Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Dark Fantasy, horror
Summary: (from amazon.com)
Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down. His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job. But Mr. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming — a battle for the very soul of America . . . and they are in its direct path.
One of the most talked-about books of the new millennium, American Gods is a kaleidoscopic journey deep into myth and across an American landscape at once eerily familiar and utterly alien. It is, quite simply, a contemporary masterpiece.
Why did we read this book: Because: a. It’s Neil Gaiman (which is an automatic buy); b. because it really is one of the most talked about books of our generation.
“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”
Ana: I am reading American Gods and right from the very first chapters I am already daunted at the prospect of writing this review. I have the sneaky suspicion that it is going to be complicated and by the time I reach The End I am sure of it as I am sure my name is Ana. This book is one of Those: Grand, Epic with a copious amount of coolness to make this not only a classic (which I am sure one day, it will be) but also a popular, award-winner bestseller. The book is dense, stock full of references to all sorts of mythologies and with deep philosophical questions all intertwined in a plot with more twists, turns an addendums than … anything I read of lately.
Plus I have sworn myself to secrecy as to not give away any plot points that would spoil the MAJOR twist (or should I say the major trick) that awaits the reader in the end. (I already feel like I said too much). It took me quite a long time, I mean a LONG TIME, i.e. about 4 months to read through American Gods but that is ok. I believe this is one of these books that must be savoured and therefore read slowly so that all of its numerous details and subtleties can be truly appreciated.
Thea: Ana and I had agreed to do a joint review on this book way back when we started this blog–it was, in fact, one of the first books we had planned to do a joint review for. As such, I began reading American Gods in January, and just finished it last weekend. This is unheard of for me–usually I speed through books, zipping along at warp factor 4 (at least). I could not do this with American Gods–not because I didn’t want to tear through it with reckless abandon, but because, as Ana says, this is a novel to savor. And savor it I did. Over six months, I paced myself, reading only a chapter or so at a time, then closing the book and reflecting on what I had read.
American Gods is dense. I don’t mean that in the ‘dim-witted’ application of the word (because this is an incredibly intelligent book), but in the literal sense–while the prose is crisp and linear (very ‘American’ in style, truly) and reads easy, every page, paragraph, sentence, word is loaded with meaning and significance. Truly, the task of creating this rich, thick work of literature must have required a Herculean effort–indeed, trying to write a review to do it justice is a formidable task in itself.
American Gods deserves all the attention and all the accolades heaped on it–and it is an instant, defining classic.
On the Plot
Shadow Moon is a man nearly finished with his prison term when he hears that his wife and his best friend have died in a car accident. Shadow is released a few days early so that he can pay his respects, and he learns that his one true love died while giving his best friend a blow job in the moving car. And Shadow feels betrayed, but then feels nothing. With no one to come home to, with no job or future, Shadow is visited by a man named Wednesday, who offers him pay in return for Shadow to be his bodyguard. Together, Shadow and Wednesday drive.
They journey across the country, on roadways known and unknown, and Wednesday begins recruiting. A storm is brewing, and a war is coming. The Old Gods, the ones carried over by immigrants of all origins and ethnicities–the ones that sailed to the Americas in ancient times, the ones who crossed the icy straight before the continents shifted, the ones that came by slave ships, or to Ellis Island in droves–they all brought their Gods and myths with them, in their memories and hearts. The Old Gods are fading, though–with time and without tribute or memory. New Gods hold the hearts and minds of America, fast Gods of television, of the internet, of shallow beauty and expensive things. And the New Gods have no need for the Old.
Wednesday and Shadow journey, telling each of the old Gods they encounter that the other side is preparing for the final war–and Wednesday asks if they will stand when the time comes. After many encounters and much convincing, Wednesday manages to gain the following of many older Gods.
And the storm grows closer.
Ana: American Gods is a sometimes weird, sometimes wonderful, many many times surreal tale of Men and Gods in America. It is a road trip as much as it is a look at small town America with the Gods’ errands boy Shadow being the centre piece. There is indeed an overall story about a war and about a man that may have a part to play in it, intercalated with interludes that tell how the Old World or African Gods came to America in the hearts and minds of immigrants and in their stories. All with the underlying philosophical questioning of what exactly Gods are, a theme that was already present in the Sandman series and which is expanded here.
