In the prologue and first chapter of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, we return home. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to start The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
HELLO, FRIENDS. A new book, a new journey, and LOTS OF FUN. So, this is the book that’ll be a part of Double Features for the next month. Here are some things you need to know if this is your first time here and even if you’re familiar with this place:
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This is also important because Double Features are not permanent. When I am traveling for the holidays or for events, they go on break so that I can accommodate said travel into my schedule. There is a week break for Christmas so that I can visit my family this year! (I write reviews a week in advance, hence the “break” starting on December 30th.)
2) Video commissions, which are embedded at the end of each review, are just $20 per chapter, as long as it is under half an hour. You can see which chapters are commissioned already at that link. There aren’t many left! Please also note that I review a week in advance. The day you’re reading this, I’ve already written all of next week’s posts.
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5) These reviews will not work like traditional Mark Reads reviews. I weighed whether or not to openly address this, as I thought it might be kind of neat to just surprise everyone once they figured out what I was doing. However, I recalled the vicious backlash to my Princess Bride reviews, where I chose to accept the joke that S. Morgenstern was real and thus wrote all of my reviews as if he was a real person. Yeah, people were extremely upset with me, and it unearthed a whole lot of ire and entitlement that I would rather not visit again.
Some time last year, I had a burst of an idea pop into my head once while I was writing reviews, but I quickly discarded it because it was such a daunting, terrifying concept. However, if you watch the first commission video for this chapter, you’ll see that I was struck by the same idea again, even more strongly than before, so I am going to attempt to do something incredibly difficult with these reviews: each one is going to be a vignette-style bit of prose that is my response to what I have just read. I have always loved doing those one-off reviews where I told a story from my life. Responding emotionally to fiction is incredibly rewarding to me, but I often refrain from doing it as much as I want because the nature of this site makes it challenging to do so. People come here to see how I feel about specific things, and while I try my hardest to make my prose pieces share that information, some people don’t like it when I am not direct.
So, at the end of every piece, I will include a brief section of “Thoughts” that will cover any things that my “review” didn’t really get a chance to address! Additionally, the video commissions attached to my reviews will function like normally, so don’t worry about that being a part of this experiment.
And with that, let’s start The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
There was an old willow tree a couple miles from the house where I grew up, a sagging, brown thing that never seemed at full bloom. It was located close to the two-mile marker of my high school’s cross country course, and there were some summers where I passed it every day during practice. During my junior year, the year when I ran away from home and spent time sleeping in a playground, someone had moved in under the willow. I never saw them, and it wasn’t long before someone called in the Riverside Police Department to come clear the tree out.
They’d used old pallet boards from the local Stater Bros., leaned against one another to form walls, and the whole thing was draped with a wrinkled blue tarpaulin, which would collect leaves towards the start of fall as they fell off the willow during days when the Santa Anas would roar to life and turn the tree into a dancing banshee. There was even a shower strung up between two low-hanging branches. They’d gotten their hands on one of those industrial size black trash bags, a roll of duct tape, and part of an old garden hose, and then filled the bag with water. The hose even had a nozzle so that the water didn’t leak out of it. I was running with the varsity boys the day we came upon the arrangement, and they laughed and pointed once they saw it.
“Look at that thing!” Joe, the coach’s son, called out, and the guys gathered around the tree, touching this person’s stuff, examining the hose, and laughing. “I wouldn’t mind being homeless if I had this,” he said, gesturing towards the shower.
No, I thought. You would mind.
I didn’t own a suit. I brought a pair of jeans and a short-sleeve button-down that fit loosely over my body, as if I was wearing a hand-me-down instead of a shirt that once fit six months earlier. “Don’t you have anything nicer?” my mother had said to me when my brother and I arrived at the house. She had hugged me, and then immediately asked what I brought to wear.
No, Mom, I said, I don’t. I can’t afford it. Plus, I’ll never wear it anyway.
She scoffed at me. “You better wear something nice to my funeral,” she said, smiling.
I smiled back, a rare glimpse of a happiness we hadn’t known for a while. I headed straight for my old room, shocked to find the door open. “No dog in here?” I asked from the doorway.
“No, he’s staying outside from now on,” my mother called from the kitchen. I heard her ruffling through the cupboard and knew she was trying to find something to offer us to eat, as she always did when we came over. Perhaps she was certain that every second we were away from her home, we weren’t eating.
