American Gods Part II: A Myth for America

 

In his book of essays dealing with speculative fiction, The Fantastic Horizon: Essays and Reviews, critic Darrell Schweitzer (also author of The Neil Gaiman Reader) discusses the mythic appeal of American Gods, observing that “…it’s one of those not very common attempts to produce a myth – even a mythic epic – for North America and especially for the United States…It’s about a rootless man with a mysterious past…about…the tarnished remnants of the legendary past working out their differences in the present”. Tellingly, the old “legendary” gods of “Europe and Asia” are afflicted by struggle with the new gods of America: “gods of television, high-tech, commerce, automobiles, etc”. The new and the old, the global and the local, and the tension embodied by the clash of these worldviews forms the core of American Gods. And yet, are myths not, as Schweitzer writes, stories “…which tell the hearers who they are…”? Do they not, in other words, confer identity? Well yes, and that is precisely what Gaiman seeks to do in his novel. In Gaiman’s novel,  America is defined by the struggle between new and old, the clash of the Old World and the New. While America is a place of Davy Crocket legends and ideologies of manifest destiny, it is also defined by its commonness; its received banality.  Schweitzer observes that “It might be argued that there is something too practical and everyday, too prosaic in the American character for the creation of myth…” And yet Gaiman manages to mythologise America, almost (though not quite) as well as Tolkien mythologises Middle-earth; America’s landscape, its its people and its everyday commonality are all defamiliarised; not only the characters but also the readers are deliberately coerced into experiencing a sense of what Tolkien calls “wonderment”, a renewed sense of vision through which the previously familiar is transformed into something exotic, new and ultimately, enchanting.  

This is America: A place of rootlessness, a mixing pot of cultures both old and new, and yet Gaiman fuses them all, producing a story a myth, an identity for America that is both compelling and disturbing.  

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about American Gods, it was certainly a fascinating read and I highly recommend it to all of you out there in the cybersphere!  

If anyone is interested in Schweitzer’s interesting book of essays and reviews dealing with fantasy and science fiction, here’s a link to a review on SF site (also linked through this blog):  http://www.sfsite.com/05b/fh296.htm

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A Quick Update

I have developed a more structured plan, of sorts. Instead of launching straight into The Lord of the Rings, (as I’ve already iterated) I’ll be doing some reviews. I’ve already started with some notes on American Gods, of course. Over the course of the next few weeks I hope to review the following books in this order:

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita: A novel of lust and twistedness

Roberto Calasso, K. Looks at the works of Franz Kafka

James Wood, How Fiction Words: Examines the theories behind writing a good book

Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Takes a look at the contemporary God Debate

I will also write a couple of reviews on books that I’ve previously read, including Ursula le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, as well as Cormac McCarthy, The Road. Then, perhaps, we’ll be ready to move onto Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in depth. Coming up: American Gods Part II, and a special treat. My buddy Henry has just read The Hobbit, so he’s gonna post his own (dare I say very entertaining and funny) review of it in anticipation of The Lord of the Rings later on. He’s gonna read along with LOTR as well so as to contribute. Should be fun!

19th Birthday

I was lucky to have a great day yesterday thanks to some fantastic friends, who made my 19th birthday memorable. Thanks guys 🙂 Anyhow I hope to write a second entry concerning American Gods soon.

American Gods: Neil Gaiman

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Headline Books Publishing, 2001

Neil Gaiman, like Terry Pratchett, is considered to be a fantasy author with a difference. His stories and characters are eclectic, comical and often provocative, his prose is lucid and more often than not, deliciously lurid as well. He has written quite a few of novels, including Anansi Boys, Smoke and Mirrors, Stardust and Neverwhere, but he is most well-known for the Hugo and Nebula award-winning American Gods. I’ll probably be writing a couple of posts on this book (I’m about half way through) as it demands a great deal of thought and attention.

