Thoughts on books: American Gods -Neil Gaiman

by dantewilde


Disclaimer: American Gods took a lot of thought to write about. It was the Neil Gaiman novel that turned me into a fan. It’s so dense and fantastically written that I’ll be rereading it at a later point (I don’t imagine this will spawn another article). What I’ve written is a fraction of what I took away from the novel. To write down everything would take a much longer article. 

My first thought writing this was ‘where do I even begin with American Gods?’. It defies logic and is completely inconceivable while, contradictorily being completely believable. Gaiman’s suspension of disbelief is nothing short of magical. He’s written a book about the original or old Gods of America and the impending battle between the new Gods of credit, technology and consumerism. Not to mention a bank robber named Shadow happens to be coaxed right into the middle of it all.

The novel is a true testament to why Neil Gaiman is so popular (even when you pass over Sandman, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, and the rest of his impressive back catalogue). The writing is fantastic and despite it being long and meandering (I read the ‘authors preferred text’ version) it isn’t the least bit boring. Gaiman’s masterful story telling and his ability to write help this along a considerable amount. The reader spends a lot of time driving with Shadow and Wednesday and unfortunately for Shadow, Mr Wednesday doesn’t always talk much.

Gaiman has written two brilliant characters in Shadow and Wednesday (concession; everyone of the American Gods cast is complex and interesting. Between the back history and parallel narrative documenting them all would be excessive.) and we get to spend a lot of the time with them. Aside from shifts of narrative into past and parallel, the rest of our time is spent following Shadow. While Wednesday can be infuriating, he’s supported by the somewhat Wednesday centric plot, and his motives and conflicts are deliciously complex.

Shadow on the other hand is literally haunted and frequently visited by his undead wife and her remorse. She loves him but she is ultimately very very dead and this creates an array of interesting situations. Shadow also is surprised by nothing (the explanation for this is good) and aside from disinterest at the beginning of the novel, he drinks the required amount of mead, is more than willing to dive in. The interesting thing with Shadow is that he’s the only human to feature prominently in the novel. And when a game of checkers could result in his death, he swallows it like a bitter pill, implausibility and all.

And that’s part of what Gaiman does so well, implausibility. Everything in American Gods is so utterly bizarre that when they slip ‘behind the scenes’ of the world, nothing stands out as being particularly unreasonable.It all falls well in line with what you come to expect and while it doesn’t stop being surprising it lands perfectly within the world of possibility that Gaiman has created.

This this a novel that deals with massive themes. Much like the characters, I can’t fit them all in here. They deserve an entire essay, perhaps, even a PHD thesis.  The, don’t mind the cliche, ‘out with the old and in with the new’ is a big part of the story. It consists not only of the old Gods clinging to their final worshipers but also includes the encompassing (at least outsider) view of America. From old towns in days long past to the cities gowned in neon signs that leak into every angle of Shadow’s vision, it’s as much Old America against New America as  it is about the Gods.

The impossible and the improbable (perhaps I’m slightly too cynical) is woven meticulously into an examination of spirituality and the longevity of religion. When we stop believing in things, they disappear or stop being true, Santa and the Tooth fairy were both victims of my growing up. Now, the Gods of America are credit cards, consumerism and the internet. Gaiman shows that the loss of spirituality has given rise to a faith based on the material possessions. He suggests that the products we now use every day are the things we worship and covet. They’ve become our culture and our lives.

From a readers perspective, there is another advantage to American Gods even when you disregard everything I’ve written. It’s the only book of its kind and as a stand alone novel. It doesn’t run the risk of reusing the same conventions or becoming what is essentially the same book three or four times. This does perhaps account for its longevity (not to mention its relevance). No matter how you read it American Gods is disturbing and deeply upsetting.