Review: Fragile Things

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

For all my love of Neil Gaiman (wanna hear about the time he came to my college?), I’ve never read his short stories. Which is odd; you’d think someone who stumbled across him so young would start there. But no, my Gaiman itinerary goes Good Omens, American Gods, Anansi Boys, Neverwhere, and, now, Fragile Things. (Coraline is in there somewhere. Y’all know about my memory.) But there are two Neil Gaiman short stories that I have been dying to read; “The Problem of Susan”, a piece of The Chronicles of Narnia fanfiction in the genre commonly known in the fandom as Susan!fic, and “Snow Glass Apples”, a twist on Snow White. When I couldn’t decide what to read next, I found Fragile Things in my school library; clearly, it was a sign.

Fragile Things collects disparate short works by Neil Gaiman, ranging from short stories to poetry. This collection includes “A Study in Emerald”, which comes advertised as “Sherlock Holmes meets H. P. Lovecraft”, “Goliath”, a piece written to promote The Matrix, “Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot”, which doesn’t even cover the whole Major Arcana, and the short novella “Monarch of the Glen”, featuring the protagonist of American Gods, Shadow Moon—as well as pieces written for Gaiman’s dear friend Tori Amos. Most have been published elsewhere, but some are unearthed for the first time in this collection.

I have to admit, I was underwhelmed by Fragile Things. As I’ve said in the past, I avoided short story anthologies in the past because the quality level is so variable. While I’ve gotten over it and discovered some beautiful works in anthologies (let me just say Michael Chabon here so I won’t strain myself containing myself), it’s still nonetheless true. As Gaiman himself puts it in the introduction, “Writing’s a lot like cooking. Sometimes the cake won’t rise, no matter what you do, and every now and again the cake tastes better than you ever could have dreamed it would” (xiv). The pieces in Fragile Things feel like experiments; some of them are successful, while others merely fail to live up to their potential—but none of them are actually bad, which is a blessing in and of itself.

Fragile Things starts off, brilliantly, with “A Study in Emerald”, a Sherlock Holmes/H. P. Lovecraft crossover that works beautifully. In fact, I invite you to read the version available on Gaiman’s website, which imitates a period newspaper complete with ads (which look a little odd when set normally in the book itself). It’s chilling and true to its sources, complete with a fantastic twist. But “The Problem of Susan”, another piece with a solid, pre-existing foundation, fell flat for me. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve read better Susan!fic in the fandom itself, I’d overhyped it for myself, or because Gaiman set out to “write a story that would be equally problematic, and just as much of an irritant, if from a different direction” (xxv). He certainly succeeded with it as an irritant—it just felt too thin (especially with the idea that Lewis wrote about real children), without any closure for Susan. And isn’t that the point of Susan!fic? We want her to get her happy ending, despite what happened.

There are some other good works in here—my favorite pieces, other than “A Study in Emerald”, are “The Day the Saucers Came” and “Fifteen Painted Cards from the Vampire Tarot”. (I liked a poem written after 1920? STOP THE PRESSES!) “The Day the Saucers Came” is a brief, heartbreaking glance into relationships, and “Fifteen Painted Cards from the Vampire Tarot” is just fantastic. It’s not even a short story, more of a collection of character sketches created by combining Tarot cards and vampires. They’re each wonderful and the entry for the Chariot is possibly my favorite piece of writing in this entire collection. But there’s plenty of stories here that left no impression on me at all. I don’t know if it’s the medium, the timing, or just the material, but ultimately, Fragile Things went almost entirely in one ear and out the other.

Bottom line: Fragile Things has three high points—“A Study in Emerald”, “The Day the Saucers Came”, and “Fifteen Painted Cards from the Vampire Tarot”—but is otherwise forgettable. Give it a miss, but don’t forget to check out “A Study in Emerald” on Gaiman’s website.

I rented this book from my college library.

  • Gaiman, Neil. Fragile Things. New York: Harper, 2010.

9 thoughts on “Review: Fragile Things

  1. I think Smoke and Mirrors is a little better personally. I too was frustrated with The Problem of Susan, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. A Study in Emerald was twisty, especially since I hadn’t read any Lovecraft before that. Although you didn’t like
    “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire”?

    I get the feeling that you’d prefer a group of short stories written deliberately as a collection (or a linked short story collection), because certainly those tend to be more consistent and coherent. Strong short story collections I can recall off the top of my head are The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, The Things We Carried by Tim O’Brien, 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill (Pop Art broke my heart. For real.), and The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat. They’re either linked or centered around more consistent themes, so they work stunningly.

  2. Smoke and Mirrors is a lot better. It has a story about Santa Claus that’s less than 100 words long. It has science fiction tales and horror stories. It is full of wonderful things that Fragile Things simply lacks.

  3. I read this a while ago, and like you’ve commented, it was almost in one ear and out the other. I do remember “The Day the Saucers Came” because I think I saw a video of Gaiman reading it himself (and who forgets that?).

    So I’m almost through all of Sandman, and I have to say it’s quite brilliant, although I’m still not the biggest fan of graphic novels (even though I wrote my longest paper ever…20+ pages, on Watchmen). It does have the amusing and ironic? (I don’t even know, I’m scared to use that word any more) side effect of making me incredibly sleepy when I read it. Go figure.

    I noticed you enjoyed Joyce Carol Oates–her short stories are generally held to be great if you’re looking for more collections. I read “The Female of the Species” a while ago and its mind blowing creepy factor has not left my mind, although interestingly it has VERY mixed reviews on Amazon. I find Oates’ style of writing fascinating. She’s the only prose author I’ve ever read who uses exclamation points on a regular basis in first person, and it tends to make the narrator seem unbalanced…which is I suppose what she’s going for 90% of the time.

    Hope your summer is going well!

  4. I recall preferring Fragile Things to Smoke and Mirrors, but it’s been a while since I read either one. I think Neil Gaiman’s unreliable with short stories, whereas there’s always masses of marvelous things in his novels. I like his poems though, nearly always.

  5. I’m a huge Gaiman fan too and have also somehow missed all his short stories. I’m glad I read this review before starting this book because my expectations will be lowered and sometimes that makes all the difference.

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