Saturday, October 19, 2013

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

American GodsShadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don't-f**k-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.

"Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down. His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job. But Mr. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming -- a battle for the very soul of America . . . and they are in its direct path." You can find a more in-depth but not necessarily more accurate description on the Goodreads page. There's also a great quote there from Therese Littleton (whoever she is) about the book: "More than a tourist in America, but not a native, Neil Gaiman offers an outside-in and inside-out perspective on the soul and spirituality of the country--our obsessions with money and power, our jumbled religious heritage and its societal outcomes, and the millennial decisions we face about what's real and what's not."

Wow. American Gods is definitely a difficult book to write about. Despite the summaries, it's the whole of the book, all the many stories that tell you what it's about, not the two or three paragraph summaries provided by the publisher. It's really a weird, sprawling story about the nature of America, of the crashing together of all these different beliefs in the great melting pot that is the United States. It's about American belief, it's about that "American" quality (love it or hate it) that pervades the country, that sense of freedom and openness and don't mess with my rights that I imagine you don't get in Europe or other places. Of course, this same freedom means that there are mass shootings every six weeks (or so it seems), which doesn't happen in Europe and Canada. Or Australia even, which actually banned guns after just one such awful shooting. If you're being really cynical, you could call these countries the real civilized world. But let's not talk about politics, much as I'm tempted (another post maybe, to reveal my liberal, cynical self?) Let's just talk about American Gods, which is an interesting, disturbing read no matter what you think about America. I admire Neil Gaiman, being British for even writing this tome. Of course, he lives in America now, so he's just as knowledgeable as the next person. And, as he points out, almost everyone in America came from somewhere else, like him. Although that's true of everywhere except Africa, the very root of civilization. His point, though, is that besides the (admittedly many) Native Americans, everyone else in America is a relatively new arrival: 16th century or so. Then there are the American gods, gods from all over the world, all gathering, resorting to cheap ways of surviving, in "the greatest country in the world" (sarcasm here). But this book definitely did make me look at America in a slightly different light. Because even if America is obviously not the greatest country in the world (it's probably one of the worst so-called developed countries), it has its points, and it's such a great mix of different beliefs - and gods. Gaiman captures it really well.

American Gods is pretty disturbing; there's a lot of cursing and a lot of sex and a lot of graphic descriptions. These are things you don't generally associate with fantasy. But this is fantasy, Gaiman-style; urban fantasy, if you will, although much of it takes place in the gritty, wild, landscape of rural America. The tone of the book was a bit weird, but it certainly was a nice change. There's trademark Gaiman: the rules of the world turned upside down and given a shake (a rigged coin toss for tails turns up heads at Mr. Wednesday's command). But there's also new things, things I haven't seen in Gaiman's work. American Gods is certainly the most blunt and to-the-point of his novels that I've read.

I kept having the nagging sensation that Shadow was hiding something (or trying to) from Mr. Wednesday, partly because of something I read in a little novella from American Gods in Neil Gaiman's collection Fragile Things. As it turned out, this wasn't really the case (although sort of).

The Zorya's, the first people that Wednesday takes Shadow with him to, were really interesting. They seem to be Russian, although they share some Norse beliefs. The scene where Shadow plays checkers with the male in the house was interesting. The wager is this: if Shadow wins, the man will do whatever sinister thing Mr. Wednesday wanted him to do; if Shadow loses, the man gets to bash his brains in with a sledgehammer. Weird, huh? This was a refrain that continued throughout the book. I also really liked the scene at night with Zorya Polunchnaya on the roof. She says, "The cold does not bother me. This time is my time: I could no more feel uncomfortable in the night than a fish could feel uncomfortable in deep water." She also explains to Shadow that Zorya Utrenyaya was born in the morning, Zorya Vechernyaya in the evening, and she herself at midnight. Then, Shadow tells her about his late-night visit from his presumably dead wife, and when he says he didn't ask Laura what she wanted Zorya replies, "It is the wisest thing to ask the dead. Sometimes they will tell you." It was a dreamy but very interesting and somehow moving scene. 

Shadow encounters so many other unsettling, beautiful, ugly individuals in his "kaleidoscopic journey deep into myth and across an American landscape at once eerily familiar and utterly alien." Gaiman has reimagined America through fantasy, and this book is awesome. I would highly recommend it to all Gaiman and fantasy fans. It's a great novel, filled with coin tricks and strange happenings.

I'll close with a quote from the book, which if not the most illustrative, is a good one: “What I say is, a town isn't a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it's got a bookstore it knows it's not fooling a soul.” So what is it then, if not a town: a wasteland? 

588 pages. 

Rating: ****

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