FF0099: an orphan in a city labyrinth: a close reading of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere: 03/15/19
Last week I described how the city landscape can serve as its own road narrative destination even when the story stays within its confines. Today's post will look at a similar narrative structure, but one where the trip is more transformative and at least to the protagonist, less dangerous. For this post I will be looking closely at Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.
Neverwhere is an interesting example of the American road narrative as written by a then recent immigrant. More interestingly, in its original form — a six episode series — it was created for BBC2 but still harnesses a distinctly new world approach to tell a story set in London, for a British audience.
The protagonist is Richard Mayhew, who at the start of each episodes, introduces himself in a broken video snippet. His faux reality TV addressing of the audience grounds him in the reality of London as a modern-day city, while the distortions and alterations to his testimony highlight how this average Londoner has been transformed and consumed by a very different, magical and ancient city mapped across, through, and under the London that most people think of.
Richard begins in episode one (or chapter one if reading the novel that came later) as part of a romantic couple. He and his fiancée are heading out to dinner when he happens to notice an injured woman, one who is also apparently homeless. Jessica warns him to ignore the woman so that he won't be later to their dinner date. Richard choses not to ignore her and instead offers his help to the woman we will later come to know as Door. By doing so, he has acknowledged someone from the other London, and has therefore orphaned himself from the mundane London.
Through this self inflicted orphaning, Richard is removed from the mundane London to the point that no one knows him any longer (including Jessica). His apartment is empty. His job no longer exists. He is not only homeless, he is existence-less. But this odd not quite there status is his entry point into this other London and his means for traveling through it.
The destination for Richard is still London, just this other London. His guide throughout this is Door and the other inhabitants he meets. What makes his journey one of fantasy is the metaphorical ways in which he travels. His quest is mapped to the London Underground but in ways that only make sense through word play.
I classify his route through London as a labyrinth for two reasons. The first is the series' use of minotaur imagery. Richard and his companions take on a guide who goes by the moniker, Hunter. Her scenes are intercut with quick, violent images of bull horns and blood.
The second reason is tied to the Richard's path through London. Although he and Door and the others are tracked by Messrs. Croup and Vandemar who are supernatural, dangerous and deadly, as evidenced by Door's injuries and her dead family, Richard is never really threatened by them. In fact, they seem baffled by him. Richard's continuing status as an outsider, a former mundane Londoner lessens the dangers and removes many of the well established traps in this alternate London. What is a maze for Door is a labyrinth for Richard.