American Gods – Andy’s not sure how you pronounce Gaiman, eitherApril 18, 2012
As the Reading Challenge years pass, books begin to fall into certain categories. Books that are actively disliked are easy to write about. Books that are adored, especially books adored for specific reasons, are easy to write about. Books that are a bit “meh” are sometimes quite easy to write about because you don’t feel the need to be nice about them. Books you enjoy without necessarily loving, books you read and go, “Yeah, that was great!” but you don’t really know exactly why – these books are much, much harder to write about.
So yeah. American Gods. I’m struggling a bit. I really enjoyed it, I have every intention of reading a bit more of Neil Gaiman’s stuff (the only other Gaiman books I’ve read are his short-story collection Fragile Things and a collection of Stories he co-edited with Al Sarrantonio – both, for the most part, immensely enjoyable). I’d recommend it, although there are definitely plenty of readers out there who would hate it (and do – it was apparently quite a divisive text when it was published, and I’m not really sure why, and from my reading I’m guessing Gaiman isn’t really sure why, either).
So … Why do I like it?
It’s fun, for a start. Huge fun. Enthralling too, for the most part. And even if Shadow is an impenetrable character he is nevertheless, weirdly, immensely engaging. I really liked Shadow. (Apparently a lot of readers hate him. I don’t understand why.) I like Wednesday, even if … OK, no spoilers. I like a lot of the characters – it’s a big book and there are lots of characters and the vast majority of them are, in their own way, thoroughly likable.
And I love – really, really love – the central concept. This may be one of the reasons the book is so polarising – you have to cop where Gaiman is coming from to begin with because if you don’t it’s just never going to work. The novel’s central conceit (and I’ve always totally wanted to use that word in this context) is that the United States, as a country these days populated primarily by migrants, is populated also by those migrants’ alien gods. Wednesday, it turns out (OK, slight spoiler) is in fact Wodin (after whom Wednesday was named), or Odin, the “Zeus” of the ancient Norse dieties. So there are the gods of the African slaves, there are Indian goddesses, there are sinister supernatural beings of eastern European superstition, there are even red-haired Oirish fookers who resemble leprechauns, if I’m not mistaken. And all of these gods and spiritual entities exist in America.
I should point out that Gaiman does not ignore the country’s original inhabitants. Not by a long shot. What he does is treat them in similar fashion – they, after all, migrated from Asia during the Ice Age. If humanity evolved in Africa then all humans outside that continent are migrants. They’ve all taken their gods with them. Which of course isn’t actually true; Australian indigenous spiritual beliefs very obviously evolved locally, and native Americans would say the same. But American Gods isn’t an anthropological text, it’s a fantasy novel.
So anyway, Gaiman’s migrant gods are on some kind of dole queue. No one believes in them any more. Because these days people believe in the internet and the television. People have new gods now. Especially in America. It’s a pretty gory dole queue too, just quietly.
I especially love the way Gaiman draws out the parallels between the Odin myths and the Christian myths – specifically, and very explicitly, the myth of crucifixion. Apparently, in the original Norse myth, Odin doesn’t tie himself to a tree for everybody else’s benefit. Oh no. Fuck that. He does it to make himself young again. Jesus, of course, did it to give the rest of us eternal life. Also, they both had a stick shoved in their side. Anyway. I do realise it’s possible the Odin myths absorbed the Christian myths – but the Christian myths themselves absorbed so much previously existing nonsense that it’s really hard to know where to start.
I love the weirdness of American Gods. I love its humour. I love Gaiman’s use of his material to explore themes and issues that other “genre” novelists probably couldn’t be bothered with. (“Jewel. Abandoned child. Weird religion. Hit play.”) Interestingly I don’t think it’s really a book about religion, although it touches, obviously, on the attraction of religious belief. I’d bet on Gaiman being an atheist because, frankly, only an atheist could write a book like this and pull it off.
That said it isn’t entirely successful. There’s a scene very early on in which a goddess posing as a hooker envelops her trick in her vajayjay. This is probably supposed to be slightly amusing but mostly horrifying; it’s just kind of funny. More importantly, Gaiman’s depiction of the mysteriously idyllic town of Lakeside is, initially, just appalling (Netty completely disagrees with me on this). The townsfolk’s sugarcoated hospitality is nauseatingly artificial – and to be honest, if rural Americans are really this nice, the fuckers deserve to be nuked. And yes of course their pleasantries conceal a dark secret. Like we didn’t see that one coming. But in such a big book these are minor quibbles.
This is among the worst posts I’ve written for the Reading Challenge. Sorry about that. Gaiman isn’t the best writer we’ve featured but he’s among the most enjoyable. Michael Chabon – a writer I haven’t been back to for too, too long – gets it right on the back cover of my edition. American Gods is “dark, fun and nourishing to the soul”. I haven’t done it justice. You should.