William Morrow, 2001, 480 pages
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.
One of the most talked-about books of the new millennium, American Gods is a kaleidoscopic journey deep into myth and across an American landscape at once eerily familiar and utterly alien. It is, quite simply, a contemporary masterpiece.
I used to count Neil Gaiman as one of my favorite authors, largely on the strength of Sandman and Good Omens (which he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett, who was probably responsible for all the funny parts). Neverwhere was just okay.
Anyway, I finally got around to reading his Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel American Gods, and... well, this is going to be another one of those reviews where I basically trash everything I didn't like about a book that I mostly liked with reservations.
American Gods begins with our protagonist, Shadow. Yes, that's his real name, or as much of a name as we ever get. As the novel begins, Shadow is about to be released from prison after doing three years for his part in a robbery. His old job and his loving wife are both waiting for him when he gets out.
Except his old boss and his loving wife are killed in a car crash the very day he is released. Thrown into a state of profound ennui from which he never recovers (no, really, he remains the same throughout the whole damn book -- see below), Shadow is approached by an odd grifter named Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job. Since he has nothing better to do and his role throughout the novel is to passively shrug his shoulders and just go with it, whatever, Shadow accepts the job offer (after an initial refusal and a few magic tricks). Shortly he finds himself in a barroom brawl with a leprechaun, being schooled in the finer points of con artistry, and suspecting that Mr. Wednesday isn't all that he appears to be. And if you haven't figured out who Mr. Wednesday is by now, you simply haven't read enough mythology.
So, the premise of American Gods is that the gods are real. All of them. They are fueled by human belief. When people stop believing in them, they fade. This much is not a new concept; in fact, it's practically a generic fantasy trope now.
It turns out that the old gods -- the pantheons we all learned about in Bullfinch's Mythology or Deities & Demigods -- are mostly dying out for lack of belief, and being replaced by new gods formed from the ephemeral, materialistic thoughts of modern society. There are computer gods and automobile gods and media gods and corporate gods and so on. They want to get rid of the old gods, who are still hogging a disproportionate share of belief. Hence Shadow finds himself in the middle of this build-up to a war of the gods, though for most of the book he has no idea why Wednesday took an interest in him or why he's so special.
In this book, Gaiman uses a very broad definition of "gods" which includes pretty much every sort of mythological creature and legendary being (hence, leprechauns and minotaurs and Johnny Appleseed and so on). It also includes "real" gods, i.e., gods that people still worship, like Jesus and Shiva. (Well, heck, I suppose there are a few neo-pagan circles out there that worship Odin and Zeus, so, whatever.) So my first thought was, "Wait a minute, if a god's power is a reflection of how much people believe in them, Jesus and the Hindu deities should be kicking ass since they've still got hundreds of millions of followers." Gaiman does provide something of an explanation, in that it turns out that gods manifest wherever they are worshiped, so the "American" Kali whom we meet in the book is not the same as the Indian Kali who, yeah, is doing just fine thankyouverymuch. Thus it may be inferred that the entire premise is a strictly American phenomenon. Are new gods and old gods battling for mindspace in Europe and Asia and everywhere else? No telling.
Okay, so that's how the story goes. Naturally many things are not what they seem, there are betrayals and double-crosses and Big Reveals, all of which I saw coming a mile away, but overall, I liked American Gods. Neil Gaiman is, in my opinion, a great storyteller. But that's all he is -- a spinner of yarns that are greatly entertaining and keep you turning pages, and that's not a bad thing, but he is neither a great writer (not a bad one, but nothing about his writing says "Gaiman style" to me) nor greatly original or innovative, and his characters... well, they're mostly pretty lacking. That is to say, they are interesting in concept, but very same-ish and frequently tiresome in execution.
Shadow: The most annoyingly passive protagonist since Toru Okada
Besides Stephen King, the other author who came to mind as I was reading American Gods was Haruki Murakami. Or specifically, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I could probably write a whole essay on the parallels between American Gods and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but the biggest one was that like Toru, Shadow is a boring, boring person who never takes initiative and never seems to actually give a shit about anything. Like Toru, he eventually does the right thing, but there is never any sense of urgency or emotional investment, and mostly things just happen to him.
This is actually lampshaded at one point when Wednesday gets pissed off at Shadow for taking the whole "gods are real" thing with too much equanimity, and Shadow replies that since his wife died, nothing has really seemed real. Okay, so he's still in shock and numb with grief. Except he never really seems to be grieving, he never gets over his numbness, and his state of shock is no different from the way he was in prison before his wife died. He does occasionally ask questions and figures out a few things on his own, but that's about the extent of his proactiveness.
