Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Neil Gaiman - American Gods

"This paper,” said Natalie, “has one of those articles in it. ‘Is America Changing’?”

“Well, is it?”

“They don’t know. They say that maybe it is, but they don’t know how, and they don’t know why, and maybe it isn’t happening at all.”
(p. 575)

In American Gods, traditions linger and refuse to fade, gods are spawned by the handed-down thoughts of immigrants, and belief and reality are one and the same thing. This is a novel about the soul of America, and the heart of the modern world, with maybe just a tad of how our past shaped us, all told through a cast of characters that’s as offbeat and well developed as it is numerous.

Gaiman’s themes here are weighty, and they could drag off and drown your average narrative with their importance. Gaiman doesn’t even try to fight this; he lets the book be tossed to and fro, gyrating wildly and leaping off into tangents in order to explore part after part of his post-mythology mythos. As such, though the story is interesting on its own, and the character’s usually well drawn, this is more a novel about America and its synthesis than it is about anything else.

The gods were brought here by the immigrants (the Irish leprechaun upon ships during the days of famine; the pixies and their ilk from English prisoners; Odin from exploratory and bloodthirsty Viking longboats; the Egyptian pantheon of Anubis, Thoth, Horus, Bast settling in New Egypt; Anansi from – well, you get the idea) but things have changed, and, in the process of acclimatization, the believers became American, and the gods were cut loose. Now, as time moves on, their belief and traditions are fading fast towards zero, and the old deities are desperate to not simply drop out of existence.

Now, in this new world, the actual facets of the gods’ being are no longer important, the funeral director gods of death are as on the verge as a New York City djinn, and all that still matters is where they came from and whether they still exist at all:

“I have a brother. They say, you put us together, we are like one person, you know? When we are young, his hair, it is very blonde, very light, his eyes are blue, and people say, he is the good one. And my hair is very dark, darker than yours even, and people say I am the rogue, you know? I am the bad one. And now time passes, and my hair is gray. His hair, too, I think is gray. And you look at us, you would not know what was light and who was dark.” (p. 79)

Simplification is not the only change brought on by the passage of years. The majority of Gods in the book fall into one of two pathways. The first try – in vain? – to recreate the glory days, always striving to remember. The world, however, has moved on, and their attempts frequently become depressingly comical, as they try to assert their dominance over a world that has forgotten them, such as Eoster, trying to claim that she’s still beloved due to the name of the holiday. In many cases, being the American incarnation of these gods, they don’t even have a period of power to look back upon, such as Czernobog who cannot even contemplate his days as a dark god anymore and is able to do nothing else but dream about his years in a slaughterhouse.

The other potential path is a darker one still, and it is one that we are introduced to at the end of the very first chapter: the perversion of everything that the god once held holy. The Queen of Sheba has become a prostitute. Even that, however, is not far enough. In a twisted incarnation of her need for belief, she forcers her forces her lovers to worship her and sexually devours them for sustenance. Her words hold true for her and for the array of similarly striving gods we glimpse in the narrative: There is nothing holy in [my] profession. Not anymore. (p. 373)

But is the decline of the gods really such a bad thing? In one part of the story, we see a funeral home run by the Egyptian gods of death. They provide a more personal touch, a send off by something with more of a soul than the mechanical filling of orders provided by a big funeral company. In another subplot, we get to see a community still run and safeguarded by a supernatural being. The community’s exterior is enticing and gleaming, which hides the sacrifice needed to maintain it.

Is such a thing worth it for a more ordered world? Has our modern world of machines and computers destroyed wonder and human contact? It’s impossible to truly a question like that, and Gaiman doesn’t. American Gods is not a narrative of answers, but rather a tapestry of questions. You will never get a definitive answer of how the gods interact with mortals; you will never know whether the old gods were right to fight for their survival; you will never know whether the gods will one day be gone completely. But you don’t need to know. In American Gods, Gaiman asks the questions, and I think that every reader will have their own answers.

The sprawling nature of the themes, and the narration’s tendency to leap after them wherever they may go, leads to an incredibly meandering text. Our main character Shadow, who is roped into the conflict as the assistant to Mr. Wednesday only hours after leaving prison. While it seems, at first, that the two are working towards a definite goal, Shadow is soon sent off to location after location without any discernible rhyme or reason.

Further complicating matters - if you’re a fan of anything even approaching linier plots - are the interludes, taken from the modern incarnation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. These stories feature brand new characters, often separated from the main narrative by spans of decades, living their lives and either interacting with or contributing to the nature of the various scattered American deities.

Somehow, Gaiman pulls all of this off. The trick is, I think, his intuitive grasp of character. He only need mention a name and spout a few lines of dialogue and, poof, a fully grown man appears on the stage. Each interlude feels complete enough to form its own text, and each adds to the main narrative in immeasurable ways.

And yet, this grasp of character is not applied to one character. Shadow, whose eyes we spend the vast majority of the book looking out of, is told:

“You’re not dead,” she said. “But I’m not sure that you’re alive, either. Not really.”
“I love you,” she said dispassionately. “You’re my puppy. But […] You’re like this big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world.” She frowned. “Even when we were together. I love being with you. You adored me, and you would do anything for me. But sometimes I’d go into a room and I wouldn’t think there was anybody in there. And I’d turn the lights on, or I’d turn the lights off, and I’d realize that you were in there, sitting on your own, not reading, not watching TV, not doing anything.”
(p. 370-371)

After his release from prison, and the death of his wife, Shadow retreats into himself, and it is rare for the reader to get a glimpse inside. This leads to a good portion of the book feeling aimless, as we’re cast about in Shadow’s wake, without him even knowing – or caring – where he’s going. The reader that is willing to follow will eventually come to realize that Shadow’s recalcitrance is not shallowness, but, in order to get to that point, you need to be willing to follow Gaiman on all of his digressions.

On the subject of the book’s prose, Gaiman says in the included interview: I wanted to write American Gods in what I thought of as an American style – clean, simple, uncluttered – and push the narrator further into the background than I had in previous books. But the narrator crept out in the “coming to America” chapters, where I got to play with a wider set of voices. (p. 596)

It’s true that the writing is more subdued than it is in Neverwhere or Anansi Boys, the plot less self aware. But this is still a Gaiman novel, and it’s still filled with the delicious idiosyncrasies of language that characterize all of the man’s writing. There are sections here that are jaw dropping in their grandeur, and there are sections that are laugh out loud funny, and both build with the other to create a wry and majestic experience, filled with larger than life characters who are anything but above sarcasm.

American Gods looks like a simple read on the surface. Underneath, you soon come to realize the depth that is packed into every scene and every single glance. This is a book that is impossible to really predict, so come to it and get ready to be swept along. While occasionally directionless, American Gods is simply something that needs to be experienced. This is not the most entertaining book that I’ve read of Gaiman, but it is undoubtedly the best.

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