Title: American Gods (2001)
Author: Neil Gaiman
Read: 4th – 10th May 2017
Genre: fantasy; mythology; urban fantasy
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
In this wacky and wonderful book, Neil Gaiman draws on a wealth of cultures and mythologies in order to create an engrossing and bizarrely original take on the gods of old. Utterly fantastical and surreal, once disbelief is suspended, this proves to be one hell of a ride.
“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”
Set in a modern-day United States, American Gods ostensibly tells the story of Shadow Moon, a rather taciturn man about to be released from prison owing to the sudden death of his wife, Laura. But Laura doesn’t stay as dead as she should do, and that’s not the only spooky event in Shadow’s life once he emerges from prison as a free man. Whilst on a plane journey home, he gets to talking to mysterious passenger, Mr Wednesday, and ends up (begrudgingly) working for him. Premised on the idea that gods only continue to exist because of people’s belief in them, the once-powerful “old gods”, brought to the US by the immigrants who settled there, find themselves diminished in the face of people’s faith towards the “new gods”, figures relating to America’s obsession with media, celebrity, and technology. Part satire of the all American road trip novel, part mythological retelling, familiar and less familiar deities pop into the story with aplomb as Wednesday (cough Odin cough) and Shadow try to marshall these forgotten “old gods” to rise up against the “new gods” society now worships instead.
“There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do.
And that is what makes them dangerous.”
I begin with a warning: you have to go into American Gods fully prepared for the fact that until a good 70% of the way through this book, you likely will not have any idea what the hell is going on. That’s the point, I think. You just have to let go of any misgivings and trust that the Author God himself will tie all the billowing strands together into some kind of (vaguely) neat order at the end of it all. Ironically, you have to have faith in American Gods and the story it will tell you along the way. The plot regarding Shadow seems to meander and drift from the main arc with regularity, shifting into surreal interludes featuring side characters who don’t seem to have much to do with the “main story” at hand. These are some of the strongest moments, do not discount this, it will all (mostly) make sense in the end.
“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered.
Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”
Gods, by their very nature, are ineffable, and yet Gaiman renders them with larger than life personalities that stick in your head long after you turn the last page. From the charming con man Mr Wednesday to the slightly terrifying Czernobog to the foul-mouthed Mad Sweeney to the (um) resourceful Bilquis, all are distinctly crafted and personalities in their own rights that draw on aspects from their mythologies as well as being very Gaiman-esque. You cannot help but be equal parts repulsed and charmed by Wednesday, and laugh along with the confidence tricks he and Shadow bond over.
“He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while, or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough.”
The story goes through many acts and scenes, each of which, I feel, have a discrete tone – there are times when Shadow journeys through (often rural) America, the towns zipping past without much cause for stopping, and then there are times where the story slows down into hazy and otherworldly environments in which time itself is unhinged. In a strange way, the uneven pacing only emphasises the narrative of this journey into a modern America in which the old gods, adrift from the immigrants that brought them to this new land, find themselves aging and languishing into obscurity, unable to keep up with the progress that zips by around them.
“Every hour wounds. The last one kills.”
In many ways, American Gods themes creep in insidiously as the story unfolds and it’s only on reflection that I even find myself realising what they were – at the time I was too wrapped up in trying to figure out what the fuck I was reading to worry about overarching themes. But, briefly, there are strands relating to faith and religion (duh), mortality and old-age, sacrifice and loyalty, deception, immigration and permanence, and (most importantly) America itself. Why is it that immigrants might have brought great diversity in backgrounds and belief systems but these belief systems crumble into obscurity and myth in modern day society? I’m not sure if American Gods provides the only answer, but it sure as hell makes you think about the implications of the question itself. For that, and the fun it has with giving mythological figures a voice, Gaiman’s novel comes highly recommended and with a guarantee that you won’t have seen the gods quite like this before.
“All your questions can be answered, if that is what you want.
But once you learn your answers, you can never unlearn them.”