Death and All His Friends

Viva la Vida, so the Coldplay title goes. It’s a sentiment seldom expressed by artists of a certain brand—the kind who prefers to brood over loss, transience, and death. In a way it’s easier: sorrow and poignancy often go together in serious art, whereas happiness is considered trite, banal; there are many more types of sadness than joy. And with a subject like death—how not to be fatalistic? How to find happiness?

“Bring tissues,” a friend warned me before I saw Amour. Michael Haneke’s film, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, follows an elderly couple’s struggle against the final betrayal of the body. In it human expiry is a horrible spectacle, involving stages of decay and deterioration, disgraceful in the utmost. Amour confirms everything we know to be true about death, and amplifies it to an almost intolerable note. This impression is made all the more strongly by the film’s first scene, which shows a close-up of rows of theatergoers—a mirroring effect intended to tell us, This film is about you. The point comes across immediately—amusing at first, a fine trick—but the scene lingers on and on until it is no longer just uncomfortable, but something worse. Five minutes into the film, and already we’re faced with the certainty of our own demise. It’s an understated memento mori, full of artifice but at the same time utterly without; it is a relief to be able to look away.

Yojiro Takita’s 2008 film Departures takes a different approach. Masahiro Motoki plays the lead role of Daigo, a cellist-turned-encoffiner who has to cope with the social stigma around his new profession. Initially skeptical, he slowly comes to appreciate the role’s importance through his boss Sasaki (Tsutomo Yamazaki), but finds it difficult to communicate this newfound profundity to his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), who harbors the conventional biases of many Japanese. At the same time Daigo has to confront his own feelings about his father, whose early abandonment threads through his entire adult life.

Departures handles its subject the way its protagonists treat the dead: gently, carefully, with the utmost respect and sensitivity. Without being false, it lends dignity to the awful truth of our existence by couching it in love and tradition. There is love in Amour, of course, and Georges’ final act reflects the extent of his devotion toward Anne, but ultimately it is about resistance—human temerity in the face of death, where consolation comes only in the tiniest increments. Departures, conversely, tends toward acceptance. Spliced among numerous scenes of death are those of consumption, eating as evidence of life. As they share a meal of puffer roe, Sasaki tells Daigo, “The living eat the dead to survive.” Here death is not the enemy; it is the way of the world. We grieve and we move on.

In the end it turns out I didn’t need tissues for Amour. It’s a heavy film, extremely sad, and my eyes turned watery at one point, but I never did actually cry. Strangely, it is in the more uplifting Departures where I found myself unable to hold back the tears. The film offers so many trite moments (like cello-playing in the fields), but somehow it still works, cradled in an overall atmosphere of tenderness. Joe Hisaishi’s marvelous score abets this sincerity, as well as the seamless cinematography. The recurring shots of swans particularly resonated with me, as it echoes W.B. Yeats’ poem about nature, existence, and the passing of time.

The Wild Swans at Coole
W.B. Yeats

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Far from being a lament, most viewers’ tearful response to Departures is an acknowledgment that we see here is very human, an attempt to make death bearable through ritual, an attempt to give meaning to the incomprehensible. While watching it I let go of my critical self and saw it simply as a human being—frail, temporal, hopeful as we all are. This is, I suppose, the highest praise you can give any work of art.


‘Things will go on, and then one day it will all be over.’


‘When I was a child winter didn’t feel so cold.’

‘Long ago, before writing, you’d send someone a stone that suited the way you were feeling. From its weight and touch, they’d know how you felt. From a smooth stone they might get that you were happy, or from a rough one that you were worried about them.’

Questions, Questions

From far away enough, it can pass for a happy book. There is a sparkly fish on the cover. Tattooed on its body are blossoms and waves and variations of fleur-de-lis. But then our eyes stray to the bottom, past a curlicued tailfin, and recognize a most ominous title: Legend of a Suicide. And suddenly, on closer inspection, the fish does not seem happy at all. Angled toward its center are eight pistols, shining a brilliant red, hidden among petals—death where we least expect it.

“Nothing quite like this book has been written before,” a blurb promises. So we dive into it, expectant and curious, miring ourselves deeper into mystery with each section. And afterwards we wonder, What was that? How many deaths are in this book, how many tragedies? Is it six different stories, or are they all part of a larger work? The answer, as always, is on the internet. Officially, Legend of a Suicide is a collection of stories. It has however been packaged to look like a novel for the British market. This sparks an interesting realization: that the ultimate difference between a collection and a novel rests on the thinnest of lines—a mere avoidance of labels, a sequence of numbers atop titles.

