Saturday, 11 April 2009

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

Read: February 2007

Such is the scope of American Gods that it would be impossible to adequately delineate it here. To understand anything about it you are going to have to read it. But try to explain it I must. So I will start with this quote and then tell you a story.

“One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see?”

So here goes.

Once upon a time there was a landmass. To the North it was bordered by the Aurora Borealis, to the East by the Rising Sun, to the south lay the procession of Equinoxes and to the West the Day of Judgement. This land was sacred.

Then one day, a nomadic tribe from the Northern Planes set off in search of it, sent by a God who spoke through their own voices. By and by they came to the Land we now call America, bringing with them, safely incubated in their minds, ancient Gods, prescient beings and mythic heroes. For thousands of years this pattern repeated itself, each new generation of immigrants finding hope in that powerful land, creating a new culture through an amalgam of all they brought with them. And so long as the people remembered and believed, the Gods lived amongst them, because stories are tangible and believing in them makes them real.

But this was a bad land for Gods. They existed on the whim of people who were forgetting them. They bickered and scraped by on the fringes of society, halfway between the mundane and the magnificent, dreaming of the adulation in their past. So the land lived and prospered unseen while the Gods grew weaker and were replaced by new creations; Gods of technology and media. The situation became untenable and so the Gods went to one final battle, a battle for the past and for the future. But the result was academic, the fate of those forgotten Gods irrelevant. For it was the Land that was sacred, it was in the geography and terrain that the soul of America resided and everything that took place upon it was but a mirage for what lay beneath. And few were able to understand the truth because, like the rest of us, their eyes were watching God(s).

American Gods is simply vast. It poses existential questions about topics such as life and death, belief and knowledge, immigration and assimilation, economic progress and spiritual uncertainty. But it is first and foremost a story. And an exciting one at that. The plot follows the adventures of Shadow, a burly man who is released from Jail early due to the death of his wife in a road traffic accident. On his way home he meets a mysterious man who calls himself Wednesday and claims to be the King of America. So begins a journey across America, from the frozen lakes of the North to the Palm trees of Florida.

The American Gods of the title are the means by which Neil Gaiman tells an altogether more complex story – the story of the American soul. A soul from which Gods are being forgotten. The Gods are like Shadow’s coin tricks and Wednesday’s con’s. They are the deception which draws attention from what is really happening. For this is a classic road-trip novel through the forgotten back roads and towns of the Midwest. It is a journey through an America not often seen these days, a forgotten America of gaudy roadside attractions and fabled landscape. Through the people Shadow meets and the adventures he is drawn into, Gaiman builds a vision of the country behind the T.V. cameras, the small town America in which lies its soul.

American Gods is about the American landmass, that most diverse and powerful God of all. As Gaiman notes in an interview included at the end: “I think the big difference between England and America is that England has history, America has geography. In England, you can find whatever you need as long as you’re willing to go back far enough, or to find out when it happened. In America you can find whatever you need just as long as you’re prepared to drive far enough.” And against this logic, suddenly the bizarre happenings of this extraordinary novel seem more plausible.

Neil Gaiman is in a league of his own when it comes to conceiving grand themes and drawing them together. Anyone who has read Sandman will appreciate this. He is a master of layering his fiction with meaning and telling more than one story at once. The only problem with him is that he is not a great writer. His prose is bland and slow, full of questionable punctuation and clunky sentences. He tells a great story but he is not a great storyteller. The plot progresses in fits and starts leaving the impression that he is never entirely certain how his characters will get where they are going and often the characters are underdeveloped and two dimensional. At times reading American Gods was like looking an amazing scene through a really dirty window: you know there is something special out there because you have caught glimpses of it through the dirt, but much of the time it is hard work, difficult to understand and ever so slightly turgid.

Nonetheless this is a good book, maybe even great. There are passages of such lucid coherence they will make your jaw drop. Rarely have I underlined so many phrases or come away with such a belief that I had read something incredible. My wife always claims that Neil Gaiman is one of her favourite writers, even though he is not a very good writer. I couldn’t agree more. If you love books about ideas and mythology and everything in between then this is the novel for you. If you love stories about the power of stories then buy this book now. As Shadow notes at one point, “you can’t judge the shape of someone’s life until it’s over and done.” You will not even begin to understand this vast novel until you have read it for yourself. You are in for a special treat.

7 out of 10

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