25 March 2004

"Bitter Grounds" by Neil Gaiman

This past fall, I used Mojo: Conjure Stories, edited by Nalo Hopkinson, in one of my English classes. The class is for students who do not necessarily love reading and writing, but who don't need remedial help. I had liked what I'd read of the anthology, and I thought the stories would be both engaging and challenging for the kids. We ended up only having two weeks to spend on the book, so I broke the students into small groups and had them choose a handful of stories to read, discuss, and then present to the rest of the class. A few stories we discussed together, including Neil Gaiman's "Bitter Grounds", a story I find more evocative with each reading.

The first reaction of all of the students to the story was: "This was boring to read, it didn't make any sense, what is he like some sort of zombie or something, it was stupid." They had already begun work in their groups, and were reading other stories in the book, so they were aware of some common themes and subjects, aware that we weren't in the realm of quotidian reality here, but that didn't help them recognize the merits of Gaiman's tale. "These stories are just too weird," one of my students said. "Can't anybody just write normal stories?!"

It is in such moments that I love being a teacher. I knew that, once I could direct their attentions to a few of the subtleties of the story, they would begin to warm to it. They might not love it, they might not go running out to recommend it to their friends, but they wouldn't resent it as much as they did when they first walked into the classroom and sat around the table, arms folded across their chests, eyes drilling imaginary holes in the floor, certain that what they had read was just another example of an author, or a teacher, trying to make them feel stupid.

Though few of my students came to like "Bitter Grounds" as much as I do, they all came to respect it, and I would never ask for more than that. The book as a whole received mostly positive reviews from them by the time we had finished it, with vastly different opinions of which stories were the most effective. "Bitter Grounds" is the one that has remained most vividly in my mind, and is the one I return to most frequently.

Summarizing "Bitter Grounds" is beyond my capabilities. It is a story about loss, love, carelessness, voodoo, sex, ghosts, and more. The first time I read it, my reaction was, "That's it?" I hadn't paid enough attention. I hadn't been expecting the level of complexity "Bitter Grounds" offers. The first sentence, "In every way that counts, I was dead," is extremely important to every sentence that follows, all of which serve to illustrate the "every way that counts" and how it relates to death. This is a story where what isn't done and what doesn't happen is as important as what is and does.

Virginia Woolf once said, "...I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth," and that is precisely what Gaiman does as well, though using vastly different techniques. The caves Gaiman digs out are not so much beautiful as they are unsettling and, ultimately, haunting. The various encounters in the story feel random at first, but early on a character says to the narrator, "Remember. People come into your life for a reason," and this sentence proves to be as important as the story's first. Fragmentary moments all take on significance, all loop back to shine tiny glimmers of light into the beautiful cave behind the narrator, the shadow-world of his daily existence.

Once I told my students to look more carefully at the first sentence, at the passages from Zora Neale Hurston, at who disappeared in the story, at how people responded to the narrator -- once they started looking, they didn't want to stop. Everything in the tale connected, there wasn't a loose thread anywhere, even though a quick reading made the story feel random and even inconsequential. Now, having looked at it closely, the students saw how much could be accomplished in a single carefully-crafted short story. They were impressed. Having re-read the story moments ago, I still am.