“Because there are rules.” That is Dream’s reply to Matthew, who wonders why one of the most powerful creatures in the universe has to give in to the demands of the Kindly Ones and risk his entire existence.
My immediate response, perhaps because I share a name with the raven, was to whine to myself: “But why!?!”
Rules and traditions create limitations, and that’s the point. In a story full of magic and fantasy, where, conceivably, anything could happen, it’s important that there be some basic rules to keep the possibilities from being infinite. Rules ground and govern our expectations; if the storyteller could have absolutely anything happen at any moment, suspense would be impossible and surprise would quickly stop being surprising. If my sentences here were not connected to each other by at least general (perhaps tenuous) rules of logic and transition, you might grow exasperated and stop reading, because what rules could possibly explain why the sentence after this one is, “Just a year later I saw him, working at the stand; then, again, he was gone.” Just a year later I saw him, working at the stand; then, again, he was gone.
The rule that put that sentence there was not a rule but an impulse. The sentence is from The Motion of Light in Water by Samuel Delany, and I stuck it here because the book happened to be sitting on my desk. I opened randomly to a page and copied down the first sentence I saw.
That’s a technique that can be interesting in poetry and certain types of experimental fiction, places where chaos and, especially, randomness can produce compelling results when placed up against the often invisible conventions and traditions of more regulated literature, but even then, such techniques are rarely randomly random. Sometimes, in fact, they are the result of strict rules. Consider Walter Abish’s book Alphabetical Africa, where every word in Chapter 1 begins with the letter A; in chapter 2 with A or B; in chapter 3 with A, B, or C, etc. Or Georges Perec’s La Disparition (translated as A Void), a novel written entirely without any words containing the letter E. Such rules create fierce constraints and are as inexorable as the rules that seem to be leading Dream to his doom.
We don’t (or, well, I don’t) generally think of dreams as realms of rules — I would not be surprised to dream about writing a Sandman Meditation, for instance, in which I suddenly and with no reason wrote a random sentence, and never commented on it. (Just a year later I saw him, working at the stand; then, again, he was gone.) But we do seek to understand our dreams, to reflect them back on our lives. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is an attempt to find, or perhaps impose, some rules.
Our desire for rules and our hatred for randomness and chaos fuels both science and superstition. We seek to understand the universe we are part of, and so we study it, we experiment, we poke and prod and measure to find the meaning behind events and behaviors. We hold onto superstitions, even if we’re not the superstitious type, because they help make meaning, they stand as bulwarks against the possibility that all is random. It’s not even that we fear purposelessness, though plenty of people do — I am, myself, perfectly comfortable with the idea that the universe has no discernable purpose, but I would never say it’s all just random. There are too many rules.
Stories are appealing because they fight against randomness, they impose order. The words in a story are chosen to follow one after the other, the sentences work together to build images and characters and plots. The rules may come from the writing itself, or they may be dictated by genre or other expectations, but they are there, and they are both comforting and entertaining. A story full of inexorable fate will keep us turning the pages, as will a story like The Sandman that challenges our expectations, because without rules we would have no expectations to be challenged.
My own understanding of how the realms of The Sandman work — my expectations — provided an unexpected moment of emotional response at the end of Part 12. For at least a few chapters now, it has seemed that Dream will not escape the Furies, that he will have to suffer some great loss, that he may be destroyed. I did not think I was particularly emotionally attached to this character, because he isn’t exactly the sort of creature to inspire warm and cuddly feelings. When he told Matthew to go and get his sister and to send her to him, I knew, of course, that his sister is Death, but what he was asking didn’t really register until the final panel. “He wants you to go to him,” Matthew says to Death. It was a shivers-down-the-spine moment for me. I truly caught my breath. The slow progression toward this moment had, it seems, put various expectations in place without my even knowing it. The rules of stories and this story converged at that one moment to let me realize what it meant for Dream’s sister to go to him then.
Plenty of previous Sandman moments have proved my expectations wrong — have, indeed, deliberately built up expectations only to complicate them — but I would be especially surprised if my expectations here are wrong. Too much has gone into creating them. Sometimes, fate truly is inexorable, even in dreams.
Because there are rules.
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.