Author: Neil Gaiman
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: February 2016
It’s difficult to discuss Neil Gaiman without the spectre of American Gods looming over the conversation. He has a lot of other intriguing titles, but this one gets the designation of quintessential Gaiman, the magnum opus. Is it?
Yes, it pretty much is.
American Gods is a fantasy tale, but a surprisingly grounded one. The protagonist, Shadow, is released from prison only to find that his true love is dead. He gets enlisted as a kind of sidekick in a supernatural plot. But he still has to drive beat-up cars and participate in money-making schemes to get by. (Think Murakami, and the way his characters still take time to make sandwiches while dealing with askew realities.)
The book is a couple of other things. For one, it’s a road trip story, with echoes of The Stand. It’s fully American, obsessed with geography and roadside attractions. The story attempts to get to the heart of why the various old gods are so dispersed and soon to be forgotten, and why some new gods threaten to overtake the citizens’ psyche. Here’s a slice that explains something that’s been on my mind in recent years:
“San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside any more than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis.” … “They may share certain cultrual signifiers—money, a federal government, entertainment—it’s the same land, obviously—but the only things that give it the illusion of being one country are the greenback, The Tonight Show, and McDonald’s.”
It’s impossible for there to just be one America. It’s too diverse in subcultures and histories. Which brings up the next thing this book is, above all else: a tale of immigrants (reiterated by the author in an interview at the back). It uses the concept of “gods” effectively, as colorful, mostly minor deities brought with people from the old countries. Each god reflects something about human trajectories, and exists only so long as he or she is invoked. Despite the overtly fantastical elements, there is a lot of serious exploration of human history going on.
And to cap it off, even the supernatural craziness somehow comes together. Any book of this length can open up wondrous doors and make vague promises, but it’s a tall order to have everything cohere. The gods survive on belief, but “belief without blood only takes us so far.” So the stakes have to stay visceral for the 600-page conjuring trick to work. And I think it does. It’s mythology for the modern era. It’s pure Gaiman.