Seeing Gaiman at Worldcon caused me to buy his big short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors. My favorite story so far is “The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories,” which I happened to read years back while sitting in the book store. It’s kind of a sideways rendering of Gaiman’s first time out in Hollywood, when Good Omens had been optioned and he and Terry Pratchett were doing the script. I love Hollywood stuff, especially modern Hollywood and the nonacting side, the agents and studio people, so it’s no wonder I like the story. But it’s a good job, too. He captures odd little moments that bring out the disjunction and strangeness in the way these people approach life (or the way that one hears they approach life), and he manages the tricky job of creating a long series of quick but distinct glimpses of producers, execs, flunkies, etc., each person different enough from the others and yet cognitively deformed in the same way.
“The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories”
by Tom Crippen
The inside-Hollywood, studio-idiocy business stays funny but also becomes unsettling. The speed with which it moves, a pace that at first seems wide awake and brisk, becomes creepy; this is the only case I can think of where narrative speed is turned into something like a horror element. (Not a suspense element, which, as I understand it, would involve plot: how soon will that train hit that girl?) You start out by enjoying the contrast between the brisk Hollywood material and the story’s otherwise Gaiman-like air of menacing dreaminess; then the Hollywood material becomes the atmosphere’s key ingredient. Not bad.
Okay, content. A small-time British writer of quiet horror stories hits it big with a novel and is brought out to Hollywood to do the script. Nobody at the studio or the production company knows what they’re doing, and they keep being fired and replaced and no one remembers that the previous batch was there. Neither do they remember the old stars of the past, and the memory shortage gets more marked as the narrator approaches the end of his string of executives and they get younger.
Meanwhile, there’s a goldfish pool at the narrator’s hotel, and he learns from the pool’s caretaker that the fish have no memory and so they swim about forever and get nowhere and every 20 seconds it’s a brand-new world to them. Which is the Hollywood situation as the narrator finds it.
The narrator starts sketching out a story set back home in England and involving a stage magician in a sad little seaside theater. So he wants to be creative again and get out of this Hollywood bullshit. He writes a poem about the seaside theater, and that’s his creativity giving a sign of life.
In reading up for his story, the narrator comes across two 19th-century stage-magic tricks, both of which involve frames (I think) and thereby prefigure 20th-century show biz and its screen-based entertainment. Okay, but why? To me it just seems like a flourish — here’s a fancy idea! One of the tricks does involve a lady who descends from a painting and tells an artist to buck up, he’s got the stuff, and that is obviously apropos to the narrator’s situation.
To tell the truth, the story doesn’t seem too hard to decipher (except for that business about 19th century/20th century show biz, which may not be just a flourish after all). But it works better if you don’t.
Still, if anyone has further thoughts on meanings, or whatever, go ahead.