In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996) a character named Richard Mayhew has made the mistake of interacting too closely with inhabitants of the “Under-World” of London. He begins to fade out of his life. He has difficulty getting people to notice him. His landlord rents out his apartment and gives away his belongings. His employer replaces him. People on the street don’t notice him until he stands directly in front of them, and then they’re only hazily aware of his presence. Ultimately, they don’t see him at all. Even though Mayhew’s awareness of himself hasn’t changed, he has faded out of the world and ceased to exist there, at least insofar as anyone in that world is aware. This is Neil Gaiman as Kafka. It reminded me of “The Hunger Artist” and “The Metamorphosis.” Gaiman handles this change deftly. It’s terrifying because he presents it as something not at all terrifying but rather as almost commonplace. It’s terrifying to Mayhew only when he recognizes that the transformation has taken place, that he’s lost his life and his world, and that there’s nothing to be done about it. The terrifying reality of this transformation is that it happens to the elderly, the marginalized, the disabled all the time.
One of the admirable qualities of this adult fantasy (adult in the sense of “for mature and intelligent readers”) is that scenes and situations we would normally regard as fantastic are presented as credible. One such moment comes when Mayhew attracts the attention of a beautiful woman whom he has been warned is a Lamia—she sucks the life out of her victims, like a vampire, leaving them cold and almost lifeless. In another he converses with a roomful of rats. In still another a terrifying creature with tentacles reaches out of the gap between a subway train and the platform and tries to drag Mayhew away—this, we’re told, is the reason for “Mind the Gap” signs.
Although there is humor in this novel, its tone is basically serious. It shows us what happens to a conventional man trapped in an underworld of fantastic people and events. His whole life, and his conception of himself, changes fundamentally. Gaiman is such an accomplished writer that he handles the various events and characters in Neverwhere as if they might be scenes and characters from novels by Forster or James or Cheever. In fact, the hero of this novel is much like a character from a Cheever story, such as “The Country Husband” or “The Swimmer.” Coupled with his abilities as a creator of narrative, Gaiman’s inventive and fertile imagination enables him to concoct elaborate fantasies that have the best qualities of great literature.