Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
American Gods by Neil Gaiman, 2001
"She's the goddess within us all," said the girl with the eyebrow ring, color rising to her cheek. "She doesn't need a name."
"Ah," said Wednesday with a wide monkey grin, "so do you have mighty bacchanals in her honor? Do you drink blood wine under the full moon while scarlet candles burn in silver candleholders? Do you step naked into the seafoam, chanting ecstatically to your nameless goddess while the waves lick at your legs, lapping your thighs like the tongues of a thousand leopards?"
"You're making fun of me," she said. "We don't do any of the stuff you were saying." She took a deep breath. Shadow suspected she was counting to ten. "Any more coffees here? Another mochaccino for you, ma'am?" Her smile was a lot like the one she had greeted them with when they had entered.
They shook their heads, and the waitress turned to greet another customer.
"There," said Wednesday, "is one who 'does not have the faith and will not have the fun,' Chesterston. Pagan indeed. So. Shall we go out into the street, Easter my dear, and repeat the exercise. Find out how many passerby know that their Easter festival takes its name from Eostre of the Dawn? Let's see--I have it. We shall ask a hundred people. For every one that knows the truth, you may cut off one of my fingers, and when I run out of them, toes; for every twenty who don't know, you spend a night making love with me. And the odds are certainly in your favor here--this is San Francisco, after all. There are heathens and pagans and Wiccans aplenty on these precipitous streets."
Her green eyes looked at Wednesday. They were, Shadow decided, the exact same color as a leaf in spring with the sun shining through it. She said nothing.
"We could try it," continued Wednesday. "But I would end up with ten fingers, ten toes, and five nights in your bed. So don't tell me they worship you and keep your festival day. They mouth your name, but it has no meaning to them. Nothing at all."--- (pages 311-312)
American Gods is a glorious, overstuffed banquet of riches for the fantasy reader, the kind of book that Stephen King used to write, but with more quirk, more humor and smoother writing. Gods is enormous fun, bursting with inventiveness and innovation, constantly moving between light and dark. Neil Gaiman, always good in my experience, has never been better.
When a mysterious man named Shadow is released from prison, he finds out that his beloved wife Laura has been killed in a car accident. On the plane home, he encounters a strange man calling himself Wednesday, who offers him a bizarre job.
Wednesday is an "old god," one of many living in America, brought from their native lands by immigrants over the course of history. Some have acclimated to their new surroundings (such as the Egyptian gods using their embalming skills as funeral directors) and some have not (such as Mad Sweeney, the drunk seven-foot leprechaun). Now, the new gods of technology, finance and media are rising, and Wednesday is spearheading a war between the two sides, a war that Shadow finds himself trapped in the middle of.
Gaiman's basic premise (the forgotten gods that live among us) is a simple stroke of genius. It's a device that runs the whole novel; it creates hilarity, intrigue and a strange poignancy as Gaiman investigates the weird and wild creatures that live among humans, ignored and unloved. It's a deliciously twisted dynamic, one where we can actually feel sorry for a god who no longer gets regular blood sacrifice. Overall, Gaiman is less interested in the "new gods," who are mostly generic, man-in-black baddies. It would have been nice if he had fleshed them out a bit more, but hey, the book is already six hundred pages long.
It says something about the power of Gaiman's vision that the creepy, quirky warring gods never overpower the story of Shadow, and his equally strange journey. Gaiman paints his main character with almost exquisite lightness, building him up slowly. His eventual descent into a patchwork underworld is a strangely moving sequence, and his relationship with his wife, Laura (who, in the tradition of The Princess Bride, is only mostly dead), is like the rest of the book, a bunch of contradictory things all rolled into one. It still works like gangbusters, though.
The novel's structure is endearingly odd. It's largely episodic, with a big subplot running through the last half or so. Everything and everyone that's shown up so far collides for the epic finale, in classic Dickensian tradition. Gaiman is way too genre-savvy to use a simple quest pattern and I love the fact that he would write a novel as thoroughly modern as this one in the style of nineteenth-century fiction.
His inclusion of frequent flashbacks (some that go waaaay back) is another major risk, since they could easily have made the book feel even more stuffed with content than it already did. Thankfully, most of the flashbacks are entertaining in their own right, and they serve to further elaborate the novel's sprawling mythology. American Gods is a book to savor, anyway, not a quick read.
I think it was the novel's final hundred pages that really clinched the entire book for me. There's a certain grace to the way Gaiman slowly, deftly brings together all of the book's separate strands in a surprisingly emotional, resonant way. There's something gorgeous about the way that Shadow, always the detached observer, comes into his own and becomes a crucial player in the cosmic game. And that final, devastatingly well-done plot twist is sheer storytelling excellence. Very few authors could have done something like that and gotten away with it. I might have preferred a more epic bloodbath (it's the Lord of the Rings fan in me), but it's a minor issue.
It takes a talented author to pull off a book as complex as this one while finding a balance between humor and pathos, between the epic and the personal. Neil Gaiman is more than up to the challenge. He's a real original, a writer unlike any other. His mixture of wiry, textured prose and sharp, funny dialogue is perfect. There's a certain undefinable something that sets his style apart.
He's written a wonderful book, too, strange and thrilling, equal parts funny and sad. American Gods is one of those rich reading experiences that readers everywhere crave. A twisted, delicious masterpiece of the macabre and bizarre, of old magic, which, as Gaiman shows us, so often lives not in outer space or Middle-earth, but right next door.
NEXT UP: The Black Book by Ian Rankin.