Alexander Linklater from the Observer asserts that the shift “damages Vann’s endeavor, which is to change, from one story to the next, not just perspectives, but events themselves.” Certainly that is what Vann does, but—unintended as it may be—I do not think the novel format is “damaging” to the book. Misleading, yes, but it also allows for a reading that more persistently searches for a continuous thread among the chapters. It is, after all, despite myriad inconsistencies, one story, one legend, one pain, one family.

Still, inevitable questions arise. What really happened? Who? When? Where? And the most painful, Why? Here is where form intersects with substance. The confusion we feel upon finishing the book approximates the bewilderment one feels after death, after a suicide. We can never make sense of it no matter how much we try. Loss can never be pieced together; it will always remain a profound mystery. Why? We don’t know, we don’t know.

The book’s structure also toys with ideas of culpability. Because we aren’t sure what happened, we don’t know where to assign blame. Who did what to whom? Jim, Roy, Rhoda, Elizabeth. Our characters revolve around each other, drawn together by the force of their relationships. Jim obviously bears the utmost culpability. One doubts if anyone could have saved the man. But in “Sukkwan Island,” Roy feels responsible for his increasingly remote father. Initially he had no interest in staying on the island but “in fact there was no choice at all.” He could not simply give up his father.

But was it too late already by then? When did it all go downhill for Jim? There is a scene in the same story where father and son try to figure out exactly when “it went to hell” for Jim. They end up with no answer. In the same way, after a tragedy on this scale, it becomes difficult to draw the lines, to connect events and trace a trajectory. When was intervention still possible? At which point could anyone have halted the downward spiral?

In a way this uncertainty can be liberating, because it frees one from the burden of regret, but viewed in another way, it also expands the possibilities for remorse. Instead of mulling over a specific turning point, one regrets a thousand unsaid words, a hundred wrong decisions. In “Ketchikan” and “The Higher Blue” we see Roy still struggling, decades later, to reconcile himself with Jim’s suicide. Is it possible to stop going over and over one’s memories? Is it possible to stop asking Why?

In an interview with the New Yorker, David Vann says that writing the book helped him put his own father’s ghost to rest. Being curious creatures, we cannot help but wonder, How much of this is true? Yes, Vann’s father killed himself, but what about all the other details? The zabaglione? The iridescent shark? Pondering these petty questions, we come to realize the irrelevance of facts in the face of tragedy. Vann calls his stories “legends,” and the book itself is called Legend of a Suicide. What does the word call to mind? Myth, lore, hearsay, rumor—not factual but true in some fundamentally human way. And that is what this book is, in the final account. Not a straightforward tale, but a brave, poignant, wondrous mess.

If Vann had written this as a regular novel or memoir, we would not have these questions to grapple with, these insights to gain. Without legend as the central metaphor, the narrative would never have taken off the way it has. The more we read, the more we realize how crucial form is to the story. Even the simple exclusion of speech marks (fashionable nowadays) makes a related point: Who said what? How reliable is memory?

As a writer I am interested in the inseparability of form and content, and this book shows just that. There are just some stories that can only be told in a particular way. Sometimes that means taking big risks. Sometimes that means having to defend your artistic choices. Sometimes that means forgoing certain readers. But if, after weighing all this, you decide to forge ahead anyway—not courting acclaim, not worried about failure—then that’s how you know you’ve got something worth it.

I knew where he was headed, as we all did, but I didn’t know why. And I didn’t want to know.

That Dirty Word

Even on tongues used to scatological and libidinous exclamations, the word politics still leaves a particular acrid taste. A few others claim the same distinction, but hardly any other word remains as persistent and indispensable. In conversation, politics provokes a mostly limited range of sentiments—anger, frustration, suspicion, apathy. In art, reactions waver between two extremes: respect or ridicule. Underlying ideologies either catapult the work into prominence or push it down to the level of propaganda. In any case, with controversy all around, irrelevance is seldom an option.

Ambitious and polemical, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty teeters on the thin lines: terrorism, torture, risk, revenge, war. The film packs the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden into 160 gripping minutes, rendered taut by an impressive interplay of information and suspense. Jessica Chastain holds her character well as Maya, the CIA officer whose relentless pursuit of the case leads to the assassination. Her tight portrayal suits the film’s minimalist aesthetic, which it sustains from start to finish despite recurrent gunfire and explosions.

