American Gods by Neil Gaiman
I remember waiting a long time for this book. Neil documented the process of writing it on his blog, so every few days I would get a little glimpse at what he was doing – and it drove me nuts. Living in Japan, I can never be sure when my favorite entertainment will make it over here. Movies and books can take months to get from the US to Japan, and while I’m waiting not-so-patiently, all my friends at home have just devoured it and are in the process of raving about how awesome it is. Oh, sure, the hyper-sellers like Harry Potter might have a worldwide release, but Neil wasn’t exactly a mainstream superstar when this was written.
So yes, one of my main memories associated with this book is frustration. Fortunately, when I picked up the book during a trip home back in 2001, my frustration was erased and replaced with profound satisfaction.
American Gods was one of Gaiman’s first full-length novels, though I may be wrong about that. It was not, of course, his debut – he had made his name a household word in fantasy-reading households by penning the epic comic book series Sandman, in which he proved that he was able to marry huge metaphysical themes to personal narrative. He could make the dissolution of worlds pale beside a broken heart and make you believe that even the simplest of life had vast meaning.
In other words, this man has some serious writing chops.
As the title implies, in this book Gaiman takes on the gods, and asks a very interesting – and important – question: what happened to the gods that came to America? I’m talking about the Old Gods, the gods that had been living in the hearts and minds of people for thousands of years. Leprechauns and dryads, three-in-one forces of fate and representations of the seasons. Easter and Odin, Bast and Anubis, gods of once-great nations and unknown villages. As their people came to America over the millennia, they brought their gods with them.
But as the people stayed in America, they changed. They grew. And the gods discovered that America is not a good place for them.
Now the old gods are small and unworshipped, save by a few tiny, dwindling pockets of their old culture. What’s more, new gods are rising, gods of media and internet, highway and television and government. And, as has been said in countless westerns and cowboy movies, there isn’t room for all of them. There will be a reckoning, and a man named Shadow is in the middle of it.
Shadow is a convict, nearly at the end of his time in prison. He wants nothing more than to get out of prison and rejoin his wife. He gets one of those wishes when he is released early. Unfortunately, he is released early to attend his wife’s funeral.
Without friends or family, Shadow is aimless and alone. It is in this condition that he meets the enigmatic Wednesday, a man who seems to know Shadow and his situation, far better than any stranger should. He offers Shadow a job – to assist Wednesday when he needs it, protect him if he has to, and sit a vigil for him if he dies. With nothing to lose, Shadow accepts the deal. In so doing, he finds himself facing a war of gods that he never knew existed.
It’s a great story, on many levels. In one sense, it’s a love letter to America. Shadow’s journey takes him through small towns that have yet to be subsumed into the ever-devouring maw of the modern American monoculture – from roadside attractions to tiny motels to strange lakeside communities, the unacknowledged weirdness of America is put on display here for all to see. As is its history, in the form of flashbacks to the journeys that people made from their homelands to this land, voluntary or not. The book reminds us that there is a complexity to not only American history, but also to American culture, which gets lost in the ubiquity of McDonald’s and Starbucks.
The metaphysical angle of this book is also something to give you pause. It asks the questions about what gods are, how they’re born and how they die. Most importantly – how they flourish or wither, and why. It is said over and over again that America is a bad place for gods, although it’s not clearly explained why. Perhaps something to do with its geography – a vast, variable landscape that’s too big for small tribal gods to get a hold of. Perhaps it’s the people, brought from all over the world, who can’t help but wonder what other cultures can offer them. Perhaps it’s just the nature of its people – always moving, independently-minded. The old gods, who were gods of small nations and regions, simply didn’t have the power or flexibility to stay on.
Which really makes us wonder, how did capital-g God manage to get a foothold? As one of the characters notes, Jesus has done really well over here. Perhaps because the God of Abraham can be all things to all people – a god of vengeance and justice, a god of mercy and love, a creator, a destroyer, a personal friend or a distant observer. There is something to be said for non-specialization, I suppose….
This book is a journey, and it’s a long and complicated one at that. But it’s enjoyable and personal. Gaiman writes with great empathy, so that the reader may even understand the gods themselves, as reduced and attenuated as they may have become. Though Shadow is not exactly the protagonist of the story – he spends most of the book doing what he is told to do, only taking initiative on his own towards the end, he is observant. Through his eyes, we learn more about America. Its triumphs, its flaws and its potential all become a little bit clearer, and upon finishing the book, those of us from that strange, turbulent land can perhaps appreciate it a bit more.
“This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is.”
– Wednesday, American Gods