Sunday, May 3, 2009

American Gods (2002)

Subgenre:Fantasy, mythology

Eventually, Neil Gaiman may have to come up with a new plot. Everything I've read (or seen, in the case of Coraline) of his has been built on top of the Alice in Wonderland, outsider in a fantastic world foundation. That is one of my favorite story structures, but after reading Neverwhere, I was fairly disappointed, and started getting a little bit cynical about Gaiman. Neverwhere wasn't exactly bad - enjoyable but disposable, almost redundant. In fairly sharp contrast, American Gods was even better the second time through.

Let's get some of the bad parts out of the way first. Novels that try to say something about the American condition, way of life, Dream, whatever, are doomed to fail where they make that ambition most explicit - they succeed where they tell the stories of interesting characters. I think Gaiman falls into the cheap nostalgia trap a little, talking up roadside attractions and folksy Americana without examining where that image came from. Luckily, the idea of America that informs the gods - well, that's a lot more complex and interesting. Gaiman also uses the classic fantasy novel jerk-around, telling the main character exactly 10% less than he actually needs to know at any given time, which should probably be renamed the "Dumbledore Gambit." Of course, this is verging on believable in American Gods because the main character is essentially in traumatic shock for most of the novel.

Part and parcel of the escapist fantasy structure is something to escape from - evil parents, for Harry Potter or any Roald Dahl book, or a hectoring fiancée in Neverwhere. For American Gods' protagonist Shadow, it's the death of his wife, a few days before he was about to get out of prison. Though this smacks of soap-opera plotting, it works, and sets Shadow on his essential task of surviving after his world has been torn apart first by this double shock, and then by being plunged into the affairs of down-on-their-luck gods. Like Cloverfield, a movie I am probably giving too much credit to, it's possible to completely submerge the supernatural elements and treat them as an ongoing metaphor for the protagonist's emotional upheaval. Or, in this case, for a clash of cultures in America - but I think the Gaiman's book is much less successful on those terms.

Though American Gods is quick, compelling reading, it isn't a novel like Nine Princes in Amber where the main character is caught up in trouble and never stops moving; Shadow's adventures meander a little, and sometimes seem disconnected from one another. The book could almost be split into a few novellas with common themes, except for Shadow's slow evolution.

American Gods succeeds on a lot of different levels. The plot is enjoyable in its own right, but the deeper, more personal story is about flux. The tragedy of struggling to keep up with a changing world is repeated throughout the novel, with the gods' immigrant stories complementing Shadow's personal life. Wednesday's two-bit scams, the drunken belligerence of Mad Sweeney, the careful professionalism of Ibis and Jacquel, they all have this desperation behind them, the fear of acknowledging the inevitable. The matched piece is the Lake Wobegon-esque town of Lakeside, showing the costs of pretending that all is well. That small town is a far more effective commentary on America than the battle between new and old gods. I often felt as if the Lakeside sections were the real story, and the gods just a stalking-horse - for instance, I remembered the Lakeside twist much better than the larger-scope ones.


  • Gaiman gives shouts out to Stranger in a Strange Land, as well as Gravity's Rainbow (in one of the more emotionally powerful moments), and possibly Stand on Zanzibar, naming one of the Lakeside characters Chad Mulligan, after Brunner's provocateur.

  • Of course, citing all the mythological references is impossible, but there's certainly also a little bit of Gawain and the Green Knight that I picked up the second time through.

  • Gaiman does hang a lampshade on one of my frustrations:
    "What I'm trying to say is I don't want mysteries... What I want is explanations. Jackal in Kay-ro. This does not help me. It's a line from a bad spy thriller."

Hugo-worthy? Yes - certainly a better, more important novel than The Curse of Chalion. I give it an A.

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