My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Neil Gaiman’s work is a good example of the law of conservation of narrative: story is neither created nor destroyed; it is simply transformed from one form to another. Gaiman’s novel American Gods could have been a hundred different things, representing the new gods of America in a hundred different ways. But instead it’s something significant, because Gaiman knows the first rule of original story-telling: know the original stories.
This is what’s wrong with a lot of writing today: it’s shallow. Much of it seems to be written in a vacuum. But the thing about writing (and especially fantasy) is that for it to be really alive, for the story to be rich, it needs to draw on deep wells. And these wells— as American Gods illustrates— go all the way back to the beginning. Gaiman weaves a new and compelling story, a story about the new gods and the old gods in America, but he does it because he understands the building-blocks of the oldest tales.
If you’re looking for a modern story-teller archetype, Neil Gaiman is it. He accumulated a nearly inexhaustible supply of capital and credibility with the classic Sandman series of graphic novels, where he showed he had the knowledge and skill to weave with a rich and textured fabric, pulling in literary figures from Orpheus to Chesterton. To be honest though, after Sandman I found most of Gaiman’s work— Neverwhere, Stardust, the movies Coraline and Mirrormask— to be a bit disappointing (though I liked M is for Magic). Like I said though, he has inexhaustible credibility, so I when I found American Gods in paperback on my sister’s tall brick shelves, I took it home.
This is the Gaiman I remember from Sandman: raw, epic, and dark in a way that shimmers toward opalescence, like the sheen on a serpent’s back. Gaiman’s world is haunting and beautiful; it’s elegant and terrifying; it draws on the deep joy of Chesterton and the riddled wisdom of Gene Wolfe (both of whose words make appearances in this book) with a more pagan flavor. But not an anti-Christian paganism; more like a pre-Christian paganism, a paganism of the deep forests where Christ is still a rumor of Rome on the horizon.
American Gods is the story of a man named Shadow (and this is where Gaiman’s narrative credibility comes in: only he could give a protagonist in a fantasy novel such a trite name and have it stick and work). Shadow has just gotten out of prison and is traveling home, when he runs into a figure who recruits him for a coming war. It turns out that our country has become a battleground between gods of the old world (Europe, Asia, and Africa, primarily) and the new gods of America (things like Media, Internet, and other intangibles as well as gods of industry, railroad, and transportation).
If it sounds a bit transcendental, it’s not. Gaiman keeps it grounded in physicality. Apart from Shadow’s annoying tendency to have significant plot points revealed through dreams (though in fairness he’s spending a lot of time in communication with Native American deities), Gaiman’s gods are very physical: they screw, smoke, swear, throw punches, and try to assassinate each other.
Like I said, a master of old stories. Look some up. This is what the gods spent their time doing.
I can’t go into the plot much at all without dropping spoilers, because even in the very first chapter there are twists and turns. The whole book is a riddle, and there are pleasing knots throughout. The narrative follows Shadow, about whom we continue to learn more, as he works with a man named Wednesday (whose identity readers familiar with mythology will work out fairly quickly) to recruit the old gods— those brought to America by immigrants— in a coming battle against the new.
If you know your mythology, you’ll recognize figures as they’re introduced, but you certainly won’t recognize everyone. Gaiman doesn’t keep his mythology confined to a specific ethnicity. There are gods and monsters from all across the map, several of whom I didn’t know. And Gaiman isn’t one to spell everything out for you, putting nice labels on each god as it is introduced.
That said, it’s the riddles that really make this book work. When gods battle, they tend to do it out of sight of mortals, which is why Shadow— a human more or less like us— makes a good lens through which to view the story. We’re forced to figure things out along with him. And the riddles envelop this story like those Russian dolls that fit inside each other. The big riddle of the entire book is revealed at the end, and it’s flawlessly done, something you don’t expect but that you see clues for throughout once you know it. And the smaller, nested riddles— such as the mystery that Shadow stumbles upon in the middle third of the book in a small Northern town— you can amuse yourself by figuring out as you go. In this, Gaiman is definitely a student of Wolfe, though unlike his master Gaiman is more merciful in that by the end of the book he’ll show you how the trick is done.
If you know Gaiman primarily through his softer stuff, be warned: this book is raw. The language is that of a Brit who seasons liberally with profanity (effectively, to be fair). And there’s plenty of sex. And not mere mortal sex either: god-sex. If you blush easily, keep this book on the shelf.
But the book is strong, and besides an excellent tale, Gaiman is saying something here about the nature of narrative and belief itself and even something about the essence of America. It’s a story by someone who loves America with the wide open eyes of an outsider. Gaiman writes about an America that actually exists, as he explains in his introduction, about real roadside attractions and about a culture (albeit one already slightly dated) we’re sure to recognize. More than that though, he talks about what’s happening beneath the surface: what happens to gods and beliefs and stories when they find themselves in this new world.
This is where his work has the most depth, and this is where you get a glimpse of Wolfe and Chesterton peering over his shoulders (or perhaps perched on his shoulders, like the ravens of Odin). In this non-Christian (but not necessarily anti-Christian) polytheistic world, Gaiman’s sympathies are clearly with the old gods with all their arrogance and faded glory, with all their personality. They have something the new, brash, neon gods of commerce and industry lack. As Gaiman has his character Shadow say: I’d prefer the sad roadside attraction to the new gleaming hotel, because there’s something more real there.
America, it turns out, is a bad place for gods. As Gaiman spells out several times, the land isn’t fertile for them. And it’s the land itself lurking in the background of the story, a shadowy figure that’s never a player in the same sense as the (ultimately revealed) figures pulling the strings of even the gods. Gods don’t flourish here like they did in the Old World, and even the new gods arise quickly and fade fast. But this isn’t a work of comparative religion, so Gaiman never really chases this idea or offers us reasons why. And because this is a story to which the monotheistic gods aren’t invited, they’re not a part of Gaiman’s narrative.
But the book isn’t an explanation. It’s a story. The best stories explain some things, but they don’t explain everything. (This is what Biblical literalists forget about the Bible.) It’s a really, really good story about gods in America. It’s also, more significantly, a story about stories: what they do, what they’re for, how they have the power to shape cultures, and what happens to them (or might happen to them) in this brave new world in which we find ourselves.