Saturday, June 23, 2012

"American Gods," by Neil Gaiman

The Protagonist: Shadow. When he's released from prison mere days after his wife's sudden death, he impulsively accepts a job from a mysterious personage named Wednesday.
The Rub: He soon departs on the adventure of a lifetime when he learns that Wednesday is actually a god, adrift in a nation bereft of worshipers, who wants to find other abandoned gods in America and band together.

Secondary Cast:

Wednesday: The American incarnation of the Norse god Odin. Believes that the Internet, the Media, and Television (the new gods that Americans believe in) are trying to eradicate the rest of his kind, so he needs to convince his brethren to stand up and defend themselves.

Laura: Shadow's dead wife, who is inconveniently resurrected by a magic coin. She wants to help Shadow as well as make up for her mistakes during their marriage, but being undead has its disadvantages.

Mr. Nancy: An ally of Wednesday's, and the American incarnation of the African trickster god Anansi.

Jacquel and Mr. Ibis: Two small-town morticians who are the American incarnations of the Egyptian gods of the dead, Thoth and Anubis.

Czernobog: An elderly Slavic god who beats Shadow at a game of checkers, thereby winning the right to smack him over the head with his sledgehammer - but he'll wait for the right time to do it.

Fantasy Convention Checklist:

1 Surprise! Father

Several Rambling Literary Digressions

3 Years In Prison

1 Sexy Gay Ifrit Cab Driver

Several Coin Tricks

2 Games of Checkers

1 Dead Wife

1 Man-Eating Vagina

The Word: In the world of Science Fiction and Fantasy Nerdery, Neil Gaiman is Kind Of A Big Deal.

Me, I've kind of rested on the very far fringes of Neil Gaiman fandom. I enjoyed Coraline and Stardust and most especially 1602 (where all the Marvel superheroes were transported to Elizabethan England). I've got a couple of his story collections on my TBR. But I never read Sandman, or saw his episodes of Doctor Who. He's been an author I've enjoyed, but not enough to seek out his works.

I had to be nudged by my bookclub to read American Gods, and it kind of cemented for me why I've never really become a huge fan.

For me, American Gods was pleasant - but more because the act of reading is pleasant than because I wholly enjoyed the book itself. Kind of like how I enjoy going to movies even when the movie is blah because I like the seats and the people and the popcorn.

Our hero, Shadow, is only days away from being released from a three-year prison sentence when he's informed by the warden that his beloved wife, Laura, has died in a car crash. Numb and empty, he leaves prison with no home to return to, so when he's offered a job by a mysterious stranger named Wednesday, he accepts because, well, why the hell not? What else does he have going on?

Wednesday then reveals he is a god (Odin, to be exact), and spends the rest of the book dragging Shadow all over America on his quest to find the other famous gods and monsters of myth and bind them to his cause. In this book, gods are creatures who derive their power from the belief of their worshipers, but the gods Shadow and Wednesday encounter are weak, aging, and petty. Carried across the sea to America in the minds of devout immigrants and explorers, only to be abandoned by their disbelieving descendants, the majority of these incarnations live a shabby existence, scavenging and conning to survive.

Worse, there are new gods now, shiny and powerful gods, the gods of TV and Internet and Automobiles, and they don't like sharing the stage with the over-the-hill old-school deities that remain. In fact, according to Wednesday, these new gods of computers and consumerism have already started hunting down and eradicating the old gods one by one. Wednesday thinks it's time the old gods banded together to defend themselves, but he has an uphill battle - few of his compatriots are willing to risk what little comfort they have left to likely die in a suicidal war.

It's an interesting concept, even if I felt thoroughly beaten over the head with the repetitive "humans brought us here and then they forgot about us, those ungrateful bastards" schtick. The thing is, this novel is more of an experience than a story. At times I often felt like a child strapped into one of those little train rides that are meant to give controlled tours of a certain place - the story leads Shadow on a very linear, daisy-chain, and episodic journey to see random places and people that could fall under the "Gods Abandoned By Selfish Americans" category, with the occasional interlude into past tales of screwed-over gods. Again, by the end of the novel, it all felt repetitive - Shadow meets a watered-down version of a famous deity, we get a little snippet of what modern life is like for them, Wednesday asks for their allegiance, the god says no, and rinse and repeat.

And just like that child stuck on that train ride, I didn't feel involved or particularly invested in anything that I was seeing. It felt overt and manipulative - I felt like I was being shown a world rather than exploring a world.

As a protagonist, Shadow is a very passive character for the majority of the novel, although that does eventually change (very) late in the game. He's incredibly laid back and just accepts everything that comes without any real ambition or motivation - which makes it easier for the story to progress but renders him an incredibly dull and opaque character. And while we meet other characters along the way, they are only briefly present and sketchily drawn. Shadow and Wednesday are really the only solid characters we have, and Wednesday spends a lot of the book being somewhere else, and probably doing more important and interesting things that we never get to see.

And of course, since this is written by The Neil Gaiman, I initially felt like a little bit of a Philistine for "obviously not getting it," and by "it" I mean the brilliant genius of this novel that everyone else seems to see. But the fact of the matter is, to me, this novel was boring and scattered and all over the place and I didn't care about or get anything out of it. For me to enjoy a novel, the protagonist needs to care about something and I need to care about the character, and I got neither of these things from American Gods.

Disagree? You can purchase American Gods here.


  1. Anonymous12:28 PM

    Thank YOU! You've just summed up what I disliked so much about this book. And I LOVE Neil Gaiman! But this book was dark and dense and I just Did Not Get It and/or Did Not Like It.

    However, his "Anansi Boys" semi-followup book was a lot of fun!

    1. I prefer Anansi Boys, too. A while back, I tried to reread American Gods and just couldn't get through it. The concept couldn't carry the book as well for me a second time around.

    2. Interesting! I may try Anansi Boys, but not until much later. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who thought this!

  2. I felt exactly the same way. Bored and like I'd seen most of the ideas before in one way or another.

    When I didn't like it, several people got annoyed at me, like I did something wrong. Um.. sorry? Douglas Adams did modern gods better? And this was pretty dull?

    I love Sandman and I like Neil Gaiman, but that doesn't oblige me to love everything he's ever done, you know?

    1. Well, one of the reasons I was disappointed is that although the execution was dull, the idea itself is pretty awesome and you can clearly see its influence in other fantasy narratives. The one that most immediately comes to mind is the depiction of gods in the CW's Supernatural show, which also portrays them as only moderately-powered (but above-average pissed off) beings now that their declining worshipers have reduced their power.

  3. I so agree with your review. I DNF'd this book and had that sense of detachment reading it that you did.
    OTH: "Good Omens" which Gaiman co-wrote with Terry Pratchett is one of my favorite books ever.

    1. Good Omens is on my TBR! I may try it, although not right away.

  4. I'm with you on this. I have never been entirely on the Gaiman bandwagon. Looks like American Gods in another of his works I can safely skip.

    1. Neither have I. I've read stuff of his that I've enjoyed but his mere name alone has never driven me to get anything.

  5. I stopped reading pretty much around the man-eating vagina. (It seemed like such a masculine anxiety, and made me think the book as a whole prob wouldn't be to my tastes.)

    1. And that was pretty early on in the book! And we don't even see her that often! Twice, maybe, in the entire book. I kept waiting for her to show up as a character or meet Shadow or Wednesday BUT SHE NEVER DOES. Was she ONLY in the novel for the man-eating vagina scene??

  6. Yup, I really agree with this review. However, this was my first Neil Gaiman and I was just really impressed with his talent. So I need to obviously start another book by him! Someone gave me The Graveyard Book, so I'll go with that next.