Since having heard about the upcoming radio Drama of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, and since having learned that the Shewoof does not esteem it so highly as she ought, I have been considering what it is about that book which spoke to me so.
At a basic level, it is escapist. It is an adventure story set outside the realms of everyday life. The world is fantastic, and magic satisfies in a way that no crime drama or spy/military thriller ever will. But it is not a world so vague and separate as Middle Earth; it coexists with the world of the known, and therefore, taps into the realm of daydreams in a way high-fantasy never can. In Neverwhere, the remarkable lurks just beneath the surface, out of sight of the ordinary, but waiting to bubble up through the cracks.
The story has the magic of a rainy day in a foreign city; total anonymity and the simultaneous thrill and fear of leaving everything behind and striking out into the unknown. For the protagonist, everything is new and frightening, and at the same time, so much is a twisted reflection of the world he already knows.
I think part of the appeal to me is the very notion of adventure. In the America of the 21st century, adventure and danger--especially to my demographic--means "let us go do stupid stuff." One does not get many opportunities to prove one's incipient heroism these days, outside of fighting wars, without objectives, in far removed lands, without the appropriate legal sanctions of the Congress. I applaud those who serve, and while I would rather many of our campaigns not be embarked upon, I am glad they are prosecuted--by and large--by men of honor. Perhaps a topic for another time.
That is not the adventure for me, but there is a definite hunger for adventure, which will only find vicarious satisfaction.
The protagonist is not prepared for his adventure, he does not want it, and yet it takes his goodness, purifies it by trial, and makes a hero out of him. And even then, part of Gaiman's genius, he sits weeping brokenly against that wall, scrabbling to return. He is lost to that adventure, and he could never return to the ordinary. That is just another aspect of the danger, the thrill of the story. He became something more in that other reality, and he did not want to lose it.
It is a story about an ordinary, boring, fellow who gets pulled into a world where the ordinary cannot survive; he must become extraordinary or perish on the way. It isn't as though I'm dreaming about getting pulled into the sewers, or chased around by Croup and Vandemar, but there is some kind of uralt primordial craving for a test. The feats of strength simply are not enough.
You take the slow burn of this psychological subtext, and then toss on the accelerant of Gaiman's master wordsmanship, and it is no surprise that it speaks to me as it does.
Plus, I think that Gaiman has mastered, more than any writer I have ever read, the vocabularies of anonymity and shabbiness. I have to think of American Gods as well; it isn't just shabbiness, rather, resplendent shabbiness. I am thinking of the Marquis de Carabas and Odin in particular. Both are unknown and unknowable, obviously powerful, and yet, wear all of their power veiled. Everyone in their world knows who they are, yet no one outside, and yet, that anonymity does not make them any less than what they are.
Curious, I will need to consider further.