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.
In a novel, an author has the luxury of letting atmosphere contribute to the way his reader reacts to characters, an advantage the short story author is obviously lacking. But there is something about the way in which Gaiman writes; perhaps this comes from familiarity with his work, but from nearly the opening paragraph we are wrapped in a cocoon of atmosphere that establishes context for the events that follow.
By being able to prepare the way for his characters, and then giving them their heads, his stories are able to move forward quickly without any of the jars that you experience in a less accomplished author's short work. There is a seamless flow to these pieces with none of the reliance on device or trickery that annoys me about most work in this genre.
I've noticed in the past that writing a short story has a lot in common with buying clothes or shoes. You have the option of going with something that has a lot of flash and pizzazz but is short on longevity or you can pick something a little plainer in style but a heck of a lot more durable. This is not to say that the latter is unoriginal in content – in fact, quite the contrary – but the packaging it comes in is made to last with no reliance on gimmickry or sleight of hand.
Neil Gaiman is an imaginative and inventive novelist whose flights of fancy, whimsical nature, and ability to be equally at home in both the light and dark parts of the human psyche, without resorting to the voyeurism employed by so many of his contemporaries, has made his name synonymous with high quality fantasy. Fragile Things not only reaffirms his abilities as a writer, it shows his capacity for storytelling is on par with those to whom he dedicates the collection.
Like Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison before him, he can hold the robin's egg that is a short story in his hands without crushing the shell and ensure that at its centre lays a sturdily beating heart. These are Fragile Things that the passage of time will have difficulty folding, bending, or mutilating. They are as durable as stories themselves and as long as there is air to breath and ears to listen, they will be told.