These are potentially incendiary questions because the answer to these is that Gods are reflections of humans. An idea that departs from the philosophical idea “ I think, therefore I am” expanding it to “I think of Gods, therefore they are.” Being a reflection of the people that created them also means that the Gods here are deeply flawed, pitiful, skirmish in their almost humanity instead of being flawless, omnipotent and omniscient.
Thea: The plot of this book is incredibly planned out, branching, twisting and yet everything is interconnected–like the branches of the Yggdrasil itself. Every step along Shadow’s journey is deliberate, and has implications for the ultimate, final reveal.
Shadow himself follows a sort of Hero’s Journey in the vein of Joseph Campbell–the wounded hero who receives his call to adventure, who discovers a boon to accomplish a larger objective for fellow man–or in this case, a larger moral objective for the Gods. While the Gods themselves are fascinating, the story really is Shadow’s and his struggle is one that the readers care for and identify with. The novelty here isn’t so much that Gods fade without worship (which is a popular mythological and SF theme), but in Shadow’s journey, and the incredible scope of Gaiman’s Gods (drawing from more than just the standard Norse or Western European mythos), integrated in this sprawling story.
I should note that the format of the book is wonderful in itself. It is written in chapters, each beginning with a small quote, and end with short interludes that tell separate stories about each of the Gods and myths that have come to America–be it the jinn taxi driver, the story of Wututu and her brother Agasu on the slave ship, the tribe of the Northern Plains in 14,000 BC. The format is fascinating, each quote and story gives us a repreive from the overall story line, but provide fascinating interludes to the narrative.
On the Characters
Due to the immense scope of this novel, and the many characters in the cast, Ana and I decided to take a slightly different route with this one…
We present, the Dramatis Personae
Ana: We never get to really learn who Shadow truly is, he walks through life without any major input. He is rather mysterious – he is described as being a Big fellow and I guess other characters see him as a big brute but we know better. Even though he is indeed as his name says a shadow, we still manage to see that he is smart and that he has a heart.
There is though, halfway through the book one glimpse into his mind that is very telling. Up to that point what stroke me the most was how Shadow is so utterly passive at everything he sees. As I read the book, I couldn’t believe or understand how he could be so cold at the sighting of such wonders and such surreal proceedings and ideas. He is meeting real GODS for christ’s sake , he is travelling to parallel dimensions! So, at one point Wednesday gets tired of it, and voices my own chagrin,
“Why don’t you argue? Why don’t you exclaim that it’s all impossible? Why the hell do you just do as I say and take it all so fucking calmly?”
Shadow, in what is one of the best moments for me, in the whole book, explains that he is numb ever since he heard of Laura’s betrayal. I thought that was a brilliant way of showing how what really hurts him (and possibly us, human beings as a whole) is what really is close to his heart – in that sense, Laura was closer to be a Goddess (a goddess of love, of compassion perhaps) to Shadow, that her betrayal was ten times worse and a thousand times more significant to him than any of the marvels he has witnessed or any skirmish between Gods he cares nothing about.
In that sense, Shadow is a magnificent embodiment of the whole conflict in the book (be it a real conflict or not, the idea is THERE anyway) to how the older gods are fading away and making way to the new Gods with the new Gods being what is close to heart of the people that live in America.
Although one may argue that Shadow has always been a Shadow, a carcass even before Laura’s death: living but not really living. Zombie Laura even tells him that what drove her to pursuing an affair was the need for someone who would feel alive. That hits Shadow like a bomb and it’s not until the very last pages that he suffers the transformation that will allow him to get closure with Laura but also turns him into a essential player in the proceedings by not only being vitally important to the outcome of the war but also by realising that all the dreams, visions and sombre predictions had a meaning.
Ha! So much for a character that is merely a shadow! I believe that in end, Shadow can be perceived in different ways depending on who is reading. He is, I would say, open for interpretation.
