I is for Instructions

We all know life doesn’t come with a manual. It’s a case of trying things out and muddling through; making mistakes, learning from example, following paths and occasionally chucking it all in a dumpster and starting again.

In those take-a-deep-breath times it often feels like it would be easier if existence did come with a set of guidelines, a leaflet which magically appeared in a baby’s crib and could be referred to throughout their life. But would a handbook truly make life easier? Or more pleasant and satisfying? Have you ever followed flat-pack furniture manuals to the letter and still ended up with that one small piece which doesn’t seem to belong anywhere? But it’s a common human cry in those times when you require stability; ‘if only I knew the best thing to do, if only – insert particular life issue – came with instructions’.

Like a lot of human desires, if we can’t get them in real life we do what we do best and make them real in our stories. We set up rules for our genre fiction – the hard-working detective will solve the case, the love of her life will have been under her nose the whole time, going down the stairs to the unlit basement will result in decapitation; but we also do it in more literal ways – fantastical tales of all kinds employ the device of an all-knowing book, atlas, map, scroll, talking fluffy creature to get the protagonist through unfamiliar lands. These characters get that tangible guide to life, and it is often their only hope for success and something everyone else wants to get their hands on.

I is for Instructions – the ones we crave, the ones we read, the ones our characters follow. In their recent picture book called Instructions Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess explore this idea of story guidelines. The premise of the book is simple: we follow a character as they follow Gaiman’s instructions for getting through a fairy tale and Vess illustrates as we go.  

We come across many familiar actions and advice, which we may not have seen all amassed before, but we know deep in our reading hearts are the rules for our imaginative stories. Observe these sage suggestions: ‘Take nothing. Eat nothing.’ ‘A ferryman will take you across the river.’ ‘An old woman … may ask for something; give it to her. She will point the way to the castle.’ Within these three edicts I experience swirls of books, movies, even songs, through my brain. When life is topsy we beg for balance. When the goblin king steals our baby brother we require unfair mystical wrongs to be righted. Along with the story rules, Gaiman and Vess’s book includes instructions which work equally well in everyday life: ‘Remember your name.’ ‘Trust yourself and trust your story.’ ‘Do not forget your manners.’ Is there such a huge difference between fairy tales and reality?

I really liked the idea of Instructions and like other fantastical picture books, I desired the object. Gaiman’s mind tends to boggle mine but in this case I could have done with some more boggling, or at least some more head-nodding. I was left with a residual feeling that this book is not as great as it could have been. It’s ok but seems not-completely-realised. Perhaps it should have been longer. Perhaps it unsuccessfully straddles a divide between a book for children and a book for everyone. It was not as satisfying as I hoped.  And I do not particularly like Vess’s illustration style. In saying all this the book is not bad, it only fails – in my mind – to live up to expectations. Of mine as a reader, as a Gaiman appreciator, and as a person who sometimes craves some stability in a life which rarely follows the instructions I wish it would.

People tend to like rules, if only so they can break them. Gaiman and Vess’s book may not have become an immediate favourite of mine, but I liked what it was exploring. I liked what it was trying to do, I just don’t think it quite got there. Instructions made me think about the way we structure some of our stories, of how we create rules for those stories and how we expect certain things to happen – in the books we write and read, and in our little existences. And in both these things, though a manual to ‘get through’ seems like a grand notion, we all know that sometimes following the instructions does not always lead to the best adventures.