Brief Lives Chapter 1 – Sandman Meditations

Now, opening the first pages of the seventh collection of The Sandman, some of the fun comes from knowing right where we are in the first panels. Disorientation has certainly been an element when beginning these stories, because they could be anywhere or anywhen, but re-orientation is also an important component — at first, the stories re-oriented us to narratives and characters from outside the Sandman universe, tales that began as myths or legends or novels or other comics, but now that we have hundreds of pages of this comic itself behind us, the re-orientations can be gloriously Ouroboric. Guessing at the re-orientations and then watching them unfold can be an exciting position to be in as a reader, and is one of the attractions of serial stories in general, though especially common and complex among The Sandman’s tendency to bust out the metatextual moves.

And so here we have a first page: islands, one of which has a structure on it that looks like a Greek temple. The second panels gives us some narration: “Andros can never get over the honor daily done to him and to his family.” And I know and you know that soon we’ll be meeting up with one of our favorite severed heads, Orpheus.

Not only do we get to see Orpheus again, but we also soon encounter some of the Endless, whom we haven’t seen much of, at least as a group, since Season of Mists. It’s nice to meet up with Delirium again, because in her appearances in the past she’s been intriguing, but I have also wondered how one might make her into a full character, because she seemed, appropriately to her name, to have some difficulty with coherent communication. In this chapter, though, she is able to communicate past her … well, what do you call it? I was about to write “condition”, and that may in fact be accurate — the condition of her being, I suppose — but all the words that come to mind at the moment are ones applicable to humans under the influence of chemicals or in the grip of mental illness, the sorts of words one uses with a person who might get better, whereas Delirium is not so much under the grip of a condition as she is the condition, its embodiment or its apotheosis: she suffers from herself. To speak of Delirium with the words we use to speak of human beings under the sway of delirium would be like speaking of Dream having dreams. Which is an interesting idea full of possibilities, but inaccurate for casual discussion of his being.

When Delirium makes her way into the club where she eventually summons Desire, a Tori Amos song, “Tear in Your Hand”, plays in the background, with lyrics from the beginning wending their way across the first panel on page 10: “Maybe she’s just pieces of me you’ve never seen…” — a perfect line for Delirium, certainly, especially given her occasional tendency to discorporate (as she does on page 13, becoming a flutter of butterflies). They’re words that apply to many other things through The Sandman, though, but beyond even that, a little bit before those words of “Tear in Your Hand”, Amos sings the lines, “If you need me, me and Neil’ll be hangin’ out with the dream king. (Neil said hi by the way.)”

Any self-respecting Sandman fan knows, of course, that “Neil” is Neil Gaiman, and the Gaiman-Amos Axis of Awesomeness (that’s the technical name) is so famous that it has even produced a Lacanian interpretation, which, if you don’t know, is pretty much the height of fame. (Really, ask any celebrity, and I bet many of them will say, “I honestly won’t feel like I’ve arrived until my iconicity has been wrestled into Lacanian hermeneutics.”)

I’ve been listening to Tori Amos since Little Earthquakes came out when I was in high school. I have her videos on VHS.  When she releases new albums, I buy them automatically.

And now I’m going to admit something that will make you laugh at me. Go ahead. I give you permission.

I had no idea until pretty recently that there was any connection at all between Tori Amos and Neil Gaiman. Part of this was my ignorance of The Sandman — though for over half my life now I have known the “hangin’ out with the dream king” line, it wasn’t until I began reading Sandman for these meditations that I knew quite what “the dream king” meant. I assumed “Neil” was just some guy, someone meaningful to Amos but not necessarily to the rest of us — like a name in a Frank O’Hara poem. (By the way, as I’ve told Chris, Jeff, Rick and probably a few other folks, O’Hara is my favorite American poet of the second half of the 20th century.) In my mind, I simply put “Neil” in the same category as “Greg” in the line from “Pretty Good Year” on Amos’s next album, Under the Pink: “And Greg, he writes letters and burns his CDs…” A name, because it’s fun to create a sense of the personal through names. Celebrities are in the strange position of being known by vastly more people than they will, themselves, ever be able to know, and Amos’s use of names in her songs creates a sense of bridging that gap, of creating an intimacy that, while artificial, is also, for me at least, deeply appealing. It feels like we’re part of a conversation, in on a joke, a member of a special group. Perhaps we even fantasize a bit about our own name being there — all the Neils and Gregs who are Tori Amos fans must love those songs, because who wouldn’t want to be lyricized (at least in a song that is nice to its names)? In fact, in one of the last interviews before his death, Lacan said, “I feel my work would be complete if Tori Amos would simply sing in one of her songs, ‘Jacques, you are my mirror.'”

I have another confession: I am someone who spent six or seven years thinking “burns his CDs” was a very interesting, strange image of a guy putting his whole CD collection in a pile and setting it on fire.

Ignorance and misinterpretation fascinate me, perhaps because I am endlessly prone to them, despite being one of those disreputable people who habitually tosses interpretations into public spheres. Did I lose anything during those many years when, for me, “the dream king” was just one of Tori Amos’s beguiling images? When “Neil” was just another name? With “Pretty Good Year”, I still hold onto the mental picture of a guy pouring gasoline over a pyre of gleaming discs, even though I know now, or at least strongly suspect, that what Amos meant is a guy making CDs — what we all do when we hit the “Burn” button in iTunes, which is where I finally learned the term. I could never assert that this is a correct interpretation of the song, but it’s an association I cherish, a personal association … like a secret name.

I’ve read too much of The Sandman now to associate “the dream king” with anything else, though, and I’m tickled by the idea that Neil Gaiman has been hanging out in my head, inscribed in a memorized lyric, without my knowing it for the majority of the time, since 1992. Dream king, 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.