Monday, March 30, 2009

Thoughts on "American Gods"

I was encouraged to read "American Gods", by Neil Gaiman, and I thought a blog post to try and gather my thoughts on the book was in order.

If you want a flavour of what it is about, have a look at the Amazon page. I'll try not to include too many spoilers.

The book brought to mind a whole shelf-full of others. The supernatural elements evoked the magical/real worlds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Douglas Adams' "Dirk Gently", Eoin Colfer - even perhaps Doctor Who! The fluid evocation - homage? pastiche? - of the unseen U.S. reminded me of Garrison Keillor and Bill Bryson. And those were just the connections I was able to make. However, it would be misleading to suggest that this book is simply a cobbling together of other people's ideas. On the contrary, this is a story that these books would aspire to - the plot that succeeds in drawing all these threads together.

However, in my opinion, it comes nervously close to failing. Gaiman is obviously a well-established writer, held in critical high regard. That allows him to make demands on his readers that a new writer would not be able to; but for a new reader (me!) coming to this book, it felt as though it was on the edge of being overblown and indulgent. On top of the main plot about the clash between modern and ancient gods, there is a police procedural "whodunit" here, a collection of essays about the connections between various people from American history and their gods, and a studied gaze at small town America. All of these would have stood up on their own - for all of them to cohabit inside one book brings it close to being a literary orgy. And why is it necessary for literary masterpieces to break the 400 page barrier?!

The main character, Shadow, is indeed a shadow. "I'm not sure you're alive, either. Not really," his dead wife tells him at one point. Shadow does eventually act to demonstrate to himself the fact that he is alive. But even so, he seems somewhat unengaged. (Spoiler alert!) He manages to single-handedly stop the twilight of the gods - but I was left wondering why he would have bothered, really. If at some stage he had had a kind of ultimate existential experience which was motivating him, it didn't really stand out from the other experiences he had along the way. One of the reviewers on the blurb describes the book as "heart-rending". I disagree. It was good enough, but none of the characters, with the possible exception of a young woman called Sam Black Crow - not even Shadow - really engaged me enough to care about them. Certainly this is an excellent book if it is considered within a particular genre - it garnered SF awards, for example. But in absolute terms, I didn't think it was earthshaking.

To come - thoughts on some of the ideas in "American Gods".

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