by Satyajit Sarna | November 26, 2010
Image above and on article thumbnail originally published on petesimon's photostream on Flickr.
Image published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.
When you see the cover of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, you’re tempted into cussedly thinking- why stop there? If a book has won the Hugo, the Nebula, the Locus, the SFX, and the Bram Stoker awards, why has its author not won the Magsaysay? Why did he not win the Booker on the way? Seriously, when is the Nobel Committee going to get to this man?
But American Gods really did deserve to win all those prizes, even if nobody could decide whether it was science fiction, fantasy, horror, or something older and more disturbing. Neil Gaiman is best known for his Sandman graphic novels (which, ever since The Right People started reading comics, we can now call comics), and American Gods manages to distil the potency of the series into a single cohesive nightmarish narrative with encyclopaedic scope.
Shadow is released from prison two days before he was scheduled to, because his wife is dead. He discovers that the world he had left behind is gone. The woman he loved is dead, his best friend and employer is dead, he never really had much of a family, and he cannot see much of a point in going home. All he has to compensate is the wisdom he learnt the hard way and a range of coin tricks that he uses to take up time.
At this crossroads in his life, he meets Mr. Wednesday on the plane home, who knows too many things about him and offers him a job, and, lost for choices, Shadow drinks his mead three times in a ritual he does not quite understand, and becomes his man. It is only later that Shadow realises that Mr. Wednesday, with his line in neat grift and conjobs and taste for whiskey and slim blond girls is Odin Allfather, one-eyed Odin of the Norse pantheon.
Yes, the gods live, and they live like all of us, with only their odd powers and memories to make them special. They live, together with their compensatory demons and mythical animals and were brought to America by the Immigrants. The old Norse gods, and the Greek ones, the Russian demons and the Irish banshee, the Kitsune of the Japanese, and Kali of the Hindus. But their cults are dying, their faiths are fading and they grow weak. Nobody sacrifices a goat to old Anansi – who is now Mr. Nancy with his yellow gloves and ribald sense of occasion. Mad Sweeney drinks himself to death under a highway bridge. Odin tells Shadow, “I just keep thinking about Thor. You never knew him. Big guy, like you. Good-hearted. Not bright, but he’d give you the goddamned shirt off his back if you asked him. And he killed himself. He put a gun in his mouth and blew his head off in Philadelphia in 1932. What kind of a way is that for a god to die?”
Where the old gods haven’t died, their original nature and meaning is forgotten and kitschy new symbols are attached to them – what relation do chocolate rabbits and eggs have to the fertility goddess who was Eostre once?
In their place, to occupy the same void in human needs, new gods have arisen and new places have acquired significance. Television, Airplanes, Cars, all the forces of the modern world, who take their sacrifice in new and sometimes equally bloody ways. The new gods have put together a world where the old gods cannot exist, or can live only in sad caricatures of themselves. In place, they offer convenience, and cheap pleasure. Television tries to bribe Shadow, speaking to him through Lucy Ricardo. “You ever wanted to see Lucy’s tits?” she asks. But the offer is wasted on Shadow. Some sense of old-fashioned honour and decency animates the ex-con, or maybe it is the mead oath he swore to Wednesday. Shadow has thrown his lot in with the old gods brought to America by all the immigrant races that fill up the continent. A battle is coming, a storm is brewing, and Odin is travelling across America to gather forces for the last fight - “Will you fight beside us when the storm comes?”
The scope of Shadow’s quest gives Gaiman license to invent characters and transpose them into new and strange world. Take Horus and Anubis; Ibis and Jacquel run a funeral parlour in a town in the Mississippi Delta called Cairo; as Jacquel ties off intestines, he snacks on the liver and heart of the victim in a way that is “respectful and not obscene” while recording his examination report. Lady Bast curls up and sleeps in the corner. In case you ever start wanting to like these gods, Gaiman reminds you that they are nasty and capricious, bloodthirsty and dirty and unlovable. But they feel real and don’t have the clichéd synthetic promises of the new ones – and they don’t lack a sense of humour. In one scene, Shadow talks to one of Odin’s Ravens:
‘Hey,’ said Shadow. “Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are.”
The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes.
‘Say “Nevermore”,’ said Shadow.
“Fuck you.” said the raven.
Neil Gaiman. The significance of the button-eyes will not be lost on true believers.
In the same way that Dream’s castle is a large winding structure, wings and towers of which appear and disappear with his whims, American Gods is a long, rambling book. Gaiman frequently diverges from the narrative and writes in myths and how they were brought to America, such as the Ifrits of New York or the Cornish piskies who take up residence in the Carolinas. Personally, I’m all for it- if you have a big concept, write it large. For every writer who wants to write a BIG book, there are hundreds of MFA graduates who are dying to examine the mundane and realistic in endless detail, whose enthusiasm for a microscopic examination of the quotidian routine of an office worker would disgust Stendahl or Zola. American Gods is a HUGE book, and it is written in a clean and sustainable style – writing so suited to its purpose that it becomes invisible. Gaiman is not Nabokov and it is for the best, because Nabokov writing fantasy would be unbearable.
Since he is one of the handful of authors still writing that a reader might actually care to know more about, I follow Neil Gaiman’s blog. I really want him to be a sorcerer, some imperious Aleister-Crowley-type-item who lives in a dark castle somewhere and summons spirits. But he’s not. It’s disappointing how normal he is, frustrating how interested he is in his family and how childishly pleased he is whenever he does something of importance. He’s just a regular guy who really loves his dogs.
Gaiman has created something unusual for a writer in our time: a body of work. If he never writes another thing in his life, American Gods and The Sandman are enough to associate him forever with the elastic world of myth and dreams and stories.