s really difficult to do (I’ve never done it, for sure), and he hasn’t pulled it off.  Or, rather, he has technically pulled it off, but not well.  His novel is cool, and it does touch on Big Important Themes, but it hits you over the head with them.  You’d be happy riding along on a road trip with some fun old gods, but you will never be allowed to forget that America Is An Immigrant Nation.  You might have enjoyed a neat fight scene among mythical creatures, but, no, this is a battle between The Culturally Rich Past and The Bleak, Impersonal Techno-Modernity.

But, so what?  A lack of subtly isn’t the end of the world.  But really great novels don’t teach you your lesson; they tell you the story which will allow you to learn it.  There’s a big difference between those two things.  And ‘American Gods’ doesn’t really give you the room to discover anything for yourself; the take-home messages are there waiting for you, gift-wrapped, at the door as you enter.

Which, at the end of the day, does not stop ‘American Gods‘ from being enjoyable reading.  It’s a little furry around the edges, a little obvious; there are, honestly, too many dream sequences.  But it’s a fun read, and because reading is ultimately about having fun, ‘American Gods’ is worth reading.  Maybe I’m wrong about Gaiman’s intentions – maybe he wasn’t shooting for Greatness.  Maybe he just wanted to entertain me, and, if that’s the case, he knocked it out of the park.  I was entertained; I was absorbed.  So, don’t punish Gaiman for failing to live up to the goals I imagine he had; read a book that I enjoyed despite that (imagined) failure.  It’s a good read.

And it’s a great premise.

*An aside: it is my personal belief that dream sequences are a sign of weakness in writing; they are self-indulgent and lazy, and their presence in a plot almost always suggests that someone is taking a short cut.  Another plot event like this: secret brother-sister incest.  When two characters who are sleeping together discover that they are secretly related, I know someone in the Writers Room was phoning it in.