Moving In – Sandman Meditations

Okay, I’ll admit it.  I’m such a shallow person that the biggest kick I got out of Sandman issue 11, “Moving In”, was discovering that Dream’s crow assistant shares my name.  It was actually shocking when I first read it, because I was bit tired, and I got absorbed in the many strands of the story that were coming together, and then there, on page nine, DREAM WAS SPEAKING TO ME!

“Hello, Matthew,” he said.  “The surveillance goes well, I presume.”

And even though I’m a total materialist and rationalist, someone who lacks much sense of superstition, someone who scoffs at the supernatural — even though I am that person, for a few nanoseconds, I was sure something pretty freakin’ weird was going on.

Of course, it was just that, being tired, I missed that Dream was talking to a crow and not speaking through the page to me.  This happens now and then.  People talk to crows and I’m sure it’s all about me.  Usually it’s old ladies in parks, so the Lord of Dreams seemed like a nice change of pace…

I didn’t miss, though, that page nine continues the theme of seeing that fills this story arc. Surveillance*, peeking, watching: each of these words appears at least once on the page, and Dream says, “You are my eyes, Matthew.”  The rest of the issue is filled with references to sight and perception.  It’s not just about things being seen, but how they are seen, that seems to matter.

The issue opens with a house, and so the questions of scale that preoccupied me through the last issue recur: the first image is of a large house that feels in some way like an analogue of Unity Kincaid’s doll’s house.  There is a certain similarity to some of the windows, and the most recent appearance of Unity’s doll’s house showed Dream looking out one of the windows.  “Moving In” opens with Rose’s new landlord, Hal Carter, talking to her from an upstairs window, and he is a soft pink color, a lighter hue of the hot pink that filled the background of the window Dream peeked through (and which is now the color of Rose’s dress).

Rose has, we discover, been sent by her mother and grandmother on a quest to find her lost younger brother, Jed, and so she has ended up in Florida, renting a room.

The page after we learn of Rose’s quest, we enter Jed’s dream world, which resembles Windsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland.  I’ve looked at the Little Nemo strips in a giant collection at a library, but I’ve never actually taken it out of the library because the book is nearly as large as I am, and I’m self-conscious about becoming a spectacle (further evidence that I am not, despite the rantings of some old ladies on park benches, really Lady Gaga), which anyone who carries a book the size of a small door around with them is likely to become.  I became interested in McKay and Little Nemo after reading a short review by the great American writer John Crowley of a biography of McKay.  Crowley compared McKay’s work to that of Buster Keaton, and whenever something is compared to Buster Keaton, I feel obliged to investigate, because Buster Keaton was sublime.  This is not the place to go into a full discussion of Keaton or McKay (interested readers can find the review in Crowley’s nonfiction collection In Other Words), but I am going to steal Crowley’s description of Little Nemo in Slumberland:

Night after night, Little Nemo (whose name is Nobody, of course, as Odysseus’s was once) sets out on a new dream journey toward Slumberland.  Each night a psychopomp appears to guide him there, sent by the immense but kindly King of Slumberland, who wants to join Nemo with his Nemo-sized daughter.  Each night the journey is frustrated; Nemo meets obstacles, or trips himself up, or breaks some dreamland prohibition; the creatures sent to help him desert or hinder him.  Lost, in trouble, usually falling vertiginously, Nemo wakes up.

I stole Crowley’s words not only because they help us understand why Gaiman and his collaborators made Jed’s dreamworld look a bit like Little Nemo’s — even without knowing it, the contrast of the bright colors and simple, child-friendly images with the dark, lonely images of Jed in his basement is unavoidable — but because I so admire Crowley’s sense of sentence structure that any excuse to include his sentences is one I’m happy to take.  (And not just because he’s someone who appreciates the subtle power of semi-colons so much that he’s willing to use two in one sentence; he’s a man after my own punctuated heart.)  It’s that last sentence that gets me — the clauses reinforce the feeling of falling, the syntax matches the fall into waking.  Meaning and structure unite.

Speaking of unified meaning and structure, one of the great masters of such unity is mentioned on the seventh page of “Moving In”.  Rose’s landlord Hal is, it turns out, a drag performer.  He storms into Rose’s room and declares, “He’s cut my tribute to Sondheim, and given an extra number to that slut Mitzi!  I told him, Douglas, I don’t care who you’re screwing, but if ‘Broadway Baby’ goes, then so do I!”

Of course, you know that Stephen Sondheim is the greatest songwriter the American musical theatre has ever seen, a true genius in a somewhat limited art form, a man capable of evoking an extraordinary range of meaning and emotion through the interplay of lyrics and music.  It’s a skill like that of Crowley’s with sentences that echo and reinforce meaning through their structure, and like the skill of comics writers and artists who find images and words that can strengthen each other.  For instance, as Hal says, “But if ‘Broadway Baby’ goes, then so do I!”, we see in the background a purple, blue, and black poster for The Cure’s album Boys Don’t Cry, the title song of which tells the story of a man trying to pretend a lost love doesn’t hurt as much as it does.  “Broadway Baby” is from Follies and expresses the hopes of an aspiring performer who is “pounding 42nd Street” in hopes of getting a role.  We don’t need to know about either song to see Hal’s anguish any more than we need to be aware of Crowley’s sentence structure to get his direct meaning, or need to be aware of the way discordant notes undercut and subvert certain Sondheim lyrics, but the added information makes that single panel a particularly rich one.  Not only do we get a sense of each character’s musical preferences, we may also assume that Boys Don’t Cry and “Broadway Baby” were chosen deliberately, as commentary, perhaps, on Hal’s own life and emotions at that moment.

There is much more to “Moving In”, including a penultimate page as full of purple, blue, and black as the Boys Don’t Cry poster, and an impressively agile elderly fellow tenant who saves Rose from assault, and some more play with conventional gender expectations, but it’s still early in the full Doll’s House story, and we’ll have plenty of time in coming issues, I expect, to explore these and similar ideas.

Because yes, the surveillance goes very well, indeed.

Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.