Zero Dark Thirty possesses many admirable qualities, but the one that stands out most is audacity. Its depiction of the ugly side of America has critics shouting from various corners, complaining about its alleged misinterpretation of “fact” and its supposed pro-torture stance. The movie claims to unveil “the greatest manhunt in history,” but the victory it shows is ugly indeed, one borne out of physical and psychological torture, involving innocent casualties and traumatized children. It is a difficult film to watch, dark and heavy and emotionally exhausting. But as we all likely suspect, the truth can get darker than this.

Mark Boal’s script contains many ironic statements, but the one I remember most is “You don’t know Pakistan!”—a charge that Maya lays on her boss. It’s an accusation that rings true on many levels. What do we know about the Middle East? About its people and their struggles, the circumstances that push ordinary men to become “radicals”? What do Americans?

Zero Dark Thirty makes only a passing comment on this issue, but Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist mines it more deeply. As literature, the thin narrative does not hold up to much: it attempts to mask a clear objective, with barely-there characters and a linear trajectory. But its value lies in its capacity to make us think, to make us look over to the other side. Here is main character Changez judging America post-9/11:

As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.

No doubt all terrorist attacks are tragedies. But if we ever hope to untangle these threads of hate, it is not enough to simply see the attacks as catastrophes to which we must assign blame, but as indicators of a larger problem. It is not enough to understand how without understanding why—George Orwell’s words, from his landmark novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

First published in 1949, the book also abounds with political commentary. But while it suffers from the same weaknesses of character and plot, the original concepts it puts forward (Big Brother, memory hole, Room 101) make up for it. In the novel, citizens live under the rule of a totalitarian Party, which regulates everything from thought to action to memory, effectively erasing the individual. Our protagonist, naturally, seeks to rebel. During his initiation into what he deems to be The Brotherhood, Winston Smith agrees “to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face” and “to commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people” in the name of the revolution. He agrees that life is not about the individual, that it must be laid down for a greater cause, that victory is in the future.

Why does this sound so familiar? And why does it send a chill up our spines to read it in light of Changez, of the many detainees in Zero Dark Thirty?

There are no good and bad guys, only points of view. This is an easy and perhaps unfair generalization, but it is ultimately useful. If the “radicals” had a Kathryn Bigelow and a Hollywood budget, what kind of film would they make? How much would the narrative differ?

Despite all the allegations, Zero Dark Thirty is clearly skewed on the US side. We after all follow the CIA, and most of the violence we see is shown as the work of terrorist groups. But the most contested scenes show agents torturing detainees to extract information from them. We can never find out whether this actually occurred; what we can do is argue about how the film depicts it. Here is Orwell on the topic:

On the battlefield, in the torture chamber, on a sinking ship, the issues that you are fighting for are always forgotten, because the body swells up until it fills the universe, and even when you are not paralysed by fright or screaming with pain, life is a moment-to-moment struggle against hunger or cold or sleeplessness, against a sour stomach or an aching tooth.

I’ve been sitting here for some minutes flexing my brain muscles for the tough work ahead, but my fingers did some Googling and found this on the Huffington Post. Here, Michael Moore presents an excellent and engaging case on why Zero Dark Thirty is, in fact, anti-torture. Essentially he says that not only is torture morally wrong, it also leads to inaccurate confessions. But even without that detail, just looking at those scenes—where a CIA officer uses waterboarding on a detainee—it is easy to see where our sympathies lie. It is not difficult to realize the inhumanity of torture, and that this is exactly what the director intended for the audience to feel when she shot those scenes.

Zero Dark Thirty explores very real problems posed not only by counterterrorist methods but also about the natures of war, ideology, vengeance, means and ends. It’s a powerful movie, with a soul-searching effect that lasts long after its runtime. If there is one thing common to Maya, Changez, and Winston Smith, it’s that they all become broken in one way or another. Zero Dark Thirty also leaves us broken in a small way. As viewers we are left to ponder moral issues and evaluate them for ourselves. The script ends with a question directed at Maya, something we also ask ourselves as we leave the theater: “Where do you want to go?” Where indeed.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.

‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.’

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

‘It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.’

Zero Dark Thirty

‘In the end, bro, everybody breaks. It’s biology.’

