Lost and Found, Above and Below

Beginning in August, I’ll be starting the first semester of my thesis writing to finish my Master’s degree. I’ve decided to study British dystopian fiction, analyzing how language is used to shape identity. My theory is that dystopian fiction is often driven by the intense fear of losing one’s own individual identity and the loss of identity on a global scale. I had a meeting a few weeks ago with the professor who has agreed to advise my thesis. Dr. Stuart has a strong interest in science fiction, too (she even occasionally teaches a class in British science fiction!), and she gave me some book recommendations. One of which was Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere.

Now, just for clarity, I’ll go ahead and preface this blog by stating that I won’t be using Neverwhere as one of the primary texts for my thesis. While language and identity certainly play roles in the novel, this work should be classified as fantasy, but not actually dystopian. Basically, I’m interested in how dystopian writers imagine the future of a society that exists now; I’m interested in works of literature that can show a worst-case scenario of continuing culture. Books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which portrays life after an apocalyptic disaster, and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, which shows the results of government gone horribly awry (and a text that I plan to use for my thesis) are dystopic because of these imagined futures.

NOTE: There are spoilers in this post. If you don’t want to know how the books ends, stop reading.

Gaiman’s novel is the story of two Londons that exist simultaneously. London Above, which is the world in which the protagonist Richard Mayhew initially lives, is the London that most of humanity knows–all the familiar landmarks; people working jobs, going to the pub, and living in flats; etc. London Below is the seedy underbelly–literally. If one falls through the cracks (like the gap in the tube station), one lands in London Below, inhabited by such characters as rat-speakers (who speak for the rats in London Below), assassins like the dreadful (and morbidly amusing) Misters Croup and Vandemar, and the fascinating teenage girl named Door, whom Richard actually encounters in London Above and attempts to save. Because of the setting–a contemporary, although fantastic setting–I won’t be able to use this for my theory about dystopian literature. However, I’ll probably be brilliant and throw in a footnote or two to compare it to other novels that I’ve read. 🙂

Mostly, I’m fascinated by Richard’s character in the novel. In London Above, Richard has a completely average life. He works an office job, is engaged to a woman with whom he doesn’t really have much in common, and lives a life that is just ordinary. When he meets Door and saves her, he is inadvertently brought into the world of London Below, and it is there that he finds his true identity. The book, though an amazing exploration of the two Londons, is really Richard’s rite-of-passage. He’s on a quest, he saves a lady, and he earns the title of Warrior by the end of the novel. Then, when he returns to London Above, he finds that the life he once lived is not enough for him. His real identity lies below.

I was about halfway through this novel before I realized that Neverwhere was originally a BBC miniseries back in 1996 before Gaiman adapted it as a novel. There’s a chance that, if I can find the episodes online, I’ll be spending some of my glorious week off this week watching the 6 episodes.

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