When I came to select a book to read after finishing Anderby Wold, I don’t think I could have picked something much more different than Neil Gaiman’s American Gods had I been trying deliberately to do so. The former is provincial, understated, realistic and oh so English, while the latter is sweeping, outrageous, mythological and (despite its English author) undeniably American.
The novel opens shortly before the release of central character Shadow from prison, when he is summoned to the office to hear news of his wife Laura’s death in a car crash. On the plane home, he is accosted by a strange man calling himself Mr Wednesday who claims to be a former god embroiled in a war with the new gods. Little does Shadow know it, but he is soon to find himself playing a key role in this conflict, embroiled in a world of gods and legends fighting for survival in the improbable setting of the American Midwest.
On the one hand, I really like the idea of American Gods. I like the thought of all the old gods and spirits emigrating from their native lands along with their believers and eventually finding themselves having to exist in 20th century small town America. I love the little mythic episodes which litter the novel, detailing the story of a particular deity which isn’t relevant to the plot per se, but which helps to build up the whole picture of the world that Gaiman is creating. I thoroughly enjoyed picking out all of the elements of folklore, myth and fairytale, even if I think this may have resulted in me working a lot of things out much sooner than I was probably supposed to. I think that the idea that bizarre tourist attractions with no real significance are the modern day places of pilgrimage is completely inspired and it never failed to make me smile. I like the idea of the gods being in conflict; it made the story feel like a myth that had been brought thoroughly up to date. However, therein lies one of my problems with the book.
Why is there suddenly this conflict between the gods and material things? The commandment ‘Thou shalt not commit idolatry’ would suggest that people have been worshipping things beside the approved deities for quite some time now, so it seems a little bit odd that this has been a non-issue until the 20th century. The Norse gods who are the focus of this book have been quite firmly out of favour for at least a thousand years, so why are they at the forefront of the conflict? Surely if anyone is fighting off the ‘new’ gods of materialism it should be some strange trinity of Jesus, Buddah and Mohammed, not those whose worship was already considered a bit archaic when Beowulf was written down? I enjoyed the premise, but I didn’t really believe in it, if that makes sense.
Ultimately, I had the same criticism of American Gods that I did of Stardust when I read that back in 2010: I really like the ideas that Gaiman comes up with, but I’m not 100% convinced by what he does with them. I found myself reading American Gods and interrupting myself by thinking ‘This would be so much better if it had been written by someone else’. I think my ideal Neil Gaiman book is possibly written by Terry Pratchett (yes, I am aware of Good Omens; no, I haven’t read it yet). That’s not to say that I think he’s a bad writer or even that I don’t enjoy his books, it’s simply that I don’t think I quite click with him. I know it’s unfair to judge a book by what you hoped it would be, but I wanted American Gods to be more epic, more humorous, more sinister and, well, just more than what it turned out to be.
That said, there were sections of writing that I absolutely loved. Samantha Black Crow’s bizarre creed was one of my favourite parts of the whole novel:
I can believe things that are true and things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not.
I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen – I believe that people are perfectable, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkled lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women.
I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state.
I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste.
I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like martians in War of the Worlds.
I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman.
I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumble bee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself.
I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.
I believe that anyone who says sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too.
I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system.
I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.
It’s clever, it’s witty, it’s completely insane yet somehow rings true and I wish the whole novel had been more along those lines.
This is sounding like a very negative review, but I did honestly enjoy the book, just not as much as expectations had led me to believe I would. I’ll continue to read Neil Gaimain’s books for the wonderfully innovative ideas that he comes up with. Who knows, maybe his writing will grow on me the more I read?
American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Published by Headline Review, 2005, pp. 656. Originally published in 2001.