The furniture was new in here. I’d taken my bed a couple years earlier, the old twin with the missing wheels on the legs, but it had since found its way to the dump. I couldn’t sleep on it because I was too tall for it. There was little left here to recognize in the room. My mom had made it an office of sorts for her, with a desk, a small bookshelf, and the cage she used to keep one of her puppies in. I set my backpack on the floor and walked over to the closet, sliding the door open, to see my old wooden toy chest sitting at the bottom. Some of my old things were still up on the shelves; I noticed a box of baseball cards underneath a set of towels. But the room felt like a distant memory even while I was in it. It had been six years since I’d lived here, and my mom had already replaced most of everything in the room.
But the absurd duck hunting panels were still up. Whoever had designed this house had decided that one room – and only one room – needed to have faux-wood panels with faux etchings that depicted various scenes of hunters shooting down ducks or other waterfowl. I suddenly remembered one particular night years ago when I stayed up to count how many birds were on the wall. I did it to stave off the inevitable nightmares that would come.
I couldn’t remember how many there were.
I’m going for a run, Mom! I called out. I’d changed into my shorts and running shoes, and I stood in the kitchen, filling up my water bottle from the new refrigerator. There are so many new things here, I thought, but then the sadness came back. Dad won’t get to see any of them.
I turned to find my mother lingering near the wall by the living room. “Be careful,” she told me, staring at me with mournful eyes. “Remember, we get lots of snakes around this time of year.”
I’ll be fine, I told her, and she gave me a kiss on the cheek as I passed her. She had her arms crossed over her chest and she was leaning into the wall, her eyes locked on me, her lips pressed into a straight line. I’ve never seen her like this, I realized. I’d never seen her vulnerability so close to the surface, ready to overflow into the world. I thought back to the days after she got out of the hospital, a long, snaking set of stitches running down her back, her fire and anger brimming over constantly. When my mom was close to death, she was furious. But when her husband died, she couldn’t find the anger in her. Had something finally broken her?
No, I thought. Not yet.
The course hadn’t changed much, but I noticed that someone had finally cleared out some of the overgrown weeds that had blocked the trail in the first mile. The sun was burning down from the east as my feet pounded on the packed dirt, and I picked up the pace as I approached the first big downhill that would drop me into the wide valley of the reserve.
We’d moved here in 1992, driving down from Boise over the course of a few days, hoping to beat the moving service my mother had hired. We couldn’t stay in the car driving for too long, since my parents were lugging two eight-year-olds and our three-year-old sister, Christine. We stopped somewhere in Nevada the first day, then somewhere off the 395 in California. We had breakfast the third day at a Mexican restaurant where my brother was convinced that our biological parents worked. Until that day, my twin and I had never seen another Latino person in our entire lives, and he latched on to the idea that they must be related to us. My mother scolded my brother and told him to shut up, and he ended up stuffing himself full of chips and salsa until he didn’t want to speak anymore.
For years, the Hidden Valley Wildlife Reserve that sat behind our home in Riverside was a frightening wilderness that, in our minds, held a jungle full of a terrifying assortment of animals that were all prepared to consume us alive. At least, this is what our mother taught us. It’s no wonder I grew up with so much fear and anxiety when this is the sort of thing I heard all the time. Still, my mother allowed our family on a couple short hikes out on the property while my brother and I were in junior high. These hikes were maybe a couple miles at most, but they captured our imagination quickly. Off in the distance, we could see the endless stretch of the bamboo forests and the dogwood and eucalyptus trees that lined the Santa Ana River. The hills rose majestically above us to the south, but we were never allowed to climb them. They’re too steep, my mother would tell us, and you’ll fall down them and break a leg if you climb them.
These sort of ultimatums were common in our household. If you do this thing, then this awful thing will certainly happen as a response. If we went off on our own on the hike, we’d get eaten by a mountain lion. If we didn’t stay by the cart at Stater Bros., our mother would leave us there and never come back to get us. If we acted like Mexicans at school, we’d get bad grades and get shot. My mother gave us these kernels of truth with utter sincerity, even years later when we began to realize that what she was telling us of the world was narrow and restricting.
