The Kindly Ones: Part 5 – Sandman Meditations

Given how complex the narrative of The Kindly Ones is revealing itself to be, I would be a fool to pretend to be able to come to any conclusions about it yet, or even to pretend to any knowledge of quite what is happening beyond the immediate events of each chapter. This is by far the most difficult of the Sandman volumes to proceed through in an issue-by-issue way; every time I reach the end of a chapter, I groan with the effort of restraining myself from turning the page. While such restraint fulfills the goals of this experiment in reading, and somewhat mimics the experience of the original readers who had to wait between issues of the comic, it’s still unavoidably frustrating.

I wonder if there are readers for whom seriality is itself an attraction. I don’t mean the products and effects of seriality — the rich complexities of plot and character available to a story developed over multiple episodes — but the episodic, can’t-wait-for-next-time suspense that a serial form creates. If, by some shrinking of a time-space continuum, we could preserve all aspects of serial stories and yet make them completely available from Day 1, would we enjoy them as much, or perhaps even more, than we do when they are parceled out in pieces? Is such stories serial structure and distribution a pleasure in addition to the other pleasures of an extended, complex story?

Audiences have all sorts of different preferences, but, personally, I would not be bothered by a world where every story is available in a complete form. But then, I’m the sort of person who reads the last chapter of mystery novels first and seeks out full summaries of movies before watching them, so I’m a bit a weirdo.

Technology has reduced the fragmented seriality of the mediascape. During my childhood and adolescence, for instance, if we missed an episode of a particular TV show, we’d have to hope to see it during a re-run, and re-runs weren’t always easy to find. This heightened the need for episodes to be self-contained, and shows with long narrative arcs (e.g. Babylon 5) were few and far between. Now many shows can be saved on Tivo or are quickly available online after they are first aired (or at least available within a few months on DVD) and so new narrative complexities are possible. What might have been made, at best, as a five-part mini-series before can now stretch to five seasons (e.g. The Wire).

While I prefer this environment to the one of my youth, I’m not blind to some of the losses in a world of plenty. Scarcity can create community. For instance, I had to rely on a friend to videotape Babylon 5 episodes for me, and we would typically watch four or five of them together when I went to visit him every few months. The wait in between was excruciating, but there was a social aspect to our viewing that made the experience of watching the show far more fulfilling than it would have been otherwise. The difficulty of seeing the shows added to their aura.

I wonder if  The Sandman had a similar sort of aura when it was being published one issue at a time. If you missed an issue, you couldn’t just go online and order it (at least in the beginning). You would need to rely on friends or visit a comic shop or write to the publisher. In between issues, you had time to re-read the old ones and to get into discussions with anybody else you could find who shared your interest in the series. Once you did find them, such people would be like a lost sibling found; in the days before most people had access to the internet, discovering like-minded fans of geeky (or, as I prefer to think of it, esoteric) stuff could be hard or even impossible, depending on where you lived. Then when you did find them, they might be hygienically challenged, politically reactionary, paranoid, delusional, and desperately proud of every factoid in their memory — but they still shared your passion, they were still part of the family, and so the pleasure of their company usually outweighed whatever quirks or obnoxious qualities they possessed. On the internet, they’re no longer quite so rare or special, and so they just become a crazy fascist conspiracy theorist who is WRONG.

There are new sorts of community and sociality in the internet age, though, and so I wouldn’t trade the days of yore for the days of now. There is always some loss with change, otherwise it isn’t change.

Before I collapse into a puddle of reckless generalizations, though, let’s look at some of the specifics of this chapter of The Kindly Ones. One of the elements of the story that I haven’t yet had a chance to comment on is the many parallel tales it tells. That’s a particularly challenging task for a serial story, especially one limited to the size and frequency of a comic book, because there’s always a chance that readers could completely lose track of at least one plot thread or character arc. One of the ways The Kindly Ones works to avoid such confusion is by returning to characters we haven’t seen for a while but who are, nonetheless, familiar. Most of the characters are from A Doll’s House, and one of the ways readers could have gotten through the wait between issues when The Kindly Ones first appeared was by going back to reread that story.

More importantly, each issue is structured to give us a glimpse of many, if not all, of the storylines that will, I assume, eventually converge.

For instance, the fifth part of The Kindly Ones gives us bits of the stories of Lyta, Rose, the (new) Corinthian, Nuala, Carla, and Loki. Rose and Carla’s stories begin separately and then come together on page 18, then Carla and Loki spend the last few pages of the chapter together, with Carla apparently burned up in the final panels. The moments with the Corinthian in the Dreaming and Nuala in Faerie make up the middle of the chapter (six pages total), while a brief moment with Lyta makes the first three pages a sort of prologue leading into a touching five-page section with Rose visiting Zelda, who is dying of AIDS. The section in which Carla visits the police station, returns home to have a photograph of Daniel burst into flames in her hand, and talks with Rose about the “weird shit” of life also covers five pages. Lyta’s sections, scattered through the chapter, add up to five pages.

The symmetry and balance of the narrative structure alleviates some of the confusion inherent in a story accrued from multiple threads. Additionally, some of the threads have a sense of completeness to them: Rose’s visit to the hospice to see Zelda is a full incident, and Carla’s ending, though mysterious, still seems to be some sort of an end (albeit one of those ends that is also a beginning). Lyta’s quest for revenge continues as it has for a little while now, the Corinthian’s story is just beginning, and Nuala’s story continues, but feels particularly beguiling because we don’t yet have any idea how she will connect with the other stories.

This one chapter, then, doesn’t have its own narrative beginning, middle, and end, but it contains beginnings, middles, and ends. Though the structure can be frustrating if, like me, you are halting yourself from reading the entire book all at once, it is also (paradoxically) satisfying because each part is so carefully balanced.

But that doesn’t make it any easier to resist turning the page.

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.