Brief Lives probably has the most cohesive plot of any of the Sandman collections, excepting maybe Volume 9, The Kindly Ones. In this collection, Delirium, youngest of the Endless, has conceived a fierce need to go in search of “the Prodigal”, Destruction, the middle of the siblings, who has abandoned his realm and who has not been seen in some 300 years. But she doesn’t want to go it alone (and is vaguely aware that she can’t, fractured and unstable as she is). She first asks the twins, the siblings nearest to her in age, Desire and Despair; both refuse. Then she asks Dream, who, surprisingly, consents — though his reasons have little to do with helping Delirium or finding Destruction, and far more to do with having an excuse to walk in the mortal world.
Dream, we learn, has just been dumped by his latest girlfriend, the witch Thessaly (from A Game of You), and he’s gone into quite the existential funk over it. Several of the inhabitants of the Dreamworld discuss how his mood affects their manifestation of reality:
Nuala: Brrr. Listen to that thunder. Poor Lord Morpheus. He must be very sad.
Mervyn: Nah. He enjoys it. I mean, hell, it’s a pose. Y’know? He spends a coupla months hanging out with a new broad. Then one day the magic’s worn off, and he goes back to work, and she takes a hike. Now, guys like me, ordinary Joes, we just shrug our shoulders, say, hey, that’s life, flick it if you can’t take a joke. Not him. Oh no. He’s gotta be the tragic figure standing out in the rain, mournin’ the loss of his beloved, so down comes the rain, right on cue. In the meantime everybody gets dreams fulla existential angst and wakes up feeling like hell. And we all get wet.
I like this little poke at the Dream-lord’s massive ego — he is, in many ways, a figure that takes himself quite seriously (as his sister Death frequently reminds him). So, both to shake himself out of this depressive fit — but also hoping that he might cross paths with his ex-lover — Dream agrees to accompany his sister on the search.
The search goes badly right from the start. Delirium has a list of people who were acquainted with Destruction, who might know his whereabouts, but they all suddenly die or disappear before Dream and Del can get to them. This is more worrying since these figures are immortal — some gods, some figures out of mythology, and some who have just refused to die. In one of the more memorable openings of the series, one chapter begins:
There are not many of them, all things considered: the truly old.
Even on this planet, in this age, when people consider a mere hundred years, or a thousand, to be an unusual span.
There are, for example, less than ten thousand humanoid individuals alive on this planet today who have personal memories of the saber-toothed tiger, the megatherium, the cave bear.
There are today less than a thousand who walked the streets of Atlantis (the first Atlantis. The other lands that bore that name were shadows, echo-Atlantises, myth lands, an they came later).
There are less than five hundred living humans who remember the human civilizations that predated the great lizards. (There were a few; fossil records are unreliable. Several of them lasted for millions of years.)
There are roughly seventy people walking the earth, human to all appearances (and in a few cases, to all medical tests currently available), who were alive before the earth had begun to congeal from gas and dust.
How well do you know your neighbors? Your friends? Your lovers?
Walk the streets of any city, and stare carefully at the people who pass you, and wonder, and know this:
They are there too, the old ones.
I love that passage. It’s chilling, unsettling, and somehow inspirational, all at the same time (a Gaiman specialty). And the first of these that we meet, we meet at his death; Bernie Capax remembers the stink of mammoth during his morning commute, and moments later, gets crushed by a construction site accident. He doesn’t want to believe it at first — after all, he’d made it so long, and for it to end like this? Who could blame him for feeling cheated at the last? But, as Death reminds him, “You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less.” We find out later that Bernie was on Delirium’s list; somehow, Destruction left a trip-wire in his wake that’s disrupting any attempts to find him, often at great cost.
