I know Mr. Neil Gaiman has been busy promoting his two newest books (The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and Fortunately, the Milk), but I am still renewing my acquaintance with his work after a long interruption by life, the universe, and everything. So, for me at the moment, it’s American Gods.
I began with Sandman (been a DC Comics fan since the 1960s, always a girl geek, I suppose). A bit dark for my tastes, but my brother talked me into it. I found the mythological, archetypal threads fascinating. Been reading myth stories since even before the comics. After a long absence, Twitter re-introduced me to Gaiman, and therefore his work, particularly the children’s stories. Saw Coraline. Read The Graveyard Book. This dude is still a great storyteller, and he understands the depth of child-mind that prefers the darker ambiguities of Grimm’s fairytales over the purple banality of Barney the dinosaur. I’m looking forward to the next installation of The Graveyard Book. Hope there is one. 🙂
So, I procrastinated on American Gods. I’d been away from fiction, and my favorite genres of science fiction and fantasy for so long. I edit and index books for a living, reading mostly nonfiction, and it seems like relaxation has become almost anything but reading to this point. Still, the book called to me, and yet I left it on the table for a long time. Finally, I put it in the bathroom. That did it. I began at intervals to read in the only place in the house where I didn’t have something else to do (except sit). Yes, I was able to leave this book, at least until near the climax, and return to it in those natural intervals. 🙂
Mr. Gaiman is a fine storyteller, of course, and very clever with plot and character. He took on a bit of a challenge with using gods from various cultural pantheons. My first challenge was to play the game of “Which god is this?” I found this game fascinating, although once he got beyond the northern European and Egyptian mythologies, I had to refer to Wikipedia several times. And then we got deeper into the human archetypes that seem to be common to all humans: birth, consumption, sex, death. I began to see the threads that knit all these deities together and their dependence on our desires to create and sustain them.
America is the only place where all those pantheons of gods grown from human desires in deserts and forests, rivers and mountains, could come together in one place and be interwoven with the newer technological gods that the largest middle class in the world continues to worship. I see why Jesus, the Buddha, and Allah are missing from the story also. They are in some way too successful, too impersonal, too disconnected from the human experience on Earth to be part of this story. Gaiman (a Jewish boy from Britain) is a very fine observer of the American character and Americans’ relationship to the land and their own desires (visions of a late-twentieth century Tocqueville danced through my head). This story is part of the fantasy genre, but the understanding of modern American experience is very broad, deep, and often starkly realistic. And the gods are dirty, sexual, murderous, too, just as they often were in the contexts their human worshipers immigrated from.
Mr. Gaiman uses the traditional tropes of the mythological tale, particularly the idea of sacrifice as a prelude to transformation, to keep the drama unfolding and pull all the threads of this mythological mystery together for our ambivalent hero to carry out his destined role. I know this book has been out for a few years, but I’ll still avoid specific spoilers, except to say that I liked the continuity and ambiguity of the “ending.” You can never really hold a Shadow in the end, can you?
Thanks for a great story, sir. It was cool to get back to my friends, the gods. Always an excellent adventure.