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Monday, January 28, 2008

Book Review: American Gods

Author: Neil Gaiman
Rating: 4/5
Challenge: Mythopoeic Award Challenge

I’m planning on reading Anansi Boys for the Mythopoeic Award Challenge, but I figured while I was at it, I would read American Gods first, since it was written first. I have this weird thing about wanting to read first books first.

Anyhow, American Gods starts out by introducing us to Shadow, who is a man down on his luck. He’s on the verge of being released from jail when he learns that his wife, Laura was killed in a car accident. On his way to her funeral, he receives an unusual job offer from a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. Mr. Wednesday needs a bodyguard and Shadow reluctantly accepts, figuring he has nothing else better to do. While accompanying Mr. Wednesday, Shadow meets a number of people who turn out to actually be gods. Yes, gods. We learn that even when belief in the mythological gods of old waned in America, the gods themselves live on. They may blend in with the rest of us normal folks, they may be down on their luck, but they are still here.

Wednesday is rallying the troops (so to speak) to battle against the new gods (Media, Internet, Highway, anything else Americans really believe in, etc., etc.) but it is not as easy as it sounds; most of the gods don’t really want to fight. Mr. Wednesday’s main compadres in his mission are Mr. Nancy (Anansi, the African trickster god) and Czernobog ( a dualistic Slavic god). Shadow accompanies Mr. Wednesday on a number of missions to convince the gods to fight, but things really get rolling when Wednesday is murdered. Furious, all the gods gather together for a last dramatic battle.

All sorts of gods, folk heroes and legendary creatures of all sorts of cultures populate this book, and Gaiman brings them to life unforgettably. What would it be like to have dinner with Easter, now living as a hippie in San Francisco? How about running into a leprechaun in a bar?

The bearded man lit his cigarette. “I’m a leprechaun,” he said, with a grin.
Shadow did not smile. “Really?” he said. “Shouldn’t you be drinking Guiness?”
“Stereotypes. You have to think outside the box,” said the bearded man. “There’s a lot more to Ireland than Guiness.”
“You don’t have an Irish accent.”
“I’ve been over here too f-ing long.”
“I told you. I’m a leprechaun. We don’t come from f-ing Moscow.”
“I guess not.”

The book is structured as an action book, and a mystery. Shadow hardly has a moment to recover from the shock of learning his wife is dead before he is being whisked away to convince other gods to join Wednesday's cause, all the while being pursued by a shadowy agency who seem determined to kidnap him. It is also structured like a mystery, because we are trying to determine as we read along why a dead character who keeps popping up won’t stay dead, how the gods came to America, what the true nature of the ultimate battle between the gods will be like, what Shadow’s mysterious dreams about a buffalo-headed god really mean, and most importantly, why exactly Shadow is so important to both the old and new gods. We get little hints dropped tantalizingly throughout the book, and I was impressed by how each thread was tied up by the end.

There were a number of interesting themes woven throughout this book. First and foremost, the book explores what Americans worship nowadays. Shadow is faced with this when Lucille Ball starts talking to him from the TV.

“Who are you?” asked Shadow.
“Okay,” she said. “Good question. I’m the idiot box. I’m the TV. I’m the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode-ray. I’m the boob tube. I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.”
“You’re the television?”
“The TV’s the altar. I’m what people are sacrificing to.”
“What do they sacrifice?” asked Shadow.
“Their time, mostly,” said Lucy. “Sometimes each other.”

That passage struck me as being very profound. It actually made me think about how much time I myself sacrifice to my TV. Really, what makes the TV so different from altars to Baal or Odin or Kali? People certainly sacrifice plenty of time, money, and definitely relationships to the TV.

The one thing that kind of bugged me while reading this book is: why does Shadow follow along with the old gods? Sure, the new gods are heartless and soulless, but the pagan gods aren’t necessarily spotless heroes themselves. Wednesday uses his powers to charming people into handing over their money and seducing waitresses. The Queen of Sheba poses as a prostitute but then swallows the johns whole. Many of the gods discuss receiving human sacrifices with pleasure; Shadow has a disturbing dream where he encounters Odin in Valhalla, where the trees are overhung with animal and human sacrifices in Odin’s honor

Shadow puts it this way: “It occurred to him that the reason he liked Mr. Wednesday and Mr. Nancy and the rest of them better than the opposition was pretty straightforward: they might be dirty, and cheap, and their food might taste like shit, but at least they didn’t speak in clichés.”

Is that really enough justification? The gods are revealed to be liars, cheats, and they downright betray their own kind. So maybe we’re better off not believing in them anymore. Or maybe I’m really just missing the point, because none of the things that the gods do in this book are any different from what they do in any of the mythologies or stories. In Greek mythology, Zeus of course cheated constantly on Hera and fathered all sorts of godlings. All of the gods constantly ganged up on each other and fought all sorts of unnecessary battles and sometimes helped and sometimes tormented humanity.

Looking at it that way, I guess I need to go dig up some more mythology. I might want the gods to act more honorably, but wouldn't that betray what they are supposed to be?

This was an intriguing and fast-moving read. If you were ever the kid who was real interested in the Greek Mythology unit in English class, definitely read this book.


aaron said...

Sounds like a fascinating read. I definitely need to read more Gaiman. I've liked his comics works and enjoyed Good Omens (thoughI hear that was more Pratchett than Gaiman). American Gods sounds fascinating. I'll have to add it to my list.

Kim L said...

Aaron-do add it to your list. I have the husband reading it now and he loves it. Plus, big chunks of it take place in Wisconsin and Minnesota. I always think its fun when you've been to the places mentioned.

ravenous reader said...

As you mentioned in your previous (meme) post, I'd never heard of Neil Gaiman until I began poking around the book blogs. His books seem very popular! I've never felt drawn to the fanstasy stories, but judging from your comments, I believe his books would be a good place to start.

Kim L said...

ravenous reader-yes Gaiman would be a great start to get into fantasy. As opposed to a lot of fantasy novels where you have to get to know the fantasy world really well to enjoy it, this one is easy to slip into.

Eva said...

I think a lot of why Shadow sats w/ Wednesday is that he shook on it. Remember in the bar? And Shadow's the kind of guy who, once he shakes on something, he goes through with it. Otherwise, I think he would've left!

Debi said...

As to why Shadow stuck with Wednesday, I pondered that a lot, too. And pretty much agree with Eva...I figured it was the loyalty thing. And on top of that, I guess I figured that he was in such a tremendous state of shock with everything that happened. I don't know.

Anyway, I absolutely loved this book! And I am sooooo impressed with your review! Seriously, I have tried on more than one occasion to describe this story, and have failed completely each time. You just made it look easy.

Kim L said...

eva-you know that is a great point and I kind of forgot about that scene. That does explain a lot better why he went along with everything.

debi-thank you! Believe me it wasn't easy to write this review, it took several revisions.

I agree with you there about Shadow being in a state of shock. It seemed like he hardly ever got to even react to anything, he just kind of experienced it all then moved on to the next adventure.