Why Neil Gaiman’s “How Do You Think It Feels?” Made Me Feel Angry

I had heard great things about Neil Gaiman in the comic scene so when I went to the library this weekend I picked his short story collection, “Fragile Things” off the shelf and flipped through it. I decided to take a moment and read a random story, “How Do You Think It Feels?”* and it was just … the worst. It was the worst. Let’s start with a synopsis.

Some guy who is married goes to a conference – we all know where this is going don’t we, tropes ahoy! – and meets a lady with hair and breasts who is willing to sleep with him. Wow! He cheats on his wife with whom he has two young daughters for a decent period of time and never feels bad about it (he does feel bad for himself though). He decides that kids are stupid and wife is lame and wants to leave them forever and never see them again so he can live with his lukewarm mistress for one million evers. His mistress has a sudden bout of faux morality and is like “I ain’t no home-wrecker, it’s casual sex or nothing!” and locks herself in her bedroom to break up with him. He throws bodily fluids all over her apartment so that reader will never ever sympathize with him and leaves. Ten or so years later he is slightly more successful, but still a horrible person. His daughters toward whom he has no feelings leave for college so he reveals that he has wasted a decade or more of his wife’s productive adult life because he is a spineless coward and leaves her. I will assume that his wife is super relieved because her husband was gross and now she never has to see him again. She high-fives herself and gets on with her life probably (I would rather read that short story). He then runs into Ms. Hairandbreasts and they have a one night stand after which she disappears (including bonus super trite “flower on pillow”) and he realizes that he’s dead inside, as though anyone would ever possibly care about the emotional state of such a dirt bag.

Why you would attempt to create this character defies logic, there’s no way to sympathize with him but he’s so non-threatening you don’t hate him either; he’s not bad enough or good enough – I’ll just say it – he’s morally flaccid. You get the impression that he has no ability to feel anything more sophisticated than “I want this” and is so pathetic that it takes him a decade of lukewarmity to divorce his wife. That one would include children for him to clearly not love is beyond me, it almost guarantees that the reader will not like him, but he’s not pushed far enough that you hate him because he seems incapable of higher level moral thought. If he’s super horrible and gets hit by a bus then at least we’re going somewhere. The thought that anyone would want to travel via story though life with such a tepid failure is a miscalculation at best.

This short story is bad. The main character has no qualms about cheating on his wife (even though the reader gets literally no information on her) while he simultaneously worries that his mistress is cheating on him. Is this supposed to make me feel bad for him? In the end he expresses that he is emotionally dead; so what? Am I supposed to feel something? I feel not caring about this character at all. It’s as though the author wanted to write about an affair and got so lazy about it he decided to not give the character motive, emotional growth, or any turmoil other than his post you’re-not-sleeping-with-me-anymore vomit-tantrum. Gross. That this story wasn’t scrapped leads me to believe that the whole collection is awful, but who knows, maybe I just somehow accidentally read the worst of the bunch … but I doubt it.

* Thank you to Lyndsey for the correction! I flipped through and referenced an online index for my original draft, I hated the story so much that I wouldn’t even check it out from the library so I could accurately write about how much I hated it.

5 thoughts on “Why Neil Gaiman’s “How Do You Think It Feels?” Made Me Feel Angry

  1. Believe me, that’s how I felt when I read the story as a teenager, but I think I get it a bit more now, though I still think the protagonist at best is morbidly fascinating. It’s implied that the gargoyle he made out of Plasticine literally became part of his heart to protect the narrator from other women, deadening him to the sensations of love as he requested.
    That flower? It’s not one that Becky meant to leave. The gargoyle in the man’s heart swallowed her, pulling her in, and left that flower behind as a memento; worse, it might have turned her into a rhododendron. It’s meant to be a horror about the entitlement of men who hate when women leave them.

    • I agree with priyajsridhar. The title of the story is “How Do You Think It Feels?”, and I feel that Gaiman was trying to describe the inner world of a selfish, weak man and how he “feels”, causing us to consider the true selfish nature of man.
      Not all stories should make us feel good, otherwise they would all be the same. The fact that we hate the main character highlights that Gaiman has done a very good job at crafting such a detestable character, as if you have read his other work, they are usually focused on entertaining the reader in all ways possible.

      • I respect your thoughts, but I disagree pretty strongly. I think that if Gaiman wasn’t a current darling of pop/lit culture that the view of him wouldn’t be so generally favorable. However, that’s just my opinion.

  2. This is from Fragile Things and remains a favorite to this day. I read the story every time a relationship ends, and somehow it would make me feel better. It’s like a good old friend — not saying anything, not judging but always there regardless of which side you are, the man or the girl.

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