The Hunt (2012)

There are just some things you don’t doubt. The horror of war, the importance of family, the innocence of children. I suppose it’s a primal tendency, this easy allocation of truths and archetypes. It’s a bitter irony to note that for all our insistence on human complexity, at the core of society lies simple values founded on assumed truths. After all, without anything to agree on, how can communities exist? Values are of course important, but sometimes in our blind fealty to them they can lead us to fixed conclusions, spawning fictions more convincing than reality. In The Hunt, Thomas Vinterberg explores what happens when these values are challenged, and the irreversible consequences of a single idea.

Here’s how Inception, the ultimate movie about ideas, describes one: “Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” This aptly describes how a Danish village comes to view Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a nursery teacher whose life falls apart because of one child’s lie. The charge of pedophilia is not a light one to make; the severe punishment we exact on perpetrators is a testament to the weight we associate with the corruption of innocence. But what happens when our terrors get the better of us, when in our desire to protect children we end up corrupting them?

Excluding malevolent little devils (as in Looper, as well as many horror movies), children do not often appear as antagonists in films. But little Klara doesn’t fit the standard mold of the antagonist either. In fact, no character does. As Mikkelsen says in an interview, “Nobody’s trying to do something out of maliciousness. Everybody’s doing it out of love and fear.” Which makes the story all the more chilling, because in our minds a tragedy on this scale requires a face, a malign intent, to pin it down on. But as we come to realize, often that’s not the case. We see what we want to see. We create our own fictions.

There are easy choices, in life as in art. With The Hunt, it would have been very easy to slip into a black-and-white portrait of a community gone mad, incensed by its own conjectures. It would have been just as easy to paint Lucas as simply the poor victim. But the village we see here is much more nuanced than that, and a feeble, whining Lucas never appears on the screen. Mikkelsen portrays him as a man of obvious pride, who must reconcile his conviction of his innocence with an admission of his predicament. Mikkelsen’s performance singlehandedly carries the film, but The Hunt involves such a high-tension act that even the tiniest snag would have dispelled the effect altogether. Fortunately the movie comes with a superbly chosen cast, down to the most minor character. Thomas Bo Larsen and Lasse Fogelstrøm give commendable performances as Lucas’ best friend Theo and son Marcus.

Ultimately, The Hunt is about the fears that plague us and the measures we take to protect ourselves, sometimes at the expense of truth. It is an exploration of human weakness, how easy it is to unravel lifelong friendships, how little it takes to mark a person with the permanent stain of doubt. Most importantly, it invites us to examine ourselves, at the way we see and interact with other people. For even as we feel righteous anger against characters on screen, our accusations are offset by a haunting uncertainty: Would I not have done the same?

This careful balance results in a film that is cinematic yet social, emotional but not maudlin, satisfying but also disquieting. With all this going for it, about halfway through I feared that the movie might end on a wrong note—with too happy or sentimental a conclusion. But I need not have worried. Vinterberg’s capabilities are manifest in one delicate scene between Lucas and Klara. The conclusion that follows is brilliant. Raw and unsettling, The Hunt ends on a perfect pitch.

‘You want to tell me something? The whole town is listening.’

‘What do you see? Nothing. There’s nothing.’

Rust and Bone (2012)

That the soul carries weight is hardly a new thought. From the Bible to Titanic (“A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets”), art has long affirmed that the soul accrues scars over time, grows heavier with pain. That the body is also a repository of secrets, not as much. In The Gathering Anne Enright declares, “What is written for the future is written in the body.” This finds an echo in Alvin Yapan’s Sambahin ang Katawan, which locates human experience—fear, ambition, desire—in the flesh. This same intertwining of sentiment and physicality lies at the core of Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone.

Touted as “a love story that begins when two worlds fall apart,” the film chronicles human experience of pain, how it leaves marks on the body, which heals in time but never fully recovers. All tragedy brings with it scars, some more visible than others, some cutting deeper than most. Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts give excellent performances as Stephanie and Ali, unlikely lovers brought together by chance and tragedy. Human life takes the forefront in Rust and Bone, but here we are depicted as the most vulnerable of creatures, the most interdependent and at the same time solitary—pitiful when compared to the casual grace of orcas, the constancy of ocean waves. But out of this existence can arise a fragile beauty, a dented fortitude that comes only with pain and loss, which the camera captures beautifully in scenes too many to enumerate.

