I’ve listened to, or read, How To Talk To Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman over 200 times. It is, in my mind, the most perfect short story I’ve ever read. I listen to it when I’m working, and especially when I’m cooking, because I find that when I’m focusing on something it makes chopping vegetables or mixing dough so much more conscious. There are three spots in particular where I stop and listen closely, and two others where I catch my breath and, as often as not, weep – not because it’s sad, but because there are emotions that I identify with strongly: the confusion of youth, uncertainty, the intense pain and beauty of being a human, alive. As with The Sun Also Rises, I’ll often find new lines in it that I’m convinced I’ve never read or heard before, new conflicts, new repetitions, new cadences, new surprises, and most of all new truths.
‘”We knew that it would soon be over, and so we put it all into a poem, to tell the universe who we were, and why we were here, and what we said and did and thought and dreamed and yearned for. We wrapped our dreams in words and patterned the words so that they would live forever, unforgettable. Then we sent the poem as a pattern of flux, to wait in the heart of a star, beaming out its message in pulses and bursts and fuzzes across the electromagnetic spectrum, until the time when, on worlds a thousand sun systems distant, the pattern would be decoded and read, and it would become a poem once again.”
‘”And then what happened?”‘
‘She looked at me with her green eyes, and it was as if she stared out at me from her own Antigone half-mask; but as if her pale green eyes were just a different, deeper, part of the mask. “You cannot hear a poem without it changing you,” she told me. “They heard it, and it colonized them. It inherited them and it inhabited them, its rhythms becoming part of the way that they thought; its images permanently transmuting their metaphors; its verses, its outlook, its aspirations becoming their lives. Within a generation their children would be born already knowing the poem, and, sooner rather than later, as these things go, there were no more children born. There was no need for them, not any longer. There was only a poem, which took flesh and walked and spread itself across the vastness of the known.”
‘I edged closer to her, so I could feel my leg pressing against hers.’
‘It’s the strangest thing about poetry — you can tell it’s poetry, even if you don’t speak the language. You can hear Homer’s Greek without understanding a word, and you still know it’s poetry. I’ve heard Polish poetry, and Inuit poetry, and I knew what it was without knowing. Her whisper was like that. I didn’t know the language, but her words washed through me, perfect, and in my mind’s eye I saw towers of glass and diamond; and people with eyes of the palest green; and, unstoppable, beneath every syllable, I could feel the relentless advance of the ocean.
‘Perhaps I kissed her properly. I don’t remember. I know I wanted to.’
Perhaps part of it is the power of the written word, and a love of language. I don’t think I’ll see the movie; it looks like a train wreck.
I read advice a while back that if you want to learn how to read, get as many books from a single author as you can, then read them all. I’ve tried with Gaiman; I like his novels, but it’s this story that I keep coming back to again and again. I look forward to the next 200 readings, and finding more and more to love.