American Gods. By Neil Gaiman. William Morrow. $19.99.
This book, Neil Gaiman’s first major solo novel, has been around since 2001, and was released in its expanded “author’s cut” version on a limited basis in 2003 and then for the mass market in 2011. It is certainly fair to ask why the book is coming around again, and what is left to say about it.
Well, the “why” is easy enough to explain: this is a TV tie-in edition for a series based on the book. (Gaiman is also reputed to be working on American Gods 2, but that is not relevant to this reissue.) The “what to say” is less evident. Gaiman was amazingly accurate when he said that this was the kind of book that people would either love or hate. Long after its initial publication, it is still a book that inspires strong emotions, one way or the other. The literary community itself adored and presumably still adores it: the book won multiple awards in multiple genres, which if nothing else provide testimony to the difficulty of placing it in any specific category. And American Gods sold gobs and gobs of copies, first in its original incarnation and then in its subsequent, 12,000-word-longer one (the one that is here reissued).
But there are nagging problems with the book that make it understandable if a minority of readers, perhaps a sizable minority, finds it exceedingly off-putting. Its underlying premise is nothing new: gods are only as powerful as people’s belief in them. (When you stop to think about it, that is not even a premise – it is a description of how religion works.) And it is certainly possible to posit that old gods, Norse and Native American and so on, might resent the coming of new gods (of wealth, technology and such) that have taken over all those worshippers. It is even possible to imagine that the old gods might want to engineer a war against the new gods with the aim of ousting or destroying them – although the method of doing so is a bit obscure, since what the old gods need is not victory in battle but a vast increase in people’s belief in them.
However, in American Gods the promised battle royal never happens: the climax of the book is that Shadow, the central Everyman character, prevents it by the simple expedient of explaining that the old gods have been pulling everyone’s strings in order to foment hostilities. But these are, you know, gods, whether old or new, and their inability to figure out what has been going on without some help from the rather dim Shadow strains credulity even in a fantasy novel (which is one thing that American Gods is).
Shadow is rather weak and rather dull for a central character – for example, it takes him an unconscionably long time to figure out that Mr. Wednesday is the American incarnation of Odin (for whom the weekday Wednesday is named). But in a picaresque novel (another thing that American Gods is), an overly naïve central character who makes discoveries along with readers, or even after readers have figured things out, is perfectly acceptable. Less clear are some of Gaiman’s foundational premises, such as the whole nation-based incarnation thing: there are different versions of gods in different places, but given the fact that nations are themselves artificial constructs whose borders can and do change, it is hard to justify the idea that the power of a particular god-incarnation rests with the belief of humans who happen to inhabit what happens to be a nation whose boundaries happen to be what they are at any given time. At the very least, this would seem to mean that gods fade in and out as nations’ boundaries contract or expand (actually, that is an intriguing notion, but not one that appears in American Gods).
And yet for all its structural flaws, and some narrative ones as well, American Gods is a powerful, involving, intricate novel that stands up very well in its episodic way. It is deliberately episodic, filled with subplots and cutaways and explanatory sections and other techniques that will be as maddening to some readers as they will be intriguing to others. It is a book packed with clever names, such as Mr. Nancy for Anansi the spider god, Low Key Lyesmith for the Norse trickster Loki, Whiskey Jack for the much-less-known trickster Wisakedjak (from Algonquian mythology), Mr. Jaquel for the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis, and so on; again, though, some readers will find the whole naming thing overdone, overused or just over-the-top. And not everyone will enjoy the occasional bit of subtle sociopolitical commentary in American Gods, such as the creation of the Intangibles as modern gods of the stock market – personifying the famous notion of an “invisible hand” and wanting to avoid direct confrontation with the old gods because they think market forces will take care of any dispute. Certainly the book has its over-obvious elements, such as the idyllic town of Lakeside that anyone familiar with horror stories or films will realize must hold a gruesome secret. But it also has considerable subtlety, including Shadow’s use of coin tricks and his eventual departure without waiting to see how his last such trick turns out.
Ultimately, American Gods is a mishmash – a deliberate one – with elements of fantasy, horror, mystery, science fiction and more. Readers looking for consistency of tone, voice or plot will not find it here; whether this is deemed a strength or a weakness will depend on each individual who picks up American Gods. And that, in the final analysis, is what is still (or again) worth saying about Gaiman’s book. It is admiration-provoking, anger-provoking, and, more important than either of those, thought-provoking. The new edition offers readers familiar with it an excellent chance to reacquaint themselves with what they like or hate about it, while giving those who do not yet know the book a perfect excuse to become involved in disputes about it that have already stretched through the better part of two decades.
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