Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Neil Gaiman - Anansi Boys

It began, as most things begin, with a song. [p. 1]

Most Neil Gaiman novels are bizarre explosions of creativity and off the wall plots. While I would have to be insane to say that Anansi Boys is anything but bizarre, it’s bizarre in a calculated way that sets it apart from many of Gaiman’s other works. Anansi Boys is, above all, a story of deceiving simplicity, from characters, to plots, to themes.

Characterization is, at first, broad. Our first glimpses of Spider, Fat Charlie’s divine brother, for instance, show him as glamorous and heartless, the kind of man that’ll drag his brother to a bar and then promptly forget his charge to begin a night of wild partying. Over the course of he narrative, however, Spider grows into a fully developed character with such subtlety that the reader misses all the usual road signs of I’m a well rounded person, now. Gaiman’s characterizes by showing, not telling, and moments of epiphany aren’t the beginning of sudden change, but rather the recognition of a gradual transformation that’s well under way by the time it’s remarked upon. Gaiman’s characterization shows a deep understanding of how people think of themselves and the world around them:

Each person who ever was or is or will be has a song. It isn’t a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words. Very few people get to sing their own song. Most of us fear that we cannot do it justice with our voices, or that our words are too foolish or too honest, or too odd. So people live their songs instead. [p. 189]

And yet, as anyone who’s read anything that the man’s written can tell you, Gaiman is anything but pretentious. His writing is, at all times, light hearted, and he imparts truths and tragedies with an understanding wink and a friendly tip of his hat:

Take daisy, for example. Her song, which has been somewhere in the back of her head for most of her life, had a reassuring, marching sort of beat, and words that were about protecting the weak, and it had a chorus that began “Evildoers beware!” and was thus much too silly ever to be sung out loud. She would hum it to herself sometimes though, in the shower, during the soapy bits. [p. 189]

Gaiman’s game is not one of sudden reversals. At the beginning of the book, we learn Fat Charlie’s situation and watch as events in it play out as expected – or, at least, close to it. Soon after, Fat Charlie leans of his father’s death, and we see the consequences of that. When Spider comes into the picture, it still isn’t a dramatic call to adventure, followed by the two gallivanting around the globe. Instead, the relationship between the two develops naturally as their various personalities affect the course of the other’s life. This is a story that is, above all, organic in its growth, introducing a new element and exploring all of its possibilities before moving on.

That is not, however, to suggest that Anansi Boys’s plot is predictable or uneventful. Over the book’s course, Gaiman explores the full range of emotions and events, from the comic, to the heart warming, to the terrifying, each reached with a naturalness that keeps the tale from ever growing outlandish or unbelievable. As each new piece is added to the puzzle, the amount of delightful bizarreness skyrockets, but there are no extraneous elements here; every element proves vital to the tale’s survival and continuation:

Stories are webs, interconnected strand to strand, and you follow each story to the center, because the center is the end. Each person is a strand of the story. [p. 302]

Every one of the aforementioned pitches is well done, but the books true highs occur when Gaiman balances them at once. Towards the end of the book, scenes of outright terror and suspense are wedded to moments of outlandish comedy, each set up so well that the combination doesn’t feel contrived, but rather inevitable.

Thematically, Anansi Boys treads little new ground. This is a story of familes and relationships, of people, and of decisions, and of the consequence of those decisions. You’ve probably read a story with similar themes before. In fact, I’m sure of it. Odds are, you’ve read a whole boat load of them. This one’s different, though. How so, you ask? Well, it’s because nothing that Gaiman does is quite like anything you’ve ever read before. Oh, I’m sure that you’ve heard that statement about a whole encyclopedia’s worth of authors, but all I can say is that, this time, it’s true. Gaiman illustrates rash actions with flocks of homicidal birds and depicts a father son dynamic with a heartfelt talk, both scenes feeling as fresh and poignant as anything I’ve read.

Anansi Boys’s isn’t perfect. The lackadaisical pace of the first few chapters meant that the book didn’t suck me in until page eighty or so (and then what a blissful, airborne ride the rest of the book was), and I initially thought that Grahame Coats’s law firm might actually manufacture coats or something similar…but, judging by how absurdly stupid that last one was, I think it’s pretty clear that Anansi Boys’s is pretty damn close to perfect, and I think it’s worth you getting up out of your seat, driving to the nearest booksellers, and forking over your hard earned cash.

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