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