In this film all human experience is sensory, corporeal. Scenes alternates between the brutal and the sensual, often combining them into a single image. So we see rippling folds of flesh, stocking rolling down a thigh, spittle flying, blurry nipples, a lone tooth whirling in a splatter blood. Naturally, viewers feel disoriented. We don’t want to look, but we don’t want to tear our eyes away either. Violence is difficult to confront because through it we see the tenuous threads that tie us to life—risk, accident, love, the ineradicable need for connection. It is a tension that Rust and Bone handles splendidly, no matter how contrived.

In his novella Death in Venice, Thomas Mann posits that art also makes its marks on the body. Even with a plot far removed from ordinary experience, Rust and Bone nonetheless inflicts a universal pain on its viewers, the simultaneous burden and joy of life. It is a transcendent feeling that apparently even commercial spaces like movie theaters now recognize. At the end of the screening, the lights did not go on immediately at Cinema City. Viewers were given a few minutes to wipe their eyes as the credits appeared on screen. Soon people would begin standing and putting on their coats, but in the immediate aftermath of the film nobody moved from their seats. It was a small moment of humanity.

‘Don’t leave me.’ ‘I won’t.’

Looper (2012)

Delay of gratification is hardly fashionable these days. In 2044, even less. So working as a looper makes sense, offering clean murder services to crime syndicates whose hands are otherwise tied by extensive body tagging. Instant cash, never mind what happens 30 years later. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains the premise:

In the future, time travel is outlawed, used only in secret by the largest criminal organizations. When they need someone gone and they want to erase any trace of the target ever existing, they use specialized assassins like me, called loopers. The only rule is: never let your target escape, even if your target…is you.

Therein lies the crux of the plot. Old Joe (Bruce Willis) travels back in time to hunt down a certain child and prevent a disastrous future, in the process endangering Young Joe’s life, whose looper contract forbids such a dichotomy. The two Joes struggle against each other, culminating in a final face-off at a Kansas farmhouse owned by Sara (Emily Blunt), whose son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) just might be the feared Rainmaker.

With all this going on, it’s not surprising that the film projects an Inception-like feel. Director/writer Rian Johnson makes his own mark on the sci-fi genre though. The movie handles information well, and it is a clash of motives that drives the conflict, not external antagonists (although we have those too). Looper owes a lot to its impressive cast. Gordon-Levitt delivers as usual, and Willis reprises a role he’s practiced to perfection: shooting down bad guys in the name of love and leather jackets. It is Blunt who surprises us with a highly emotional scene—which she pulls off without a hitch. And Gagnon gives new meaning to creepy child prodigy when he goes past mere precocious to ultra-powerful. Also, although these hardly alter the overall effect, I appreciated little touches like Gordon-Levitt’s make-up and Blunt’s tan. While they can be distracting, I recognized the added effort to lend authenticity to the movie.

Time travel is always a tricky territory to navigate. But Looper provides a caveat early on, and one that we readily agree with at the film’s conclusion. “This time travel crap,” Abe says, “just fries your brain like an egg.” This might seem like a cop-out, but it’s not. The film plays out so elegantly, so neatly (it’s a “closed loop” after all) that one would be hard-pressed to come up with a better solution. It’s not so much that there are no plot holes, but that the film holds you in thrall so effectively that you don’t want to find them, you don’t want to spoil it by thinking too much. Sure, Looper makes leaps of logic (what sci-fi movie doesn’t?) and characters make lousy decisions, but that’s part of the act. And it’s all synchronized so well that you don’t feel the need to look behind the scenes and dispel the magic. Those of you who want to take up the challenge and fry your brains, go ahead and try. As for me, I don’t need to make heads or tails of this. I’m happy with this violent, ambitious, splendid mess.

‘I’m from the future. Go to China.’

‘I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.’

The Sandman series

Superfluous. That’s the word for it. How else to describe this Sandman review, two decades late and a mere sprinkle atop its high pile of awards and accolades? I obviously got into this game late, and might’ve stayed unenlightened for much longer if not for TJ. He started me off with Endless Nights, Neil Gaiman’s 2003 follow-up to the series, which features gorgeous art by Milo Manara (“What I’ve Tasted of Desire”) and Frank Quitely (“Endless Nights”). But apart from Desire’s story, nothing else gripped me in this collection, and I disliked the overdone portraits of Despair. Preludes and Nocturnes provides a much better read. By turns horrifying and intriguing, it introduces the dark world of Sandman through a retrieval quest that wraps up satisfyingly, despite a few rough patches that appear, at most, awkward amid a deftly handled overall arc.

