Review of American Gods by Neil Gaiman
by Neil Gaiman
Second Review (Finished December 10, 2010.)
Oh, let me count and enumerate the many and various ways I love Neil Gaiman and, in particular, American Gods. I love it because I am insecure and, at times, unsure of my love for it. I love it because it isn't perfect, yet it's still wonderful. I love it because it promises gods and gives us people, and somewhere along the way, somehow, Gaiman manages to make me cry about the death of a goddess who eats people with her vagina.
American Gods holds a special place in my heart, because it is, for me, a problematic work. I cannot remember if this is the first or second book I read by Gaiman, but it has the quixotic and peculiar quality in that I forget how much I like it after I've read it. I'll gush, like I'm doing in this review, but then a year will elapse, and I'll start thinking, "Was American Gods really as good as I thought?" And it isn't just the gushing review that triggers this—there's something dubious about the premise of the book, and the way Gaiman builds up to it, that prevents my mind from fully accepting my unconditional praise and enthusiasm for the story. American Gods is also problematic because I have read it three times now, and I am still not sure I get what it is about.
The book begins with Shadow being released from prison and subsequently being hunted down by the Call and agreeing to work for Mr. Wednesday. While Gaiman's allusions to mythology and literature are obvious, they are also a smoke-screen for the book's underlying subtlety. On the surface, American Gods is about the war between the old gods and the new. The former came to America with immigrants; the latter have arisen as society collectively starts to worship new technologies and sentiments. Now the new gods are poised to annihilate the old ones, who have been growing weaker and fading away any way. Our first indication that the story goes deeper than a mere war among gods lies with Shadow and how he reacts to his role.
Shadow is very difficult to like as a protagonist. He never quite freaks out like many of us would expect. Gods are real, OK. His dead wife is walking around because he tossed a gold coin on her grave, OK. He's made a pact with the Slavic deity Czernobog which, among other things, lets Czernobog take a hammer to his head when all is said and done. All of these incredible events are happening around him, and it rolls off him with so much water. He never quite gets to the point where showing emotion is required. For that reason, I always picture him as a big, glum sort of fellow. Then again, this should not surprise us. His name is Shadow after all, intended to be ironic because of his physically-imposing stature, but remarkably apt for his personality as well.
As a result of this emotional calmness, Shadow often seems passive, even when he is not. He seems to be going along with what the gods have in mind for him, regardless of whether it is in his best interests. Yet Shadow is actually quite assertive, and he shows a great deal of initiative. He sets his wages when considering Mr. Wednesday's offer of employment. He recruits Czernobog with his fatal checkers game, saving Mr. Wednesday a good deal of time. He uncovers the true identity of Hinzelmann in his spare time.
Shadow's apparent inaction is a symptom of a larger stillness to American Gods. There is this war going on, but for most of the book it's a cold war. Mr. Wednesday and Shadow travel across America to recruit other gods in Wednesday's battle plan, and when Shadow isn't acting as bodyguard and driver, he's hanging out in a suspiciously nice-looking village. Despite Wednesday's assurances that "a storm is coming," chapters pass in which nothing urgent seems to be happening. Shadow has ominous encounters with spooks, but it is not immediately clear how these further the plot.
It turns out, no big surprise, that this book is not really about the war between gods at all. I don't really want to include spoilers (although I don't think it's hard to figure this out, and it's rather enjoyable piecing it together), but let's just say that Wednesday's fascination with con games is very relevant. American Gods is Shadow's journey from mediocrity to an awareness of a grander mythology. His evolving role from spectator to minor player to major intervenor allows Gaiman to sink us gradually into his exploration of the interaction between immigrants, the gods and stories they bring with them, and the New World itself. Above all, he emphasizes that there is something about America that makes it inimical to gods. The buffalo man tells Shadow that "this is not a land for gods," and later on Whiskey Jack reiterates that:
"Look," said Whiskey Jack. "This is not a good country for gods. My people figured that out early on. There are creator spirits who found the earth or made it or shit it out, but you think about it: who's going to worship Coyote? He made love to Porcupine Woman and got his dick shot through with more needles than a pincushion. He'd argue with rocks and the rocks would win.
"So, yeah, my people figured out that maybe there's something at the back of it all, a creator, a great spirit, and so we say thank you to it, because it's always good to say thank you. But we never built churches. We didn't need to. The land was the church. The land was the religion. The land was older and wiser than the people who walked on it. It gave us salmon and corn and buffalo and passenger pigeons. It gave us wild rice and walleye It gave us melon and squash and turkey. And we were the children of the land, just like the porcupine and the skunk and the blue jay. . . .
"This is wild rice country. Moose country. What I'm trying to say is that America is like that. It's not good growing country for gods. They don't grow well here. They're like avocados trying to grow in wild rice country."
So beyond the eternal march of progress, and with it the rise of new paradigms and new gods who challenge the old ones, lies this sentiment that America is just not good land for gods. Thus, the title becomes a paradox: what is an "American" god? These imported deities? The new gods of technology and media? Or the land that provides?
Because they don't have the power to decide this. They don't really make the rules, though they have all become adept at manipulating them, Mr. Wednesday most of all. Humans have the power; humans create gods through their stories, their beliefs, their rituals, and their ideas. We create dark and horrible gods by killing children and worshipping their bones; we create gods of great power and great beauty. And when we stop believing in these gods, cast them aside, they lose power and begin to fade away.
I guess I don't really understand why I love American Gods so much. It's a striking journey across a landscape of beliefs and ideas. Gaiman doesn't stop very long in any one place, choosing instead to forge ahead and let us fill in the rest. It's more than a story about "old gods versus new gods." But I feel utterly unable to communicate why I love this book, why it has carved out a permanent place in my thoughts. There's just something significant to it, to the way Gaiman personifies and then nullifies gods, managing to make them both more and less than myth and legend. The result is something that is not quite a fairy tale yet is more than a thriller or a simple mystery. And it kind of haunts me.
It's just interesting, OK? Plus, the paperback edition I own is just the perfect size.
Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite authors, and this is one of my favourite Neil Gaiman books. American Gods explores some of the same tired mythologies from a refreshing perspective, transplanting them into modern America and setting them in the middle of a vast confidence game.
This book showcases Gaiman's ability to create memorable, complex characters. The protagonist, Shadow, has just been released from prison and faces the daunting task of starting a new life. Yet almost before it begins, this life is over. He falls in with Mr. Wednesday, a Norse god (unknown to Shadow) posing as a con artist. Wednesday, for that matter, is a memorable character himself, if less given to change. That's one of the themes Gaiman covers in the story, however--the inflexibility of the "old gods" and their conflict with the up-and-coming gods of technology and the information age. Caught in the middle is a human being, an average guy, just trying to make sense of it all.
A page-turner, American Gods has excellent pace, with exciting action scenes and great dialogue. I can't recall any moment when I was wishing I was doing something else or just waiting for the scene to end. There's a couple of times when I wondered what relevance a scene had to the plot, but ultimately everything fit together well.
I often recommend this book to friends who haven't read anything by Neil Gaiman before, as I believe it showcases his best abilities as a writer.