Monday, October 18, 2010

american gods

After reading Neverwhere, I wanted to read some more Neil Gaiman. I've had Stardust gathering dust on my bookshelf, and was about to pick it up when I saw a copy of American Gods at our local library. It was a great choice and a great book. Gaiman manages to successfully weave together a mixture of gods and mythic heroes from many different cultures and folk legends that would impress even Joseph Campbell—all into a fast-paced, intriguing, even comedic,  thriller.

His idea is that America is not a country conducive to gods and god-worship. All of the immigrants, voluntary and involuntary, who have come to these shores for centuries may have brought their home gods and goddesses with them, but these old gods never really took to the country. Or the country didn't take to them. Americans, by their very nature, are always on the lookout for the next best thing, so even the relatively recently created gods of the media and internet will soon be ignored by their successors. The physical landscape of America itself is phenomenal, with natural, holy places.  Modern day folks are still drawn to such "mythical" places as Mount Rushmore. How could an Odin or a Kali or an Anansi or Horus compete with a gigantic, magic, mountain?

The characters of the hero Shadow and his boss, Mr. Wednesday, are terrific, as are the others that  Shadow comes across on his travels—especially Mr. Nancy, Whiskey Jack, and Sam Black Crow. Mr. Nancy (Anansi) was a huge favorite of mine, so of course this means I have to read Anansi Boys next, right? Or should I check if the library has The Sandman, because Odin and some of the other peripheral characters are suppose to figure in that one as well ... Or The Graveyard Book? It looks like my Halloween reading this October and beyond will be Gaiman. The depiction of the down-and-out gods of the Old World trying to eke a meager existence in the U.S. is consistently good. And humorous. And apart from all of the deep mythical background, what really was the best part of the book for me were the supporting, peripheral stories that Gaiman wove to tell how a few of gods traveled to the New World, via slaves from Africa, a female prisoner from Cornwall, a salesman from Oman. These supporting mythlets were powerful and never detracted from the main narrative and fate of Shadow and Mr. Wednesday.

There are some wonderful passages. A little more than halfway through the book, Gaiman lets a character step momentarily out of a story within a story to talk of the role of myth and legend and fiction:
No man, proclaimed Donne, is an Island, and he was wrong. If we are not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other's tragedies. We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, made into an island) from the tragedy of others, by our island nature, and by the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived, and then, by some means or another, died. ... Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.
A life that is, like any other, unlike any other.
And also this wonderful speech:

Gaiman reading Sam's fabulous "I believe" speech
There were a few surprises, and a few plot points I was able to figure out ahead of time. Some of the characters' outcomes may have seemed left dangling or unresolved, but not in bad way. Just that their story might continue off-screen, if you will. Apparently Gaiman has written a novella with further adventures of Shadow. I'll have to check that out. The only very minor quibble I might have with American Gods is that the Götterdämmerung didn't end up being quite as dramatic as some of those other, stronger parts of the book. But the battle also didn't feature the hero front and center, and frankly that is where the book's and the reader's main interest lies—not in a long, drawn-out, detailed battle scene. Gaiman wasn't trying to rewrite The Two Towers or  The Return of the King and I'm grateful for that.

American Gods takes Shadow and the reader through some interesting places, both before and "behind the scenes," where anything might happen. I truly enjoyed accompanying Shadow and spending some time in a tiny nice town in frozen Wisconsin,  a funeral parlor in Cairo, Illinois, the mythical white ash Yggdrasil,  and the Underworld. As much as I enjoyed the narrative, I am left with the echoes of the forgotten gods and what it might mean to take your gods with you and then abandon them. All of our personal stories and histories, where do they go after we're gone? Who is that man driving the taxi cab, or that woman in the coffee shop with the too-bright hair and flower tattoo? Eccentric? Or maybe something else ...

Neil Gaiman's Journal
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