Reading “Soft Places”

So, briefly, a bit of fun news: Rachael gave me a copy of Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III’s miniseries The Sandman: Overture for Christmas, and I read it all the way through, and it was delightful.  It’s set mostly just before, but also many years after the time period of the original Sandman run (that is, just before Dream is caught in Roderick Burgess’s trap in 1916 and after the events of the series’s end), and so Gaiman makes a point in his foreword to note that it’s a story that is read before and after the series proper.  If you’re new to The Sandman, then it should definitely be saved until after you’ve read the original run, because a lot of the fan service bits won’t make much sense out of context, and it’s no fun to have things spoiled.

Nonetheless, the point is that Overture acts as a sort of narrative expression of the idea that Gaiman explores in The Sandman issue 39, “Soft Places.”

This might be one of my favorite Sandman covers, which is saying something because I am one of those sacrilegious people who doesn’t generally fawn over Dave McKean’s artwork. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

In this story we follow a young Marco Polo who has gotten separated from his father’s caravan while traversing the desert of Lop and is now trapped and disoriented by a sandstorm.  He loses consciousness and finds himself caught up in a little eddy of time where he meets a man, Rustichello, who knows him in the future as a cellmate in prison, and Gilbert, the human form of Fiddler’s Green that we met way back in The Doll’s House who has taken a short holiday from 1992 to be alone in what he calls the soft places, the locations in the world that are still not rigidly separated between waking and dreaming.  It ultimately comes out that Marco dreamed the whole thing a few yards from his caravan, but the important idea is that the linearity of time and story is a mostly constructed thing.  Without the narrative structure that storytellers impose, it’s all just a jumble of events that happen.

Of course, since this story’s a mixture of fantasy and history, things become complicated by the fact that Marco Polo did exist, and the events he and other characters describe were actual parts of his life.  In that sense Gilbert (and by extension the reader), who’s looking at the situation from the perspective of 1992 where everything else is in the past and therefore fixed, is at a narrative advantage.  He can look at the encounter between young Marco, lost in the desert, and Rustichello his chronicler from several decades later and wax poetic about the way time loops and whorls on itself; Marco is still a boy lost in a place that has a very real possibility of killing him, and Rustichello is still an odd self-centered man who is mistaken about the nature of his dream; both mortals desperately need to make sense of what’s happening, and don’t have the luxury of Gilbert’s hindsight.

We have one more short story to read before moving on to The Sandman‘s next long story arc (which happens to be one of my favorites).  It’s about Lyta Hall’s son visiting Cain and Abel, and it’s a very entertaining story.  After the sparseness of “The Hunt” and “Soft Places” I’m very much looking forward to moving along, since this little interlude of issues feels like just a bit of waiting around before the series’s second half really picks up momentum towards its conclusion.

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