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Wednesday 19 April 2017

Words on Wednesday: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

The belief in the power of belief

Disclaimer. Many people find critical analysis too close to flat out contempt. That is, they see any critical attempt as a destructively negative activity. This is only occasionally correct of me and not at all my motivation for writing this piece about Gaiman’s work today. Indeed, in my description of flaws in this novel, I am not suggesting possible corrections for the author (as an academic’s critique of another’s argumentation might include) but merely emphasising a difference in opinion. I think that ‘American Gods’ is an excellent novel, but as it’s made by a human, it’s never going to be perfect. This is a good thing. That it has made me, and others, think about; certain themes, the author’s usage of particular phrasing, or metaphor, the ideas, and the author’s (possible) social commentary, is the benefit of a worthwhile literary creation. That is, I have enjoyed the story but that is not all that it has done for me. It is, therefore, not “just entertainment.” Although if someone wishes to enjoy a work, any work, at this surface level only then that is entirely their choice.

The version of the novel I read was the “author’s preferred text,” which includes the edited inclusion of various story elements that were previously cut for brevity’s sake from the original text. How much of a difference this makes, I can’t really say, but perhaps in the future I’ll read the original shorter text (this version was around 630 pages).

Although I’ll do my best to avoid describing the plot specifically, there are several ideas that are especially central to the story that I’d like to discuss. I’ll keep these separated in a second section, which if you intend to read the novel or watch the forthcoming television series without knowing about them I’d suggest avoiding. However, I’d guessed at all of the main elements of the story, thanks to the blurb and my own personal reading history by page 25. So, I’d suggest it might not be that big of a deal as I still found it rewarding and surprising, but some people are quite antsy about spoilers…

1. As general a discussion as I can manage without describing the story itself…

What makes ‘American Gods’ good is not just the characters, not the plot, not the allusions to particular mythologies or real people and places (although all of these have to be good both individually and collectively to make the darn thing readable in the first place, but technical competence isn’t the mark of a really good writer), but that it is an attempt to bring all of this together to describe something conceptually intriguing. Something that warrants further thought.

An Englishman wrote an American novel. This is not an objective truth but a personal fact. Gaiman’s America is his America, perhaps it speaks truly to some and rings false to others. 

Like every good fantasy novel ‘American Gods’ is an attempt to create a new mythology, as Tolkien once said of his ‘Lord of the Rings’. Albeit that this a myth based on our pop cultural memory of gods, myths and an idea of a land we think we know. Why ‘American Gods’ works so well, is because it’s not claiming to fix a description of America, rather it is a mythic US of A that exists in imagination, thoughts, and dreams rather than the measurable ground or fact-checkable historic events. Your country, like your myths, like you yourself, is this amalgam fantasy. It is yours and yours alone, you can share parts with others, with your ‘countrymen and women’ (assuming they agree) but its basis will always be your heart.

"The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason." - Pascal.

Every work of creativity involves giving away something of the creator themselves. The clever ones hide this deep within elements of the work and never tell the truth about what it really meant to them. I’ll just say now that I don’t presume to read Gaiman’s mind or what it meant for him, but what I can say is that he really seems to like Norse mythology; the humour of it, the darkness, the pragmatism.

American Gods is an easy and enjoyable read. It is not challenging or dark, and yet it still has some conceptual depth. Especially worthwhile for a reader with an interest in mythology. Some aspects work better than others (in my opinion) but at 600+ pages this is to be expected, at the very least nothing is left unexplored. It’s important to point out the difference between unexplored and unexplained here, because one style would didactically tell you “what I meant here was” and the other gives you a hint and makes you think about what that might mean. Obviously, I think the second is the more interesting and Gaiman also trusts his readers to care enough to explore into things themselves, if they want to.

2. For those that have already read or are otherwise not concerned about spoilers or are sufficiently interested in further depth…

The central character ‘Shadow’ is both described in enough detail and abstractly enough that we are able to mould this hero into the reader’s own perspective. I think it would be dangerous to make such a prominently central character in such a large book too ‘fixed’. This is because the danger would be, what if the reader doesn’t like them or worse still, finds them boring? Shadow, thankfully, is therefore both mysterious and sympathetic enough to elicit our attention throughout the majority of the novel. Well, until the end, but by that point it hardly matters that our stoically dumb wise-man has become the all-aware superman hero. Mainly because we’re told he’ll soon forget it all anyway.

There are a vast array of secondary characters who are, for the most part, intriguing. Even their archetypal characterisation, which would otherwise make them seem flat, actually works given the context of the novel. They are mythic characters after all, although this creates a problem of who is a god and who is a normal person, as the method of description remains the same throughout. Perhaps this is the point, although I doubt the author meant it particularly. It becomes all the more confusing when a character (albeit a dream character, but this distinction in reality hardly matters for the novel) who we’d though might be an ancient god or belief, describes themselves simply as “the land.” Well, sure, that’s a belief people have. Is every belief manifest? Or just the ones with sufficient ‘weight’ behind them. That is, beliefs with some form of personal sacrifice, although this concept could be argued over too. At any rate, the problem becomes, at what point does this anthropomorphising of beliefs stop? The answer, perhaps cynically, is “whenever it is appropriate for the story,” because, yes, sadly it is just that, a story. Had we started to think that is was a technical manual? A guide book for existence? Probably this suggests that your/my imagination is over-active and that you should really stay away from cults.

Anyway, something that struck me as strangely absent was the lack of, shall we say, the more ‘famous’ religions. Perhaps the point was that monotheistic beliefs aren’t represented is this manner (in this world), because although Hinduism (not a ‘forgotten’ belief system with 750 million followers who are arguably pantheistic or monistic, depending where they/you stand) gets a tenuous mention with Kali making an appearance, but there is no mention of Jesus Christ or any of the saints or prophets of other religions (probably this is a sensible idea as this portrayal would annoy/anger/upset/outrage someone for sure). However, I’ve noticed that there is a Jesus Christ character is the television adaptation. Quite why and what role they will play is unknown (to me).

Also, as most people seem to believe in some form of externalised ‘evil’ in the world, represented as the devil, or in any other myriad of ways, it seems odd that this figure is not given the same anthropomorphic treatment. Possibly because this would make them the central antagonist and drive a rather different story than Gaiman had in mind.

I’ve read an interview with Gaiman that seems to suggest that the murder mystery ‘side quest’ story, was the originating idea for the novel that was then superseded by the ‘War of the Gods’ main story. It certainly reads like an add-on, indeed, it’s probably the bit that was edited out of the original. Still, it still fits with the rest of the world Americana mythology that he’s building and is reasonably interesting, just not that important really. It is also ‘solved’ or tied up in a particularly unremarkable fashion.

To conclude, I would certainly recommend ‘American Gods’ in the full “author’s preferred version” to any reader of contemporary fantasy and definitely to those with even a passing interest in mythology. Although there is some depth to the work that makes it more than merely passing entertainment it isn’t too conceptually dense, but it does reward a little extra thought. It’s certainly not a horror story or a science fiction, which are both awards that the novel won, probably due to an excellent literary agent...