Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Release date: May 2002
Genre: Fiction; fantasy
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4 out of 5
People have described Neil Gaiman’s American Gods as one of the true new classics of fantasy. I generally scoff at such claims, since it is virtually impossible to tell which works will stand the test of time; many books and movies are widely heralded upon their release, only to be quickly forgotten. But the description is actually quite fitting for American Gods. The book has a patient, almost meandering approach that echoes the slower pace of classical movies like “Citizen Kane” or “The Maltese Falcon.”
American Gods begins with Shadow’s release from prison. He has done his time (crimes unspecified) and he’s ready to rejoin his wife and civil society. But when he’s released a few days early, he is informed that his wife was killed in a car accident, and that he has essentially no home to go to. And that is when he meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday.
Wednesday is one of the old gods, and he wants to enlist Shadow’s help as a driver and bodyguard in his upcoming war with the new gods. The new gods recruit Shadow as well, and he is unsure why he has become so popular with the pantheon of gods.
Shadow’s character is in many ways as enigmatic as Wednesday’s. His age and race are never specified, and his past motivations can be difficult to pin down. Many authors try to give their characters a detailed history, as if they lived a full life prior to the story’s onset. Gaiman seems to be taking the opposite approach; Shadow’s life seems to have started only when he was released from prison, and any back story is only important insofar as it influences Shadow’s current decisions. It’s no coincidence that his wife’s nickname for him is “puppy.”
The “classical pacing” as I mentioned earlier is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the novel. Many of the side trips and interludes seem almost pointless, but they were often more compelling than the main plot. When Shadow is hiding out in the small town of Lakeside, Wisconsin, his interactions with the townsfolk are interesting to the point of distraction.
And Shadow’s conversations with his wife, Laura, who returns from the dead, are perhaps the strongest part of the book. Shadow is numb from grief of losing his wife, and the fact that she keeps popping up isn’t helping:
“That’s when I miss you most. When you’re here. When you aren’t here, when you’re just a ghost from the past or a dream from another life, it’s easier then.”
She squeezed his fingers.
“So,” he asked. “How’s death?”
“Hard,” she said. “It just keeps going.”
At the same time, the overarching plot of the war between the old and new gods sounds compelling, but often is too farfetched. The mystical nature of the gods, and how their power is often displayed in dreams or a surreal “backstage” world often seemed difficult to engage with. The story made sense for what it was, but often I was more interested in Shadow’s interactions in Lakeside, Wisconsin.
I think part of the problems is that mythology and gods never really interested me personally. The book introduces dozens of figures from various religions and myths, but frankly I lack the background to really know what Shiva or Odin’s personality would really be like. I imagine this book would be much more enjoyable if you have that knowledge beforehand.
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