Sunday, November 16, 2014

Re-reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman

My plan was to finish reading this during the R.I.P. Challenge, but these days I suffer from no time. It took me over a month to read the book, but what a month.

“Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you - even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition. Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.” 

Summary: Days before his release from prison, Shadow's wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America. Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.

My thoughts: When I first read American Gods, it was all new to me. The word I used to describe the book was fascinating. That’s not the right word to describe the book. Gaiman is fascinating. As are The Graveyard Book, Coraline, Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. American Gods is disturbing, strange, real and not fascinating. I did like the book then, but not as I should have, because it is a book that would not make complete sense if it were new to you, or you new to it.

Some would say Gaiman’s writing is an acquired taste – but I don’t agree with that either. Though loaded with allusions in this book, his writing style is basically direct. His snippets of insight into people and places are universally relatable. But a reader of American Gods should have a knowledge of mythology and appreciation of storytelling. You can’t afford to be world-weary, rather be world-wise. You cannot be hesitant in your approach to it and you cannot expect to fall in love with it. American Gods shouldn’t be your first taste of its genre of dark, bleak humour and whatever you call it. It is a book better read slowly than devoured and best enjoyed on a second or third reading.

The old gods in American Gods are delightful. Wednesday (think Woden's Day) is your typical high-minded deity: cruel, careless and vindictive, not to mention, nosy. He loves his power and his care for people holds only so far as it is reciprocated. The old gods are only impressions of their original versions worshipped across the world, carried to the shores of America through half-remembered tales and customs of their native people. So they all have a bit of America in them, from their people slowly merging with the new world. Wednesday, Low-key, Nancy, Jacquel and Ibis, for instance, make wonderful retold approaches to the old Norse and African biggies. And there are so many smaller gods, smaller myths, every character has a purpose (a counterpart) and I can't even imagine what treasure chests of knowledge Gaiman's mind must hold. The new Gods are, well, they are perfect mirrors of the new world, not altogether pleasant.

But more than the gods, American Gods is about people. American Gods is about belief, and how limiting it could be. It also attempts to show the power of stories. Stories are alive, they change as the tellers grow, and the world changes too. Gaiman tells us some of these stories, some old tales of the gods who then travelled across the world with their believers. It's when it talks about belief and stories that American Gods reminds me of Terry Pratchett and his books that do an infinitely better job portraying the ideas - like Small Gods and Hogfather, and even Good Omens for that matter.

“This is the only country in the world," said Wednesday, into the stillness, "that worries about what it is."
"What?"

"The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.” 

American Gods is a nostalgic look at America, which is a character all by itself. The mixing of religions and the alienation, the insiders and the misfits, the otherworldliness, the disconnectedness in geography and culture, everything that comes under Americana, is built with mastery. It is about the absurd beauty of myths, about nightmares and dreams taking flesh and blood form, about the horrors that unarguably pour out of our own minds. It deals with death in a manner no book I have ever read has. The book is cold and blunt and emotional at the same time. It's very essence lies in its secrets; it has more than one thing to say and you can be never be quite sure of them all. It is perfect, almost.

Why? Ok, the thing that makes me not like American Gods is that it is too commercialized, sensationalized. The subtlety that Gaiman is capable of is absent. It isn't simply the emphasis on "anything can happen" that makes Gaiman put it all out there – the loud, brazen, dirty seems at times like a deliberate genre-defining kind of addition, and that's where American Gods gets on my nerves. It reads attention-seeking in parts, and by extension, dishonest. The climax, as with so many books of this great a scope, is a little disappointing. Not because it isn't a resolution I wanted, it is. But the writing loses its lucidity, its clarity towards the end and the finale is a rushed affair.

I've been told I should read his novella The Monarch of the Glen, from Fragile Things, to get closure for Shadow. Maybe I will. Meanwhile, now that I am done ranting, I would love to know what you make of this book. Some books are meant to be reread. Do you agree?

5 comments:

Divers and Sundry said...

I've only read this book once. I do agree that some books are better appreciated on further readings. My difficulty is deciding which books to re-read when there are so many books on my shelf waiting to be read the first time.. So far, American Gods hasn't made it to my "must re-read" list, but I'll admit I don't now remember why it didn't grab me at the time.

DMS said...

I find Neil's writing to be brilliant. His mindfulness in crafting imaginative, unique story lines sets his books high on my shelves. I read American Gods several years ago and remember falling easily into the story and appreciating the way he wove the myths and religion into reality. I also enjoyed The Anansi Boys, and always think it's so perfect how his evident love of stories sets the frequency of his words. Thank you for your thoughtful review of American Gods, I enjoyed reading it! ~ Jess

Priya said...

Divers and Sundry - That's true. The only reason I reread the book was because I have no time to risk a boring book, I'd rather go back to those tried and tested.

Jess - Exactly! Anansi Boys is a lot smaller in scope than American Gods but it is also very same in the way he weaves stories together. Thanks for stopping by!

Viktoria Berg said...

I re-read American Gods fairly recently, and I agree with what you say. Definitely I had the same experience about America being a character, perhaps the most interesting character of all. I was also a bit disappointed, both times, and I think I re-read it to figure out why. Perhaps your explanation is better than the one I came up with (can´t remember exactly what it was now, but I did feel the book lacked true depth). At the end of it, it felt more like creamcake than a proper meal. I failed to see the urgency of the story that the premise suggested. It did put me off Gaiman, but perhaps I should try something else of him. What would you suggest? Where is he at his most subtle?

Priya said...

Viktoria - I've been told Neverwhere is Gaiman's best writing, but I haven't read that. I would recommend The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is subtle and charming. It's sort of an adult fairytale, and the best I have read of his. That being said, it has none of the mythology-cultural aspects of this and is more personal.

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