The Audience and the Story
Neil Gaiman's book Angels and Visitations: A Miscellany starts with a poem called “The Song of the Audience.” The poem begins with “Let us call now for the makers of strong images,/Let them come to us now carrying their quills and sharp razors/Let them gash their arms for ink and let them limn” (lines 1-3) and ends with “Let them entertain us, the makers of strong images./Let us toss them copper pennies. But let us not forget./They make the images. We give them flesh”(10-12). The poem shows a relationship between the author and the audience as two parts of a creative whole. This relationship is explored through a reader-response analysis of the last story in the book, Gaiman's “Murder Mysteries.” The use of a story within a story in “Murder Mysteries” blurs the line between fantasy and reality within the narrative, leaving the reader with a new perspective on stories and their ability to change the audience.
As a literary theory, reader-response criticism takes the responsibility of creating meaning within a text away from the author alone and puts it in the hands of the audience, making the creative process a relationship between the two. As stated in “Writing about Literature” about this relationship, “Reading is not a passive attempt to understand what lies within a text but an act of creation, no less so than the writing itself”(1293). Understanding this process is a part of understanding the text. As objective as a critic tries to be, such as in formalism, the critic can not separate their own experiences and thought processes from the message of the text. In her work “Interpretive Strategies/Strategic Interpretations: On Anglo-American Reader Response Criticism,” Mary Louise Pratt states that “interest in reader response was sparked by a problem in formalist theory, namely the fact that readers commonly disagree as to the aesthetic structures and properties of texts”(201). If meaning was solely in the hands of the author and strictly tied to the text formalist critics would find the same meanings and themes in a work or there would be more consensus on what is the correct interpretation. Reader-response criticism suggests that the various interpretations made by the reader can all be correct and are influenced by the reader's experiences, beliefs, and the amount of reading he or she has done. Without an audience to supply these influences a text has no impact.
In his essay “An Autopsy of Storytelling: Metafiction and Neil Gaiman,” Chris Dowd describes Gaiman's stories as metafiction which he defines as “self-aware fiction.” He continues by saying “Metafictional stories purposely draw attention to the artifice of storytelling itself”(104). To do this in “Murder Mysteries” Gaiman uses a story within a story. The central narrative is only revealed to the reader through the narrator of the framing story relating a tale he was told to the audience. The framing story only makes sense in light of the central narrative. Dowd notes that many of the characters in Gaiman's stories who play the part of the audience later become the storytellers (112). This is true of “Murder Mysteries.” The unnamed narrator of the framing story acts as both audience to Raguel, the storyteller of the central narrative, and becomes the storyteller to the reader, telling both his own story and Raguel's story in flashback. This emphasizes the importance of the audience to the story.
“Murder Mysteries” starts with the narrator saying “This is true” (139). The narrator then goes on to tell a story of a week spent in Los Angeles ten years ago in December. The narrator was young then and was in LA waiting for the weather in London to clear up enough for him to catch a plane home. He receives a call from an one time lover who had heard that he was in town. He has an awkward and unsatisfying visit to her home before she gives him a ride to the place he is staying. This part of the story could easily be true. Where it gets strange is when the narrator is sitting on a park bench having a smoke and is approached by a man asking to buy a cigarette. The narrator gives the man a cigarette for free but the man feels he owes some payment for it and offers a story. “Mm. You want to hear a story? True story?” the man starts (144). The narrator agrees to the deal and the central story begins. Both stories are prefaced with the respective storytellers insisting on their truth but where the framing story is set in a world recognizable as real the central story is set in the Silver City, a place populated by angels before the creation of the universe. The reader could pass the central story off as the delusions of a homeless man and the unnamed narrator of the framing story almost does. As the storyteller, named Raguel, continues his tale the narrator and the audience is drawn in and whether the story is true or not, it becomes something that needs to be heard. Eventually this allows the reader to feel that this fantastic story is just as true as the framing story, at least within the confines of the universe “Murder Mysteries” takes place in.
Raguel's story begins “First thing I remember was the Word. And the Word was God . . . I remember the sound of the Word in my head, shaping me, forming me, giving me life . . . The Word gave me a body, gave me eyes” (144) In these lines Raguel is relating his own beginnings as the audience, echoing the premise of the framing story. As an audience, Raguel is literally created by the story or “Word.” He came into being in a silver room, with no one else in it. He tells the narrator that he does not know how long he waited in that room before Lucifer came to give him his name and function (144-145). Raguel is told that he is “The Vengeance of the Lord” and that he must find out who has murdered the angel Carasel and take vengeance on him (145-146). Raguel is both audience and storyteller in this task and his part in it changes him from a beautiful angel to a man asking strangers for cigarettes. These stories within stories within stories, all connected and all changing the characters making up the audience, begin to show the reader the power a narrative has. Raguel's story takes place during the designing of the universe, before the Word creates it (148). This is another instance displaying the power of a story, furthering the theme of “Murder Mysteries” and its resonance with the reader.