It all goes uphill from there. Perhaps most obviously, Sandman is an adventure epic that draws heavily from existing mythologies. Gaiman dexterously constructs a world that supports, reinvents, and deconstructs other myths, some of them the average reader will never have even heard of—until now. We see Thor, gallant and heroic in the Marvel movie, drunk out of his mind and making not-so-subtle references to the size of his hammer. It’s all wildly entertaining, and surprisingly accurate. Even then, Gaiman was not afraid to take on grand scales, an impression I felt most strongly when Lucifer abandons his realm in Season of Mists. I remember staring at that two-page spread of Hell’s main gate and thinking, Holy, this is something else. And it is. Subsequent issues make certain of that. A Game of You marks a turning point in my reading not only because of Wanda, but also because of the subtlety with which Gaiman handles the volume’s themes. He could have easily described the Cuckoo as pure evil, but instead calls such moral demarcations into question: “She acts according to her nature. Is that evil?” By the end of that fifth volume, I stopped liking Sandman. I began to love it.

For all the adventure it provides, the most important conflicts in Sandman aren’t physical, but rather internal, emotional, existential. In The Doll’s House we see the solitary Morpheus striking up a once-a-century friendship with Hob Gadling, and in Dream Country we discover a moment of self-doubt in our usually assertive protagonist: “Have I done right, Titania? Have I done right?” Dream of the Endless is not human, but he is after all man-made (a trope dreamed into existence), and the few glimpses we are allowed into his unerringly humanlike core are made all the more poignant by their rarity. But it is not only Dream whose psyche we explore. Sandman provides us with a plethora of characters who come alive within the span of a few panels. Not least of these are the Endless, among whom Death is the most popular. The conversations between her and Dream comprise some of the most memorable in the series: a socially inept brother and his sensible older sister—who just happen to be incarnations of the universe’s most recurring echoes.

Brief Lives presents more of these fascinating characters, indeed portrays different sides of them; it’s a real family affair. There is just so much humanity in this, in my opinion the best of all the volumes. For the first time it is not external factors that drive the story, but the Endless themselves: Despair and Delirium, who long for the company of their brother; Dream, who denies change even as he undergoes it; Destruction, who has understood the brevity of all lives; Orpheus, whose only hope is to die. “Father? I wish that things had been otherwise.” It still makes me want to cry, remembering it. Intelligent, subtle and painfully human, Brief Lives showcases the best of Sandman. The adventure arc isn’t as well-defined as in Preludes and Nocturnes or Season of Mists, but here we delve into another kind of conflict altogether. Gaiman is preparing us for the ending.

From Volume VII onwards, it becomes apparent that Gaiman knows where he is taking us. The script included in Dream Country reveals him as a conscientious writer; still we are startled by his grasp of continuity, the way he refers to previous episodes and makes sense of them, long after we have moved past that point. The Kindly Ones, for example, forces Morpheus to consider the same choice that, at different times, plagued both Lucifer and Destruction: “Perhaps this is the ultimate freedom, eh? The freedom to leave…” All this looping back in time and theme gives Sandman the enviable quality of possessing an entire universe of stories, which Gaiman takes full advantage of this in his story collections. Fables and Reflections ranks as my favorite of the three. Bursting with myth and history, it demonstrates the sheer flexibility of the Sandman universe, the extent to which stories can be bent and altered, recast and retold, depending on one’s vantage point. The last story, “Ramadan,” is absolutely marvelous, but I am not unique in this opinion. Like everyone else, I adored the whole concept, of preferring to burn permanently in memory rather than flicker brightly for a while then fade into nothingness, into an Ozymandias-like obscurity. Of course, P. Craig Russell’s stunning artwork also makes the story a standout.

It is to my everlasting regret that I did not grow up a comic book fan. Watchmen I did read, but it is only upon perusing Sandman that I understood comics as a collaborative medium, dependent on its artists as much as on the writer. And the artists who worked on Sandman are truly brilliant. Several panels have lodged themselves in my memory—Morpheus feeding a flock of pigeons, flowers sprouting from Orpheus’ blood, Destruction under a sky of stars. I also appreciated the artistic risks they took, in the stylized outlines they employed in The Kindly Ones, in the calligraphy-inspired shapes and text of “Exiles.”