Thea: Shadow is our protagonist, and as his name implies (and as Ana has discussed at length above), he is a spectator. What is a shadow really? Every object casts one, and is bound to it forever. A shadow is not just darkness, which is color of its own accord–rather, a shadow is an emptiness, and a lack. It is the very absence of light; it does not exist of its own accord.
This is a fitting name for our protagonist–since Laura’s death, even preceeding Laura’s death, Shadow has been without light or spark of his own, rather content to be an empty spectator. Indeed, for most of the novel, Shadow neither feels emotion, nor does he make any independent decisions. He goes through the actions, he observes everything around him, but he has no volition. It is this absence of light and life that defines Shadow. Despite this, however, Shadow is our hero, and an identifiable and relatable character.
Throughout the book we see him change and grow a little life spark of his own. He makes his own choices, a silent pawn no longer. And when he returns from the later stages of his journey, his role is integral to everything.
Wednesday is an aspect of Odin, the All-Father and chief God of Norse mythology. The word “Wednesday” itself is derived from Odin’s Saxon name – Woden. He is known as the God of Wisdom, for which he gave up an eye to be able to drink from Mirmir’s Well of Knowledge. But is also known as the God of War and Death.
Wednesday in American Gods is a bitter man whose life has resorted into playing the con-man to unsuspecting audiences and is the main motivator for the fading gods’ recruitment. He seems to be the one to predict that the lack of believers in the Old Gods is perilous to their very own existence and he is not going down without putting up a good fight.
It is not very clear why Wednesday would be so adamant about having Shadow as an escort and bodyguard and the enigmatic God may have some unknown motivations.
Mr. Ibis, Mr. Jacquel & Bast
“The Lord gave my business partner dominion over the dead, just as he gave me skill with words. Fine things, words…what we give them here is continuity: there’s been an Ibis and Jacquel in business here for almost two hundred years. We weren’t always funeral directors, though. We used to be morticians, and before that, undertakers.”
Ibis and Jacquel run a small, family owned funeral home–acording to Mr. Ibis, it is one of the last true family owned funeral establishments in the country. The important thing about their business, Mr. Ibis asserts, is that people want to feel that their grief is felt by a local, personable shop. Shadow describes Mr. Ibis as a man who speaks in explanations, incapable of conversation, only of lecturing.
Mr. Jacquel runs the mortician aspect of the business, performing autopsies as well as preparing the dead for their final resting place. While Mr. Ibis lectures with words, Mr. Jacquel examines and judges the dead.
And then there is their cat, who takes a liking to Shadow. For a spell, Shadow stays with Ibis, Jacquel and their cat, helping them with their funeral home tasks, while Wednesday continues on his recruiting process.
Of course, Ibis, Jacquel and their cat are more than just funeral home directors–they too are Gods. These three are the ancient Egyptian Gods. Ibis is Thoth, the heart and tongue of Ra (God of the Sun and ruler of the sky, the world and the underworld); he speaks the will of Ra. Jacquel is Anubis, god of embalming, of mumification and the underworld. The cat is Bast, protector goddess, and the goddess of perfumes and ointments. The three play an important role in the book so far as Shadow is concerned–they all serve an important role in the judging and weighing of a man’s worth in the afterlife.
Czernobog and three Zorya: Zorya Vechernyaya, Zorya Utrennyaya, & Zorya Polunochnaya:
Wednesday and Shadow go to Chicago to try to co-opt some Slavic deities. They visit this apartment and meet Czernobog, the Black God, a god of chaos and death. He is the opposite complimentary to Bielebog, the White God. Bielebog never makes an appearance, which lead us to believe that they are aspects of the same God, only that at the moment the Dark one is more prominent. In the book Czecnobog is depicted as being quite violent and always branding his hammer and uncertain as to join Wednesday or not. When he first meets Shadow he invites him for a game of chess and should Shadow lose, he would one day come and claim Shadow’s death by hammering his forehead. This threat hangs on Shadow’s shoulders for the entire book seeing that vicious Czernobog will never let him forget.
