The disquiet and ephemeral
Brief Lives was personally perfect in every way. It was the volume of The Sandman that solidified my love for the entire series. Not only was it a sublime story about brevity and forgiveness; it was an affirmation of what the Endless was supposed to stand for (and all seven of them too, because we finally get to meet the prodigal sibling who abandoned the responsibilities of his realm). Jill Thompson is the collaborative artist for this volume, and hers are my most favorite depictions of the Endless, their realms and the overall tone and atmosphere of Gaiman's settings.
The thematic resonance of this volume was all about mortality and endings, and how each Endless functions in their duties, knowing that even they could only do so much for the lives of the creatures they govern and have the power to influence--even destroy. There are quite a number of secondary characters whose appearances in the subplots and major arc are highly suggestive of the titular significance itself. Gaiman highlights the tragedy of choices unmade, and the wasteful quality of a human life when a person does not own up to it and deal with its milestones and corresponding consequences.
This was the first ever volume where we get to see all the seven Endless and the meaningful interactions between and among them are certainly insightful of the complex dynamics and roles of each one. Dream and Delirium (my favorite) are the central characters that readers are following over the course of the major arc, and theirs has a more disapproving-father and awkward-daughter aspect than simple sibling dynamic. While dealing with a recent break-up with an unnamed paramour, Dream travels to human world with Delirium, in hopes that he will glimpsed said former lover. Meanwhile, Delirium seeks out their long-lost brother, Destruction.
The subplots that surround this quest are where the other Endless took part; the painful dichotomy of Desire and Despair was given more substance in this volume alongside Dream and Delirium's inability to completely make sense of each other. Dream will always see Del as the youngest and most unruly and unpredictable of his siblings, and would rather not have anything to do with her. Delirium, however, was inexplicably both immature and wise, alternating between seeking the approval of her elder siblings, and questioning their fixed perceptions about things, and none is more rigid and overbearing of his stifling beliefs than the Dream Lord. This created an immediate rift between him and Delirium, but it also helped both of them to exert more effort in trying to understand each other's point of view.
The appearances of Destruction in Despair, Delirium and Dream's collective reminiscence paint the kind of Endless creature he was; this was a personification not just of chaos but of creation. In fact, the only reason he was able to bear through the first centuries of his role as a destroyer was because he knew that with endings, come beginnings, and Destruction is a self-proclaimed lover of all living things . There are separate panels that showed the readers just how likable he is; his warmth and pleasantness seem to contrast how we would picture someone who destroys worlds. This was an appealing revelation then; the presence of Destruction and his awareness of his duality clearly illustrate that his other siblings have that duality as well.
Delirium was once Delight, a personification of joy and innocence but it was a mystery why she has changed, and perhaps too much optimism and light have rendered her insane and unstable, therefore shifting to Delirium. Desire and Despair are the obvious representation of dual forces that complement each other--and yet they were separate entities. Perhaps it's because they are too much of individual extremes to ever compose a one whole existence.
Destiny appeared in the later pages. Ever the walking-spoiler-alert, he reveals the pathways that Dream must take because it was an obligation he must fulfill, much to the Lord Shaper's utmost despair. No other pair of siblings feel as duty-bound as Destiny and Dream after all. The confrontation between Destruction and Dream only helped seal this deal. The climactic event that follows was one of the most bittersweet conclusions in the series. It was the most suitable and harrowing way for everything in Brief Lives to come full-circle.
And what of Death herself? One can say that she was the encompassing presence that we feel in Brief Lives. She is the mother of endings, and the one who transcends her role because she understands the the meaning of life since she represents its counterpart.
* A brilliant and beautifully-illustrated volume, it allows readers to appreciate the Endless and their relationships with mortals, as well as the breadth and enduring quality of life and living itself, no matter how brief they are..