Gaiman, Neil (2001). American Gods. New York: Morrow.

Wotanstag, 18 July 2001

Gaiman, American Gods (cover) Der Sturm kommt. Well, I suppose that I should write the rest of this review in English, just out of pity for my loyal reader (it's down to one, now, so far as I can tell). This is a story of imports and immigrants, of peoples and their gods, of adaptation of gods to new circumstances. It is quite similar to, but not quite, an Americanized magical realism.

Gaiman's novel opens in "flyover country"—the American Midwest—while Shadow is still in prison, but anticipating his release at the end of his sentence. Shadow even gets out a couple of days early, but it's not a gift. His wife has just been killed in a car accident. This is not the last time we'll see her, though, and I don't mean through flashbacks. Immediately after he leaves prison, Shadow encounters a mysterious old man with only one eye who goes by the name Wednesday. This man seems to know far more about Shadow and his future than Shadow does. And then things start to get weird: Wednesday is not a man at all.

Shadow then begins an odyssey on at least three levels: the world of consensual reality, the world of the gods, and the world of Shadow's own psyche (the last being, of course, more by implication than anything else). Gaiman keeps the various journeys interesting without slam-bang setpieces. If anything, the few "action" setpieces stop the flow more than anything else. For example, while working for Wednesday Shadow assists in a bank robbery of remarkable subtlety. On the other hand, when Shadow is abducted by some of the minions of the Modern Gods in a more-traditional "action" sequence, everything grinds to a halt. This is the one significant weakness of American Gods. Had this distinction been a clear, purposeful part of the rhetorical strategy, it could have been a strength.

The settings Gaiman has chosen provide an interesting counterpoint to traditional American "rural fiction" (and, unfortunately, NYC snobbery has made just about anything west of the Hudson part of that tradition). That tradition obstinately denies ethnicity, or at the very least diversity in ethnicity. Even when a non-majority character or family shows up, it's very tokenistic. American Gods, on the other hand, celebrates that diversity in the cultures giving rise to the various gods. How ironic—and I think intentionally so—that the gods themselves have sunk to the level of "us against them."

Despite these serious underpinnings, American Gods is at its core a comic novel, both in literary and humor terms. Unlike most humorous fiction, though, it requires reader involvement to see the humor. Here's one example from early in the novel. After Shadow has picked up Sam, a hitchhiking somewhat real-life-challenged college student, they talk for a while driving on some interminable Illinois labelled-highway-but-really-cow-track route toward Cairo. When they part, Sam asks Shadow to say hello to any gods he meets, leading shortly afterward to this scene in a crummy hotel room:

The picture had dissolved into phosphor-dot fuzz. When it came back, The Dick Van Dyke Show had, inexplicably, become I Love Lucy. Lucy was trying to persuade Ricky to replace their old icebox with a new refrigerator. When he left, however, she walked over to the couch and sat down, crossing her ankles, resting her hands in her lap, and staring out patiently in black and white across the years.

"Shadow?" she said. "We need to talk."

Shadow said nothing. She opened her purse and took out a cigarette, lit it with an expensive silver lighter, put the lighter away. "I'm talking to you," she said. "Well?"

"This is crazy," said Shadow.

"Whatever. Lucille Ball talking to me from the TV is weirder by several orders of magnitude than anything that's happened to me so far," said Shadow.

"It's not Lucille Ball. It's Lucy Ricardo. And you know something—I'm not even her. It's just an easy way to look, given the context. That's all." She shifted uncomfortably on the sofa.

"Who are you?" asked Shadow.

"Okay," she said. "Good question. I'm the idiot box. I'm the TV. I'm the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I'm the boob tube. I'm the little shrine the family gathers to adore."

"You're the television? Or someone in the television?"

"The TV's the altar. I'm what people are sacrificing to."

"What do they sacrifice?" asked Shadow.

"Their time, mostly," said Lucy. "Sometimes each other." She raised two fingers, blew imaginary gunsmoke from the tips. Then she winked, a big old I Love Lucy wink.

"You're a god?" said Shadow.

Lucy smirked, and took a ladylike puff of her cigarette. "You could say that," she said.

"Sam says hi," said Shadow.

This scene works because Gaiman has established credibility with a magical-realist approach. By now, Shadow accepts anything bizarre that comes along as just another event. It's not worthy of incredulity, or even comment. More particularly, it doesn't require a nudge from the narrator to demonstrate his cleverness. And that is why the humorous aspects of American Gods work: the voice remains consistent throughout, allowing the reader to encounter events without the dubious equivalent of creepy background music just before the slasher appears in splatterpunk movies (or books, for that matter). The humor arises from the context, not the narrator's smartass approach. And that, in turn, is a counterpoint that actually works with the underlying material.

This respect for the reader permeates the novel. Gaiman doesn't explain where it's not necessary: that Odin's name in German is Wotan, leading to the Saxon Wotanstag, and the Anglo-Saxon Wednesday, is left for the reader to puzzle out. Further, it's not necessary to understanding the novel—it raises a nice little smile, particularly along with some of the other time-related humor, but there's no snare drum in the background. Gaiman maintains this kind of balance outside of humor, too: the references are there, but the story can roll along even when the reader doesn't "get it," and reach very much the same conclusion.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Unlike so much of the contemporary "urban fantasy" movement, this novel reflects respect for both the various religious/mythical figures depicted and their originating cultures. By doing so, Gaiman is able to wrestle with some of the more difficult questions of power and destiny without being tied into a warmed-over rehash of oversimplified Joseph Campbell (which is itself a grievous oversimplification). The humor he finds is, again, of a rare variety: the ridiculousness and banality of the "real world" contrasted with the mythic aspects of the novel, particularly Shadow and Sammi. A nicely balanced effort whose only minor failing is that it didn't reach quite far enough into subversion to complete the relationship between Shadow and Mr. Wednesday.

   I had the privilege of attending a reading by Gaiman a couple of days after the novel was released. He had purposefully gone from New York into "flyover country," because the people out here are real.

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