Czernobog shares his flat with the three Zoryas. In Slavic mythology Utrennyaya was the morning star, Vechernyaya the evening star, and Polunochnaya the midnight star. They are rather mysterious figures specially Zorya Plunochnaya who is never awake when Shadow is at the flat but who which appears in a few of his dreams. In one such dream she presents him with the Moon and that light will guide him in his time of need.
The three female deities may also be a representation of the mythological archetype of the maiden, the mother and the crone or rather birth, life and death.
Mr. Nancy : also known as Anansi (there are quite a lot of play on words with the character’s names) , a trickster god brought to America by African Slaves. He is a humorous storyteller and who is depicted at times, as a spider. In the book, Mr Nancy is one of the closest friends and allies of Mr Wednesday. He may not appear as much as one would like but his is a strong presence. There is another book by Gaiman that is loosely related to American Gods by having Mr Nancy as the central character (well, sort of): Anansi Boys.
The New Gods:
On the other side of the war, there are these new Gods, young Gods–of modern times and technology. We meet the Gods of Media (a lovely, hygenic, smiling blonde anchorwoman), Technology (a fat, anti-social kid with LA complex), Stone, Wood and Town (straight up out of The Matrix–i.e. Agent Smith). They shimmer, they cast cathode ray tube light, but they are young, cocky and increasingly unsure of themselves, and their place in this new world. They are the new wave of beautiful, and the Gods that reign supreme…for the moment.
But, they are not without their insecurities. And they fear the Old Gods, and try to enlist Shadow to their side.
LAURA Shadow’s late wife, who is brought back from the dead by mistake and virtue of Shadow’s (accidentally) won gold coin. She is a zombie, but still, despite everything they have been through and her late unfaithfulness, Laura loves her husband. She only wishes he would LIVE for himself.
Her role is pivotal to the novel.
Other minor gods, goddesses and figures such as leprechauns and Koborts have cameos in the book. But there are also non-Gods that figure quite a lot specially in those chapters when Shadow spends some time in Lakeside – his small-town acquaintances. One such minor character is Samantha “Sam” who comes across Shadow while hitchhiking and one of the few humans (if not the only one) that knows what is going on. She becomes a sort of ally of Shadow and is presented by Neil Gaiman with one of the best speeches ever to come out of the mouth of a fictional character (please refer to our Notable Quotes) .
There is also one character that appears only late in the book (or so we think, when we first read about him) that may or may not be of utter importance. We will be crypitc and say no more.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating
Ana: This is a book that requires special attention from the reader. It is not an easy read and it is certainly not a fast–paced story because every single thing in it has a meaning and a purpose that do not become clear until the very last pages. That is when you will probably have a similar reaction to my staring at the pages awestruck at the genius of the story climax.
If you blink you are likely to miss a couple of hidden treasures – like I did when I did not notice the en passant reference to Delirium from the Sandman. Bad, bad Ana.
The Sandman is still my favourite Gaiman offering but after American Gods he is firmly set in his throne as MY God of Writing.
Thea: This is a book that is not for the faint of heart. American Gods is a novel with jagged, razor teeth, and once you start it, it burrows itself in your mind and will not relent. This book is ruthless, it is intelligent, it is packed full of significance. Each page is a treasure to be savored, and I recommend that anyone reading it take their time to really comprehend the novel. This is a book that comes once in a lifetime; all we can do is appreciate that we are around to read it.
There is one conversation between Shadow and Sam where she asks what is going on. Shadow thinks she will never believe him. It goes something like this:
“It’s not easy to believe.”
“I,” she told him, “can believe anything. You have no idea what I can believe.”
“I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed.
Listen — I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkledy lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our
water and our women. I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state. I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste. I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like the Martians in War of the Worlds. I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman. I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself. I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck. I believe that anyone who says that sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too. I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system. I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.” She stopped, out of breath.
Shadow almost took his hands off the wheel to applaud. Instead he said, “Okay. So if I tell you what I’ve learned you won’t think that I’m a nut.”
“Maybe,” she said. “Try me.”
Thea: 10 Perfection – This book is a classic, to be cherished by generations to come. It is the perfect conclusion to our Neil Gaiman week, and I recommend it to everyone.
Ana: 10 Perfection: Abso-f**king-lutely brilliant. And what Thea said.