Dream and Del also incur some purely mortal collateral damage, as accidents and mishaps plague their travel. Eventually, Dream throws in the towel; he’s had enough, he isn’t getting what he wanted out of the trip anyway, and he’s tired of their efforts getting people killed. Delirium takes this poorly, throwing a fit, retreating to her realm, and locking it down; Death intervenes, chastising Dream for being callous and selfish, and he agrees to try again. After coaxing Del back out, the pair journeys to their eldest brother, Destiny, who tells them to seek out an Oracle who is of the Family — Dream’s son Orpheus. Orpheus reveals Destruction’s location in exchange for a boon which he can claim from his father; despite knowing full well what price he’s going to have to pay, Dream agrees, and off they go to find Destruction — who is, as fate would have it, on an island neighboring the one where Orpheus has been kept all these years.
The meeting is, if anything, anticlimactic. Destruction reiterates his reasons for leaving his realm — he doesn’t think that the Endless should behave as they do, toying with mortals and governing their lives — that mortals quite have the hang of it now on their own, and the functions of the Endless can go on without their personal supervision. (Clearly this is correct for Destruction — we do a plenty good job of that — but what happened with Dream’s absence from his realm at the very beginning of the series calls the truth of his assertion into question). The conversation ends to no one’s satisfaction, and Destruction decides to pack up and go on the move again. Dream returns to the other island and kills his son, at Orpheus’s own request.
I really, really enjoy this volume, for several reasons. I appreciate the progression of the saga’s overarching plotline and thematic concerns. I like getting to see more of Delirium, who is a fascinating figure in her own right. Her contradictory nature and unpredictability show best when she and Dream visit Destiny; when Dream has a minor breakdown, Delirium briefly reigns herself in in order to console him. She says it hurts, and she doesn’t like doing it — but she can, when the need is great. The idea isn’t explored much further, but I think it’s tremendously interesting. I also like getting to see Destruction, on his own, attempting like anything to create and finding that he cannot do so in any sort of satisfactory manner. But perhaps more than all of that, I like what this collection has to say about immortality. It anticipates American Gods (published in 2001, 7-8 years after these issues first appeared in stores) in many ways, particularly in the idea of how old gods and other mythological beings survive: namely, any way they can. Most poignant to me is the story of Ishtar, reduced to dancing in a seedy strip club for the scraps of sexual worship she can glean there. She doesn’t seem to take it too badly, honestly, but there are echoes of such greatness and such loss in some of her conversations with her friends. And then, when she takes herself out in rather spectacular fashion:
I know how gods begin, Roger. We start as dreams. Then we walk out of dreams into the land. We are worshipped and loved, and take power to ourselves. And then one day there’s no one left to worship us. And in the end, each little god and goddess takes its last journey back into dreams. … And what comes after, not even we know.
She’s a stunner, to the end, and no mistake, and she makes a powerful statement — even the gods are not truly immortal; only the Endless are, and even they, as we learn in this collection, can falter, perish, and be replaced by a new aspect of themselves.
Brief Lives also includes, in a flashback to the seventeenth century, an interesting commentary on Reason. Poised at the edge of the Age of Enlightenment, Destruction comments that man has turned away from other methods of explaining the world and has focused on reason.” It is no more reliable a tool than instinct, myth, or dream. But it has the potential to be far more dangerous.” Dream agrees that it is a flawed tool at best. This is an interesting thing to consider, from a modern standpoint, in an age when science and faith so often find themselves at loggerheads — when we debate whether or not evolution should be taught in schools and whether or not religion ought to be allowed to govern what women can do with their own bodies. It’s interesting for me in particular because I somewhat straddle the line where reason is concerned. I love science, believe in science, am fascinated by science — but I have faith, too. I don’t see that the two have to be incompatible — the world is no less miraculous just because it’s composed of atoms and forces and chemical reactions — and yet there are so many who would insist on making them enemies. I think we need all of those things — instinct, myth, dream, and reason — in balance, to be the best versions of humanity that we can be. But that is, of course, only my own musing on the topic; I do love when Gaiman makes me think these thoughts.
In Brief Lives, you can really feel the saga spinning towards something. All the pieces are not only in place but now in motion. There’s more of an intensity to this volume, that will only ratchet up further in The Kindly Ones. Before that, though, we get the delightful imaginative exploration of World’s End…