One of the primary motivators for Shadow is his wife, Laura, whom we are supposed to believe he really, really loved, and who really, really loved him. Even though she was an accomplice to the crime that got him sent to prison, and while he was in prison, had an affair with the guy she died in the car crash with.
Also, she comes back as a zombie, so we get more dialog between Shadow and Laura. She's kinda sorry that the affair hurt Shadow's feelings, but she never actually expresses remorse for anything. And she kills a few people, also with the same lack of remorse.
These two would be a thoroughly dysfunctional and non-credible couple even if one of them weren't dead. I did not believe for a second that their marriage would last in any real-world situation, let alone that Shadow was really motivated by his pure true love to find a way to bring Laura back to life. Mostly he obsesses over the gratuitous detail that Laura actually died while giving his ex-boss/friend a blowjob (turns out this had a deleterious effect on his driving). Okay, I can see how that's a mental image that a lot of guys would have a hard time getting out of their head, but Shadow never even gets angry or confronts Laura about the adultery, just kind of sulks about it.
I did not like Shadow, I did not like Laura, I did not like Wednesday -- in fact, the only characters I really did like were Sam Black Crow and Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel.
Sandman with the Serial Numbers Filed Off
American Gods would have been a lot more impressive to me if I hadn't already read Sandman, and I suspect that it won the Hugo and the Nebula because most of the voters were not familiar with the latter. American Gods is very derivative of Sandman, not just because both feature a bunch of immortal deities, but in the unlikeability and near-amorality of most of the characters, the structure, and the filler material, which all read like Sandman shorts.
The genius of Sandman does not translate so well to a novel, where Gaiman uses pretty much the same style of pacing and interludes and
Gaiman gets a lot of blurbs and accolades from Stephen King. Gaiman is a King-ish sort of writer: his books are full of characters about which we learn many small details that range from interesting and funny to crude and banal, but are often irrelevant to the plot, as are the chapters Gaiman writes detailing how various gods first came to America. Like King's tangents, these are frequently interesting for their own sake. But while King also tends to write meandering, bloated novels with serviceable if not particularly spellbinding prose, he actually makes us care about his characters, while Gaiman never does.
Neil Gaiman's America is a roadside attraction
At first, I wondered if Gaiman was making fun of America, or intending to be satirical. But I decided he's actually very fond of America, in the way you're fond of a cute little tsotchke sold in a roadside tourist trap, which is what Gaiman seems to think America consists of -- an endless series of roadside tsotchkes. After reading American Gods, I cannot help wondering whether Gaiman has ever been out of sight of an airport or an Interstate while in America. Having lived in and driven across the country several times myself, from north to south and from east to west, I can tell you that aside from the terrain, most of the United States looks pretty much the same from an Interstate, but drive a little into the country, town, or city and you'll find gaping regional differences, even in the modern, culture-leveling media age.
Gaiman writes with affection and with an impressive familiarity with the trappings of American culture -- from the ubiquitous donation jars for sick children in convenience stores to the cheesy tourist trap bars to the hominess of small towns that conceals the same evils that are in the big cities, but his vision of America is a vision seen exclusively by someone who never ventures more than a mile from an Interstate, and as for the "American gods" who manifest from the beliefs of modern Americans, they are the most vapid, superficial caricatures of modern life. These are not archetypes but cartoons.
Yet despite all these reservations, American Gods is a great story. It's entertaining, it has a satisfying climax (albeit one in which Shadow is still mostly passive), and there are lots of little allusions that mythology buffs will love. If you like Neil Gaiman, there is no reason not to like this novel. If you're not a huge Gaiman fan, I'd still say this is a book worth reading, but I was left unconvinced that it actually deserved a Hugo, a Nebula, a Locus, and a Bram Stoker award (though certainly worse books have received all of these awards).
Verdict: I was expecting/hoping to love it, but I merely liked it; American Gods failed to recapture the epic sense of wonder of Gaiman's Sandman, and I wanted to kick the protagonist hard. Nonetheless, this treatment of gods in a contemporary American setting has flashes of brilliance, a few funny bits (also some skeevy bits) and a page-turning quality that made me glad I read it, but not hankering for a sequel as I would have had it lived up to expectations. Recommended for Gaiman fans and mythology buffs, and given all the accolades this book has received, my criticisms are probably very much of the YMMV variety.
Also by Neil Gaiman: My review of The Dream Hunters.