There’s plenty to think about in Chapter Four, the first chapter primarily set in The Land, that place of mysterious wonder and terror where animals talk and Barbie is a princess. There’s plenty to think about, but after reading this chapter, my thoughts kept returning to one subject: the deaths of main characters in stories.
I’m not sure whether we’d qualify Wilkinson’s death in this chapter as that of a main character, since we had only just gotten to know him when he was murdered. But, like most of the characters in A Game of You (whether in The Land or New York), he was vivid, interesting, and likeable. I was looking forward to spending more time with him.
But unless we encounter him in some other realm, it’s unlikely we’ll be spending much time with Wilkinson again, alas. By the end of this chapter, the characters from The Land who are loyal supporters of Barbie are either dead or, in the case of Luz, have revealed themselves to be turncoats. We were prepared for this early on — the third panel of the first chapter gives us our first glimpse of the Tantoblin’s corpse, and a major event of that chapter is the slaughter of Martin Tenbones. One of the most powerful elements of a story that has become, for me at least, one of the most affecting tales in The Sandman so far is its constant destabilizing of our fairy tale expectations. It’s especially effective because of the play of the visual style against the narrative. The Land and its denizens could come from the pages of a favorite children’s book — which makes the moments of violence especially unsettling, because though of course many children’s stories are full of violence and terror, I don’t know of any that dwell on the bodily details of violence to the same extent as A Game of You. The deaths of characters in children’s stories are often sad or pathetic, sometimes emotionally wrenching, sometimes disturbing, but how often do they put the gore and pain of violence front and center? We don’t merely see Wilkinson get his throat sliced open, we see his body on the ground afterwards — throat a gaping wound, blood dripping from his mouth and pooling on the ground, a spear pressed through his chest. It’s not just shocking, it hurts.
Wilkinson had seemed set to be important to the story’s progression, and the surprise of his murder adds real complexity to the tale; it’s also what got me thinking about the tv show that is known in the U.S. as MI-5 and in the U.K. as Spooks.
I must confess, I’ve become addicted to this show, mostly because I’m a sucker for spy stories (they appeal to some sort of deep and probably shameful wish-fulfillment fantasy in me). In the first few seasons, I was impressed with the producers’ and writers’ willingness to kill of main characters — not just important characters in an episode, but the actual main characters. From the earliest episodes, the message seemed to be: Nobody is safe. I liked a lot of the characters and enjoyed having them visit my television, so the knowledge that they could be tortured or killed at any moment added a level of suspense that I’ve seldom experienced with such shows. Of course, there are diminishing returns, and MI-5/Spooks suffers from this; after a while, killing off the main characters becomes unsurprising and predictable, a grotesque tic.
A Game of You is much better than that, achieving what a formulaic tv show can’t: a shift in narrative that may even lead to a shift in genre. What had been a quest fantasy, full of familiar tropes and tribulations (the explicit references to Lord of the Rings and The Wizard of Oz show that even Barbie knows the kind of story she’s in), has now become something else. What that something else is, we don’t know yet, and for all we know the quest may resume, but it’s not going to resume in the same way, because the fellowship of loyal adventurers is shattered. And shattered beyond just a single death, such as that of Boromir at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring; no, Barbie is on her own here — imagine what would have become of Frodo without Sam. Or Dorothy without Toto. And worse, if, moments after Dorothy arrived, all the Munchkins had been torn to pieces by flying monkeys.
While most of Chapter Four takes place in The Land, the brief scene in New York with Wanda talking to George’s reanimated face powerfully continues some of the ideas of gender and identity that have been central to that part of the story from the beginning. (Note, by the way, the marvelous artwork of page 113, where the top and bottom panels on the left rhyme George’s face with Wanda’s.) Since Wanda is among my favorite Sandman characters so far, I’m completely on her side in her argument with George, and if he’s right that the Moon and the other gods are total biological determinists without any sense of the complexities of gender identity, then I’ll take Wanda over the gods any day.
As I write this, there’s no Moon in the sky, but she’ll stop hiding from me one of these nights, and once she glows brightly enough, I think I’ll head outside with a copy of Kate Bornstein’s book Gender Outlaw and read it for a while in the moonlight. Even the gods need a bit of enlightenment now and then…
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.