Were Sandman a conventional story, this chapter would be the climax of Brief Lives. But Sandman is not a conventional story.
And in many ways, chapter eight is a climax. Events have been building to bring Delirium, Dream, and Destruction together for the first time in 300 years, and that meeting is portrayed here. The meeting does not explode with screaming and yelling, it features no hostage attempts or murders or giant exploding squid. For the most part the characters just chat, then Destruction goes off to another universe.
(You hadn’t expected any giant exploding squid? Well, you’ll be plenty surprised when one falls out of the sky then, won’t you…)
Destruction’s ascent toward some other part of the galaxy (or some other story) is not the end, of course — chapter eight finishes with a cliffhanger, as Dream says he has to go kill his son. This adjusts our expectations of the climax, showing that this chapter was not, in fact, the primary climax, or the only climax, but rather the preparation for what may turn out to be the most dramatic moment of Brief Lives. The meeting with Destruction may have been a purposeful anti-climax to misdirect our expectations from a hidden narrative arc.
Or maybe I’m just trying to fit a square peg into a black hole. Narrative expectations grow in us because of all the stories we’ve experienced in our lives, and again and again with Sandman we have to reconfigure our expectations.
At some point, shouldn’t we just let the expectations go and take things chapter by chapter, page by page, panel by panel?
If you can throw away all your expectations, you have a more flexible mind than I. Even with something like Sandman, where much of the pleasure comes from expectations being manipulated, shattered, reconfigured — even then, I develop the expectation that my expectations will be manipulated, shattered, reconfigured. The text can never be innocent, because at this point I’ve read enough to have some idea in my mind of Sandman = x even if x = not what you expect.
So, of course, I didn’t expect a conventional climax, because that would be the most expected turn of a more expectable story. I would have been extremely surprised to discover that, for instance, Destruction had been taken prisoner by a mad scientist who had hypnotized him into giving up his realm, and then Dream and Delirium had to use their extraordinary kickboxing skills to wallop the scientist, who would, of course, have tied Destruction to train tracks and injected him with a mortality-inducing virus that would activate seconds before the train was about to run over him. Just as the train was about to send him off to Death — because what’s the point of a climax if you can’t have a just-at-the-last-second bit of suspense (after all, when was the last time you saw a movie where the bomb was defused a few minutes before it went off rather than in the last 3 seconds? Other than The Hurt Locker?) — just at that very second, the last of the last possible moments — just then Dream would turn the train into a giant strawberry shortcake and Delirium would subdue the scientist and then rush to her brother with the antidote to the mortality-inducing virus and then everybody would express great relief and much appreciation to each other, there would be laughter and tears, and Destruction would return to his realm and everybody would live happily ever after. (Well, maybe not the passengers on the train, who suddenly found themselves stuck inside a giant strawberry shortcake during their commute.)
Such a climax would have been surprising because it was so conventional and hokey when Sandman is seldom conventional and never, at least for me, hokey. (For a thorough definition of which, I refer you to the collected works of Theodore J. Hokum of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey; see in particular the 13-volume series of illustrated chapbooks he self-published in 1949 as the Encyclopedia of Unfortunate Aesthetics.) So while the conventional/hokey climax would have been surprising, not all surprises are good ones. Though it is not entirely surprising to find chapter eight philosophical and contemplative, it is vastly more fulfilling to discover it as it is than to be surprised by big action scenes, last-minute rescues, and a sentimental denouement.
The climax becomes one of information — we learn some things about the nature of the Endless and their realms, and our perception of their personalities is deepened. Early in The Sandman, lacking evidence to the contrary, it was easy to jump to conclusions about how the universe of these stories works. That, too, is a conventional tendency. We are all used to worlds full of unambiguous rules for how things work. The gods or wizards or mad scientists all operate according to the same straightforward and immutable laws, and the differences in their behaviors are primarily differences of power and disposition (“I want to cause mass destruction!” “I want to save everybody!”). Such stories have their own rewards, but The Sandman is vastly more complex. Not knowing any better, we start out thinking we’ll learn the rules as we go along and by the end we’ll know how the universe of these stories works — but the universe of these stories is ruled more by perception and attitude than by clear laws. Only Death, it seems, is universal.
Destruction says that Death told him “everyone can know everything Destiny knows. And more than that. She said we all not only could know everything. We do.”
Destruction and Dream don’t really know what to make of that, but Delirium, who is less chained to rational expectations than her brothers, says, “She is. Um. Right. Kind of. Not knowing everything is all that makes it okay, sometimes.” Which is the other side of what Death had told Destruction — instead of explaining how it is possible to know everything and yet not realize that one knows everything, Delirium sees it as a survival strategy.
For Destruction, the idea that all is known but not known becomes a kind of egalitarian justification for his abdication. “Why,” he asks, “does it seem like none of us — Endless or mortal, ghost or god — knows what we’re doing?” If we are all ignorant, who has any right to rule? Endowed with extraordinary power, but unable to answer that question, he must wander off.
For Dream, it’s not a question worth lingering on. Yeats said an “Old Play” once stated, “In dreams begins responsibility,” and Dream seems to have taken it to heart, because responsibility is his new mantra. Perhaps he wrote that old play Yeats referenced, or maybe he provided inspiration to the young writer Delmore Schwartz one weekend in July of 1935 when he wrote a short story called “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” — the story of a young man who dreams of sitting in a movie theatre and watching a film of his parents’ courtship, a film he tries to shape and change, but can’t, and so despairs, until he wakes and realizes his responsibility is to his own life. The past, like a movie, is a narrative we can’t change once it’s played out.
The past is always an incomplete story, though. It haunts the present, shaping our hopes and fears, our knowledge and expectations. William Faulkner famously wrote in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Even that statement isn’t complete, though. Scholars have recently discovered that in his first draft of Requiem for a Nun, Faulkner wrote: “The past is a giant exploding squid.”
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.