That story belongs to the tenth volume, the last of the Sandman series. After the emotional exhaustion demanded by The Kindly Ones, I just felt so empty, reading the testimonies in The Wake. But every so often I would come across a word or a phrase, and I would suddenly feel like crying, like I’m mourning the death of someone I knew. It’s not at all an eloquent way to put it, but—he just felt so real. They all did. I laughed at Merv’s antics, wept for Wanda, grieved for Fiddler’s Green. “Why?” we ask, despite ourselves. “Why?” Matthew asks, echoing our voice of unreason. Lucien, always the wise one, repeats the answer we already know: “Sometimes, perhaps, one must change or die. And, in the end, there were, perhaps, limits to how much he could let himself change.”

I have read many Gaiman books. Most of them I have forgotten, save for a few gems—Coraline, The Graveyard Book. But it is only with Sandman that I stumbled again on the same magic I first encountered in Stardust, this time to an even greater degree. Here Gaiman does not simply weave a story, but puts together a wondrous world of characters, choices, possibilities. Which is why The Wake comes as a dreaded but inevitable thing; painful, but necessary. Closing that final book feels like ending a chapter in your life. A chapter in which you grow to be more human, find more fullness in life, make room for more sorrow in your soul. What do we say in the face of all these emotions? Even in this, Gaiman beats us to it. We remember the last page of A Game of You, in which Wanda’s death leaves nothing more to be said, nothing more to do except to move on. “And if there’s a moral there, I don’t know what it is,” Barbie says, “save maybe that we should take our goodbyes whenever we can. And that’s all.”

The Doll’s House

‘Love belongs to desire, and desire is always cruel.’

Dream Country

One night, enough of them dreamed. It did not take many of them. A thousand, perhaps. No more. They dreamed… And the next day, things changed.

‘The price of getting what you want, is getting what you once wanted.’

‘Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.’

Season of Mists

‘We do what we must. Sometimes we can choose the path we follow. Sometimes our choices are made for us. And sometimes we have no choice at all.’

‘Innocence, once lost, can never be regained.’

‘I think Hell’s something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go.’

A Game of You

His cloak was blowing in the wind like a patch of midnight, and his eyes glittered like twin stars.

‘I don’t think home’s a place anymore. I think it’s a state of mind.’

Fables and Reflections

‘It is sometimes a mistake to climb; it is always a mistake never even to make the attempt.’

‘You shouldn’t trust the storyteller; only trust the story.’

‘We write our names in the sand; and then the waves roll in and wash them away.’

‘You should have gone to her funeral to say goodbye… It is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell. You grieve. Then you continue with your life. And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on. She is dead. You are alive. So live.’

‘You can choose your friends, my love. You can’t choose your family.’

‘It’s the mystery that endures… A good mystery can last forever.’

‘It is unwise to summon what you cannot dismiss.’

Some things are too big to be seen; some emotions too huge to be felt.

Brief Lives

‘There are things not in your book, [Destiny]. There are paths outside this garden. You would do well to remember that.’

‘I like the stars. It’s the illusion of permanence… They’re always flaring up and caving in and going out. But from here, I can pretend… I can pretend that things last. I can pretend that lives last longer than moments.’

‘We do not always accomplish what we set out to do.’

Worlds’ End

There are just some places where the sky seems so much bigger.

The Kindly Ones

‘Don’t they ever learn?’ ‘They can’t. They’re part of the story, just as I am.’

‘It has always been the prerogative of children and half-wits to point out that the emperor has no clothes. But the half-wit remains a half-wit, and the emperor remains an emperor.’

‘How many times can life hit you? When do the blows start to hurt? When do you just…stop?’

‘[Love] makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens your heart and it means someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses. You build up this armor, for years, so nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life… You give them a piece of you. They didn’t ask for it. They do something dumb one day like kiss you, or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so a simple phrase like “Maybe we should just be friends” or “How very perceptive” turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It’s a soul-hurt, a body-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. Nothing should be able to do that. Especially not love.’

The Wake

‘I used to think [death] was a big, sudden thing, like a huge owl that would swoop down out of the night and carry you off. I don’t anymore. I think it’s a slow thing. Like a thief who comes to your house day after day, taking a little thing here and a little thing there, and one day you walk round your house and there’s nothing there to keep you, nothing to make you want to stay.’