So when we expressed interest in joining the cross country team our freshman year, this came with the standard bout of paranoia. We were going to be used. We couldn’t trust the coach because he might touch us. We weren’t allowed to stay later at practice because we might make a friend, and we might learn that the world wasn’t how our mother had painted it. She was comforted, though, by the revelation that Norte Vista’s course was behind our house. It meant she could watch us. And she would do that, not every afternoon, but if you squinted hard enough as you rounded the first curve at the quarter mile point, you could see her head above the brick wall in the backyard, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine that she had binoculars glued to her face, watching.
She wasn’t watching me that day, though, and strangely, it made me a little sad. I didn’t feel like my father was watching me either, wherever he’d gone. A friend of mine had told me that after his mother passed away, he felt her presence at random times for years after her death. It had been weeks since my dad had died in my mother’s living room, quietly and without fanfare, much like how he conducted most of his life. I didn’t feel my father was anywhere. He was just gone.
As I ran toward Roselle’s Hill, the massive, gravity-defying incline that often destroyed any lead that other teams had over my team, I passed the turn-off that led to where the finish line used to be for the course. It was almost six years to the day, I realized. Six years ago, I had run past this exact point and was miraculously in first place. I had never run so fast in my life, and just four days after that, I would be living underneath the playground set at Rutland Park, using the showers in the locker room to give the appearance that everything was normal.
I shook the memory off, though, when I crested a small hill to see Roselle’s rise up before me, and something was wrong. I couldn’t figure out why the image in front of me felt so terribly off. Was I just distracted? Was my memory not as faithful as I thought it was? I scanned the horizon and noticed a few new developments being built on the top of the crest, but that wasn’t it. The dirt path still sharply curved to the right and then disappeared in the north once it curved around the foot of Roselle’s. The fields had dried out over the summer, so the landscape was that familiar shade of brown that looked like hay.
The willow tree was gone.
The realization was all at once jarring and upsetting. The willow tree was gone, and so was the only shade on the entire three-mile route. The hill seemed naked, stripped of its defining feature, and as I came to a stop right at the point where the trail veered off to head to certain hilly doom, I saw that I wasn’t quite right. The tree wasn’t wholly gone.
The trunk remained, a neon orange “X” painted on to the bark. The tree simply ended in a harsh stump, as if a giant had reached down and snapped off the foliage in one bout.
I stared at the remains of the tree, and I felt foolish for the sadness that hit me. I immediately blamed it on my own fragility, on missing my father and refusing to accept that he was gone. It’s the only reason I feel so sad about a fucking tree that wasn’t even all that important to me. I hadn’t seen it in four years, and I wasn’t going to see it again.
Just like my father.
- Initially, I noticed that Gaiman’s narration felt a lot more sparse than I was used to. I’m always intrigued by simplicity when it comes to writing, and many of my favorite books aren’t flowery or complex. I mean, my absolute favorite book of all time is The House on Mango Street, whose prose approaches a poetic sort of nirvana in terms of sparseness. So I was already way into this book in just a few pages.
- The idea of haunting memories is one that has played a huge part in Mark Reads and Mark Watches, and I think it would be impossible (or at least incredibly time-consuming) to try and count how many times fiction has unearthed memories or emotions in me. Even all the way back in Mark Reads Twilight, I talked about why I had such reservations about the presence of Mormon theology in the novel, and I related the story of what my Mormon friends did to me in the wake of leaving the Catholic Church. In a way, I’ve used storytelling as a form of catharsis for my own demons because it allows me to organize memories as a tale. I can process things that happened to me or that I’ve done so that I can begin to understand them.
- Loneliness plays a huge part in my identity as well, and I’m hoping I can expand on that in the next few parts. So I was struck by the loneliness of the narrator’s journey, from his first visit to the Hempstock farmhouse to the glimpse of his birthday party. Did you know I wasn’t allowed to have friends over ever? The first and only time that any person who wasn’t a relative stepped into my house to spend time with me was in seventh grade. My friend Pilar came over to work on a project for Mrs. Hall’s science class, and she was so resolutely terrified by how strict and demanding my mother was that she never came back again. No one came over again.
- You know what’s exciting? Starting a book and having no clue what it’s going to be about.
So here’s to storytelling and experiments. Thanks for reading along!
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