As Raguel investigates the murder pieces of another story fall into place. The intended audience of this story is Lucifer and it will forever change him. Raguel finds that Lucifer has been going into the dark outside of the Silver City, a place full of voices telling stories about God. Lucifer goes into the dark to test himself and his strength. He knows that the voices are lying when they tell him that God is not just. Raguel also finds that Phanuel has taken credit for the development of Love, a project that Carasel and his partner Saraquael worked on before they began to work on Death. Carasel was compelled to experience everything he worked on in order to perfect the design for approval by Zaphkiel, the senior partner in the creation of the universe. With these pieces Raguel believes he knows who killed Carasel and so he brings everyone to Zaphkiel's room to make the reveal (153-158). The story Raguel tells of the murder of Carasel and the ending that Raguel acts out serves as a warning to Phanuel to avoid doing anything that could cause Raguel to take the Lord's vengeance on him, such as taking credit for other angel's work. But the true audience is Lucifer. Saraquel killed Carasel because of the love they shared. Saraquel would have done anything for Carasel and professed to love him more than himself. When Carasel abandoned that love in order to throw himself into his work on Death, Saraquel became angry and killed him. For this Raguel killed him, driving Lucifer to cry “That was not right . . . he loved. He should have been forgiven. He should have been helped” (162) The reader feels Lucifer's pain as the story he just witnessed changes everything he believes. Lucifer no longer believes that God is just and some readers may agree. As Lucifer leaves the room more pieces of the story fall into place for Raguel. He realizes that God was the one that set all of the events in motion and Raguel confronts him (163-164). God admits his guilt and his purpose, “Yes. I did. Lucifer must brood on the unfairness of Saraquael's destruction. And that . . . will precipitate him into certain actions . . . for there is a part he must play in the drama that is to come” (164). God has written a story and set his angels to act it out. They are at once the characters and the audience and are forever changed by the tale. When Raguel has his idea of how the story was created confirmed he is forever changed. He tells God, “I feel dirty . . . sometimes You leave blood on Your instruments” (164). God offers to erase Raguel's memory of the event but he refuses the offer. God goes back to work and Raguel leaves, ending the story being told to the unnamed narrator (164). Raguel is not the only one changed by this story. The reader has more insight into how stories can effect change and may be experiencing some of that themselves. The narrator certainly is. As Raguel leaves the narrator says, “I felt like he had taken something from me, although I could no longer remember what. And I felt like something had been left in its place --- absolution, perhaps, or innocence (165). The story effected the narrator deeply and changed him, just as all of the stories within it changed the angels.
Within the framing story told by the narrator there are several gaps left to be filled in by the reader using clues within the text. These gaps take the form of blank spaces in the narrators memory. The first of these gaps occurs when he is driven to his friend Tink's house by her flatmate. He can't remember arriving at the house or where Tink's flatmate went. He remembers kissing Tink and receiving a blow job from her quite well though, including his thoughts as she ran to the sink to rinse out her mouth (141). It is interesting that as he tells the story he remembers many small details, yet remembers nothing in those gaps. Tink shows the narrator her daughter, asleep in a room decorated with drawings of winged fairies over palaces. Tink tells the narrator that her daughter is everything to her, then she tells the narrator that she loves him and offers him a ride to the place he is staying, leading to another gap in his memory. The narrator remembers nothing between embracing Tink after she offered him a ride and being on the sidewalk in front of the house he was staying at (142). Clues to what occurred in those gaps are offered near the end of the story and the audience draws the meaning of them from the story told by Raguel. The gaps and the clues mean nothing without the reader to put them into place. Flashes of memory, one involving a drawing from the room of Tink's daughter with a blood red hand print and the other of the narrator having sex with a bleeding Tink, suggest that the narrator has done something terribly wrong. This suspicion is supported by the narrator seeing a newspaper report of a triple homicide, two women and a child (165-166).
In the end of the story the narrator has finally made it back to London only to be trapped alone in an elevator. The elevator is described as a “little silver room” (166) echoing the earlier description of Raguel's room. This shows the reader that the narrator has become a new man through Raguel's story. A man of Raguel's creation. This is supported by the narrator's assessment of his life in the beginning of the story. “Looking around today at the parts of my life left over from those days, I feel uncomfortable, as if I've received a gift . . . I have truly inherited my life from a dead man; and the misdeeds of those times have been forgiven, and are buried with his bones” (139-140). It is Raguel who has given the narrator that gift through his story, and given the reader a gift as well, though not so grand. In a small way the reader has been given an insight into his or herself and the power of stories to shape his or her life.
The transformative power of stories is shown throughout “Murder Mysteries.” It is also apparent that in order to be changed by a story the audience must participate in it. They must use their own experiences and thoughts to fill in the missing information of the story, then watch how the story and their thoughts change as the storyteller provides more information. This collaboration has a profound effect on the reader and turns a story from pure entertainment to something that offers insight into the reader's life. The response of the reader creates a story that will stick with him or her and become a part of his or her personal mythology.
Dowd, Chris. “An Autopsy of Storytelling: Metafiction and Neil Gaiman.” The Neil Gaiman Reader. Ed. Darrell Schweitzer. Wildside Press LLC, 2007. 103-114. Print.
Gaiman, Neil. Angels and Visitations: A Miscellany. Minneapolis: Dreamhaven Books, 1993. Print.
---. “Murder Mysteries.” Dreamhaven Books. 139-166.
---. “The Song of the Audience.” Dreamhaven Books. 1.
Pratt, Mary Louise. “Interpretive Strategies/Strategic Interpretations: On Anglo-American Reader Response Criticism.” Boundary 2, 11.1/2, (1982-83): 201-231. EBSCOhost. Web. 10 Dec. 2012
“Writing about Literature.” Literature: A Portable Anthology. Ed. Janet E. Gardner, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009. 1177-1296. Print.