In his introduction to his most recent collection of writings, Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman explains how the title refers both to the topics of the included material and the nature of stories themselves. Stories, like the human heart, dreams, butterflies, and eggshells, may at first glance appear to be made from insubstantial materials, but on second look we see they all have unexpected strength.
While the heart may break, metaphorically, it is also the strongest muscle in the human body, beating a tattoo of 60-70 beats a second for years on end; and butterfly wings may look translucent but a Monarch can fly from Toronto, Ontario to the rainforests of Brazil. Similarly a story is made up of twenty-six letters and punctuation, or air and vocalizations, but some have been around for thousands of years, long outliving their creators.
While Gaiman makes no claim that any of his stories or poems will fall into that category, it's hard not to think about those words while reading through this collection, not necessarily for their durability or their literary merit, but their understanding of how fragility does not detract from durability. Survival is not only for the strong — the meek and the lost manage to find their way through the twists and turns of fate with equal dexterity.
From the morbidity of "Feeders And Eaters", the absurdity of his inverted Sherlock Holmes story "A Study In Emerald", the humour of "Forbidden Brides Of The Faceless Slaves In The Secret House Of The Night Of Dread Desire", the pathos of "Harlequin Valentine", and various other stops along the road of human and inhuman behaviour, Gaiman explores the enduring qualities of fragility.
This is unusual territory for a fantasy writer to be exploring, and somewhat unexpected from a writer like Gaiman, who is best known for his whimsical humour and the almost nineteenth century sensibility that fills so many of his creations. But the short fiction format is known for providing writers with the means to explore areas far removed from their normal haunts.
Such is the case with Fragile Things, and although Gaiman has always shown an implicit understanding of human emotions and desires, these stories dig deeper and resonate louder then some of his longer work. It's as if the constraints of the media have assisted him in getting to the heart of the matter with more efficiency.
Something that I've always admired about Gaiman is his ability to maintain neutrality when it comes to his main characters. He leaves it up to us to judge their actions and character instead of nudging us in any direction with the nods and winks of biased description. Somehow, because of this maybe, we are able to form opinions of them almost from the moment they make their first appearances on the page.