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The High Cost of Living

I think the whole world's gone mad.
Uh-Uh. It's always been like this. You probably just don't get out enough.

Sexton and Death in Neil Gaiman's Death: High Cost of Living*]

Death is probably right. But in Sexton's defense, he has never seen the world before with Death as his guide.

Most of us go through life seeing the world only through our own eyes. This is what I see so this must be the way it is. Your only view of the world is your own interpretation of events and surroundings.

Sexton is one lucky guy. Sure, he's a despondent, black-souled, angst ridden teenager, just one crappy lyric short of being Kurt Cobain. But he gets the delicious treat of meeting Death, the perkiest otherwordly being this side of Katie Couric.

Death - spending her one day a year among the mortals - saves Sexton from a rather dubious exit from life and they make their way together through the city, going off on surreal adventures and playing out a modern, mystical version of It's a Wonderful Life.

So Sexton gets to see life through Death's eyes and it turns out that life is pretty magical. Pure irony there, being shown the wonders of life by Death herself, eh?

Imagine if you had a guide; someone who would spend a day walking through cities with you, showing you all the things you didn't know where there. It's not enough to take someone else's eyes and watch what they see, you have to have the mind behind those eyes as well.

Say there are two people laying on the grass, staring up at a cloud. One person sees a fish, another a castle in the same cloud. They can describe what they see so the other person recognizes it as well - see, there's the fish's eye, and the fin....oh, yes! I see it! - but the other person can't see what's behind the vision. Sure, it's just a fish, but in the other person's mind, the fish has already been given a name (Frida) and she's swimming towards something (sunlight) but the evil dark lord (the cloud behind it) is going to snatch up Frida and eat her for lunch before she can get anywhere near that sunlight.

You keep those things to yourself, mostly. Your friend who is laying on the grass with you won't get the real feeling of the story. He won't know why you chose the name Frida or why Frida will never make it to the sun and he certainly won't know that you will proably spend the rest of the day imaging scenarios between Frida and the dark lord.

Sexton, depressed, morose and suicidal as he is, is quite a lucky guy. He gets to see life through someone else's mind. He gets to experience the magic that Death experiences. And by doing that, he is able to see the world outside of his narrow view.

The problem is not that Sexton didn't get out enough; it's that he didn't get out of his own mind enough. Yes, the world has always been mad. It's always been crazy.

Perhaps we can say we do have these guides and they are books and music and all kinds of mass media that let us see into the minds of others, let us travel along their paths and experience their unique experiences.

Yes and no. It is not the same as actually running through the city with Death looking for an old woman's lost heart. Our guided tours are vicarious.

I assume that when Sexton realized he was hanging out with Death he had to figure they were perfectly matched companions. After all here he was, trying to kill himself. And there she was, Death personified.

Turns out they each had a little more life in them than Sexton realized.

Which all begs a question. Do we really want to see the world through the minds of others? It might be a very uncomfortable thing, to take a day's journey with someone quite unlike you. It might even be more uncomfortable to see the world through the mind of someone who thinks exactly like you do. And if we are our own guides, how many of us are really comfortable with that?

When I was a child, I had all kinds of daydreams where I would hang out with magical people and live within their magical lives. I'm a bit more grounded in reality now, but not much. I believe the one stark difference between then and now is I no longer wish to see the world laid bare as it really is. I thought, once upon a time, that it would be infinitely cool to have a magical companion who could show me everything that lies beneath the facade, every bit of myth and lore and fantasy that is hidden by the harsh realities of the world. I just knew that underneath all the dirt and grime and everday boringness of life, there were things happening that only those who possessed a certain magic could see. Things happening right underneath our feet, right in front of our eyes, but we are too wrapped up in the ordinary to see the extraordinary.

The fear is that mixed in with the angels and faeries and exciting, noble creatures of some other realm (where everyone eats chunks of cheese and hunks of bread and golden, crunchy apples, because that is what every hero in every fantasy book eats), there are creatures like devils and ogres and perhaps even grues, waiting to devour you.

I had a dream once, when I was about twelve, that I was being led through a dark passageway by a lighted, winged fairy. Along the walls of the passageway were drawings that would come to life as the fairy's light landed on them. At first, the passage was filled with the sound of my giddy laughter, as I watched all kinds of funny, mystical creatures take wing and fly around me. But as we rounded a corner, the light played upon a creature so hideous that the site of its face knocked the wind out of me. I fell to the ground and as I did so, I caught site of the creature. He was staring at me through hideous eyes. Now that you have seen me, I will never let you forget me, is what he said. And I didn't forget him, which is obvious as I repeat this dream to you now.

And that is my fear. That taking a ride through life through someone else's vision would reveal hideous ogres that should have been left unseen.

I suppose that one can't get to see the knights and good witches without seeing the trolls as well. What I would give to run through the city with Death as my companion, living Death's adventures. What I would give to be Sexton, to have someone shake me and say, look at all the things you didn't know existed.

Still, would I do that if a fleeting glance in a glass building revealed myself to be a monster?

*The most brilliant piece of work Neil Gaiman has ever written.

Comments

I have no idea what the point of this is, either.

Whatever the point, it's just what I needed this morning. I was feeling a bit rutstuck and flipped to ASV for a little energy.

And I think it's another candidate for the compilation book...

well I just wanted to applaud your taste. High Cost Of Living is one of my favourites also.

Michele, thanks for a terrific post. I'm printing it in my hard copy for my "favorite stuff" binder.

You gotta love The Endless. The blending of so many different mythologies and stories (the meeting of Norse, Greek, Asian, and other gods in one storyline comes to mind) takes the imagination to previously unvisited level. Have you been to Neil's blog?

I live in fear of Sandman-related movie adaptations, moreso than any other favorite book/comic.

Neverwhere is one of my favorites.

Neverwhere is excellent, especially if you've ever spent time in the London Underground, though it would be a great read even without that sense of recognition for the various stations mentioned.

Did you know the book was made into a British mini-series? Or perhaps it was the other way 'round.

For what it's worth, I posted a link to this in Neil Gaimain's official message board.

I was in Utrecht, Holland, last year, and heard that Neil Gaiman was going to do a booksigning one Saturday. So I went out that Saturday with the explicit intent of getting me a signed Dream Hunters, of course I forgot about it, realizing the fact an hour after the signing took place, I was hoisting bags of groceries many blocks away from the book store, D'OH!!!