To attempt a plot summary for this book would be rather futile; like many fantasy works from The Hobbit (to which it bears little relation otherwise) onwards, it is highly episodic and the focus rests not on the intricacies of plot, but on the “wider” implications brought to be bear by the twist and shuffle of theme. And its themes, despite the highly comedic nature of the work, are pretty fundamental (some would say universal, but as we subsist in an age of postmodern thought I’ll desist now from making such “totalising” claims in the future!) Here it is probably appropriate, then, to enter into a brief consideration of the story, at least toward the beginning. As readers we start by meeting Shadow, a noir-like character who nonetheless seems to possess a relatively benign personality. As he is revealed to us at the beginning, Shadow is about to leave prison (where he has been incarcerated for some “accidental” misdemeanours in the past), but just before he is released he discovers through the unfeeling prison authorities that his wife has been killed in a car crash, while, how shall we say, being unfaithful with Shadow’s best friend. Yet Shadow appears to be strangely unaffected by this news; Gaiman characterises him as a peculiar kind of outcast, not dissimilar to Marsault in Camus’ L’Etranger. Indeed it is fitting that the central character of American Gods should be revealed as the ultimate outsider: one, like Marsault, banished to oblivion by homogenous, legalistic and impersonal (Kafkaesque, if you will) bureaucracy. On his release, Shadow (his very name implies a kind of undefinability: names will become rather important later on too, when we read Le Guin and Tolkien) is accosted (seemingly by chance) by a strange, gruff old man wearing a pale suit.

The man calls himself Mr. Wednesday (Which is a clue as to the “man’s” true identity for those of you who have indulged in comparative mythology studies). Wednesday turns out to be Odin, the Old Norse “All-Father”, who, now bereft of a worshipping clientel, instead lowers himself to the level of cheap con man. Shadow meets other gods on his journey with Wednesday, who convinces him after several encounters to enter his employ. There is Czernobog, a Slavic god of death, Mr. Nancy, an African trickster, and, perhaps more obvious, Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel, who concern themselves with running a mortuary. “…we give them continuity…” says Jacquel of the service he and Ibis provide to the locals, “…there’s been an Ibis and Jacquel in business here for almost two hundred years…”

Questions of “continuity” coalesce around a centrally important theme of the novel: identity. Another novel about identity might seem a little cliché at first, but Gaiman auspiciously navigates the complexities inherent in the concept but (so far) asks more questions than provides answers (which, perhaps, is one of the central roles of the novel). What constitutes authentic identity in a modern era of mass technology and globalised communication, ideas, and cultural values? What does it mean to be an immigrant, to relinquish your old identity, in the face of oblivion? How does America, the setting of the novel, crystallise these questions? Is America a land so devoid of identity and become so plasicised, so “non local”, that all semblances of meaning or authenticity are relinquished? As Mr. Ibis explains “Wherever you go, you will get something that is, with small regional variations, the same…” Perhaps an implicit answer here is that America’s self-proclaimed “manifest destiny” is an illusion: where immigrants are said to enter a “land of opportunity” they actually enter a land of fakery, of forgery, of inauthentic meanings and domesticated brand names; a kind of abyss where all identity is subsumed into a larger soup of forgetfulness and mediocrity.

Just some of my thoughts thus far. I hope to post more on this rather thought provoking book. In the meantime, here’s a more general review from Salon.com, by Laura Miller.  http://www.salon.com/books/review/2001/06/22/gaiman

The name of the game

To begin with I thought I’d start with a few reviews of books I’ve read recently. They will include Cormac McCarthy, The Road, Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed, Neil Gaiman, American Gods, and perhaps Terry Eagleton’s new oeuvre, Reason, Faith and Revolution. Coming soon!

Following this, we’ll begin on the first major read through, our subject being Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. While this might seem clichéd, it is in fact a tremendously complex book and deserves a great deal of thought and attention. I look forward to starting!

A Beginning

I haven’t been all that pleased with Richard Dawkins lately. For all espoused love of “clear thinking oases”, he seems to do an incredible amount of manipulative handwaving. Alas, this blog is not (mostly) about him, although certainly his ideas, often pithy and always provocative, may have a part to play in the journey we are beginning now.

For the most part, this blog will be about books. Of course, there are thousands of book blogs floating around in the cybersphere, so what makes this one different, you ask. Well, I’ll be particularly interested in the ideas expressed through works of speculative fiction, namely in fantasy and sci-fi.

Unlike many blogs, however, I don’t intend to write a single review of a work and then move on; instead, I intend to bring considerable time and intellectual space to bear on individual works. I want to commit to thorough, in depth and interesting readings.

Throughout, I will try to supplement some of my own thoughts with those of others, expressed in books or journals (with all the appropriate referencing of course).