All lives are brief. That is what we learned early in Brief Lives, and now, in the last chapter, the lesson is offered again in various guises. Stories have conclusions, even stories of the Endless. They are Endless, but not Immutable.
Death is feared by all, even those, like Orpheus, who yearn for it for a thousand years. When she arrives, bringing a last border to life, she opens up a vast unknown. (Or perhaps it is not vast. The unknown is, by definition, unknowable until it is known. It could be narrow, tiny, crushing, nothing.) Death is the one constant in an ever-changing universe. (That sentence lies. If the universe is ever-changing, then change is also a constant. Death and change dance together in the ever-changing universe.)
Now that we have reached the last chapter of Brief Lives, we can look at it as a complete tale and not get diverted by suspense and second-guessing. Structurally, this seems to me the most extraordinary Sandman yet, and structure has been a strength for many of the stories in the series. But Brief Lives is the one that feels to me most like music and poetry, most complete and yet most open-ended, and, ultimately, most like something of itself and not a form borrowed from another field. We might, to be categorically correct for shelving in bookstores, call it a graphic novel, but that term seems limiting to me, for though certainly there are graphic novels — comics that take their structure and style from the conventional novel form — all comics that indulge in narrative and are longer than a certain length are not necessarily drawing sustenance primarily from the same source as novels. (And of course this dodges the question of what is a novel? Hence my qualification above of, “conventional novel”. Like “comics”, the word “novel” can be capacious. I’m fond of Randall Jarrell’s famous definition: “a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.”)
Brief Lives is a graphic novel in the way that Virginia Woolf’s poetically-structured The Waves is an ungraphic novel.
Actually, there’s more straightforward narrative in Brief Lives than in The Waves, so perhaps my point is pointless, but I’m going to stick with it nonetheless, not only to be stubborn, but because it seems to me that Brief Lives has in common with many modernist works of art a concern not just with time and sequence, but with duration.
Sequential graphic art offers a different experience of duration than either of its cousins, prose or motion pictures. In the normal course of reading a comic, different readers will experience the art and text at different rates. In that sense, comics are closer to prose. The basic experience of watching a movie or TV show is one that is the same experience of time for all viewers — a 90-minute movie takes 90 minutes to watch by anyone, unless the viewer interferes with the normal speed. A 300-page novel will be read at different speeds by different readers, and, further, a 300-page novel by Danielle Steel will be read at a different speed by most readers than a 300-page novel by Thackeray.
All of that is obvious. Comics, though, are especially interesting in that, like cinema, they excel at representing motion — but readers don’t perceive that motion at the same speed, because it is motion within unmoving images. The writers and artists of comics can suggest certain pacing (the speed at which one story element meets the next), but they can’t control it. For an example, look at the top of page 6. It’s a single image broken into six panels. Not only would its meaning be different were it one panel, its contribution to the story’s pacing would be different. Size matters, too. The pacing would also be different if this image covered the entire page. The six panels enhance the drama of the moment by extending that moment, but they do so visually rather than textually, as a novel would.
To create such a moment in a novel, the writer would likely need to extend our reading experience by providing enough words to slow even fast readers down. A dramatic moment expressed in one short sentence is different from a dramatic moment expressed in a thousand words. Such a moment in motion pictures would require a single static shot edited to last longer than others around it. (Duration is a matter of context. If every shot in a film is two minutes long, a three-minute shot will feel very different from a three-minute shot in a film where the average shot length is eight seconds.)
The panels at the top of page 6 show that comics can offer an elegant, efficient representation of time unavailable to other art forms. We can perceive the information in those panels with a glance, but the amount of time we spend looking at those panels is entirely up to us. How we perceive the feelings those panels suggest — indeed, more simply, how we feel those panels — depends partly on how the panels are constructed and partly on our choice as readers.
That’s a single instance of what is happening throughout Brief Lives. A network of resonances, repetitions, and recursions structure how we feel our way through the story. The first and last chapters stand as bookends between chapters that are about the perception of time while they also manipulate and tease our own perception of time as we read. Our expectations and anticipations both fuel our reading and make us vulnerable to manipulation.
Past, present, future — beginning, middle, end. Where are they? Have we mistaken one for the other? Are they all the same, but still different? Is death change? Are conclusions endings, beginnings, or both and neither?
All lives are brief. Time is perceived only as it passes by. Still, we think to the future. Even the last words in the last panel of Brief Lives look toward continuation: It is going to be a beautiful day.
The future. Not the future perfect (It shall have been a perfect day), tainted by time, just the simple future. Out there, waiting, its possibilities both mortal and Endless.
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.