25 February 2005 by Published in: in my life No comments yet

Today I’m going to do another reader question. I can hardly contain my glee, too, for unless someone has a particularly twisted sense of humor, my reader question comes from author Neil Gaiman himself. Longtime readers of the blog know that hardly three entries go by without my mentioning him in some capacity (his works, things he’s said on his blog, the dreams of mine in which he has appeared, etc.) so you can imagine my shock when this comment appeared on my entry reviewing the book Flights: “You’re much too kind in your opening paragraph — I honestly don’t expect anyone to like everything I write. (That includes me.) Still, I’m puzzled by your use of the word ‘blasphemy’ in describing ‘The Problem of Susan’ — could you elaborate? (Er, that’s not a trick question. I’m really interested in where you feel the blasphemy was.) “.

Now I know that technically anyone with a web browser can stop by and read anything I’ve written here and further that anyone can leave a comment (except you, spammer). That’s part of the point. Still, I’m just a regular person, and I hardly expect to be noticed by a celebrity. Especially not a celebrity whom I admire and whom I have elevated to heroic status. There aren’t too many of those. It was a little like watching a statue turn its head as you walk around it to stare back: magical, flattering and just a little bit scary. So since this extra cool famous person leaving a comment thing has happened to me, you can understand that I must draw attention to it and while I could do that by writing a long “HOW COOL IS THAT!” entry I feel it’s better if I just use the question he asked as the basis for an entry. And provide an answer. Right. I’m going to answer the question.

However, I cannot do that without explicitly detailing what happens in Neil Gaiman’s story “The Problem of Susan”. Also I cannot do that without talking about sex (I have to say this, because my mom and dad read the blog and they might feel funny reading things I write about sex). Consider all that disclaimering your spoiler warning. Proceed at your own risk.

As I said in my original review, I have always been interested in the question of Susan, or as Gaiman puts it, her problem. At some point she stops going back to Narnia while the others still do. She’s more interested in lipstick and nylons, according to Lewis’ text. This suggests, of course, a sexualization. Awakening to the carnal might shut the doors to Narnia. As I’ve also said before, I have trouble with this explanation. One reason is that maturation as a human being involves some degree of sexual awareness and (in normal people anyways) sexual interest. This is something that cannot be escaped or avoided, and so it doesn’t seem fair that this normal result of growing up should close the door. If there were an original sin issue, then it would apply to all the children, as that is a stain we are all born with. It’s not simply a question of age, either, as Peter continues to return, and he’s the eldest. It’s a thorny question. Perhaps Narnia is closed to her not because she craves attention from boys, but because she’s no longer interested in it. Maybe lipstick and nylons are not supposed to be representations of womanhood and sexuality, but of materialism. Though why pick nylons and lipstick to illustrate that? Maybe the message is about vanity? At any rate, Gaiman’s Susan has not lost her interest in Narnia and still longs for the forbidden place, it seems, as she has grown up to study (and teach) children’s literature. Though possibly this lifelong study is not a desire to go back but a desire to understand. I fully expected that Gaiman’s treatment of the character would study the loss of innocence implied in sexual interest, and explore sexual thoughts as an irrevocable progress to adulthood. The choice of portraying Susan as an elderly woman was interesting as well (she’s maiden and crone, but never mother), and I was riveted for the first section of the story, until Greta came on the scene. Greta was a necessary plot device, I suppose, but I didn’t care for her. And I was not prepared for her dreams of Aslan and the White Witch copulating. That both appalled me and filled me with revulsion. Aslan is a representation of the divine, the White Witch a representation of unshakeable evil. The two do not come together and get it on. It was ok for him to eat the girls, mind you. That did not seem blasphemous despite the actively sexual connotations in the act of consumption. Neither did it seem blasphemous for him and the witch to make a pact and divide the spoils. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the divine becoming intimate with the profane. It was wrong, wrong, wrong and I had a completely visceral reaction to it. I find it odd, myself, but undeniable. (Maybe this is something that can be taken as a compliment? Sometimes artists try to evoke this sort of reaction). I must also mention that I did not think any of the conversation between the two women was blasphemous. I thought all the questions raised were important ones : whether God enjoys misfortune, whether Susan requires some repentance that the others do not and why, and whether there’s something about her we haven’t been told. The cat and mouse speech was pretty clever, too.

I should note that I particularly liked the bits about the train wreck and the bodies in the school building, as well as the use of dreams, and the language of the story as a whole. I just could not get past the lion and the witch having sex. I’m perfectly willing to accept that the problem is mine and not a flaw of the story itself.

For what it’s worth, two other people whom I foisted the volume upon and subsequently demanded their opinions on the contents therein both told me they didn’t care for that story (and both spoke well of Six Hypotheses, which was my favorite in the book, and one liked the Gene Wolfe story and the other one said he didn’t get it). A small sampling, of course, but at the time I remember thinking that the story was either too difficult, or not all there, or only right for a very few people. And by the way, I never pictured myself reading that story again, since I didn’t like it at all, but I didn’t feel like I could be quite as specific as I wanted to in this entry without looking it over once more. New things have jumped out at me on a second reading. There are a lot of not-Narnia things going on that probably went over my head the first time. It’s obviously a rich and complex story, and it makes me all the sadder that I can’t properly enjoy it.

Oh, and in case you’re reading Mr. Gaiman, let me just say while I have your eyeballs that Coraline is a terrific and extraordinary book. Almost as good as the Alice books, in fact, and you’ll know from my URL and my website layout how huge a thing that is for me to say. They are both books to be cherished.


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