Neil Gaiman, American Gods, 2001.
I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to sit down with a book by Neil Gaiman. I’ve travelled in circles with those who admire him tremendously, and yet have never picked up Sandman or anything else until this novel, just as it reaches its tenth anniversary. It’s certainly my loss that I’ve waited so long.
Gaiman’s achievement in this novel is remarkable: he writes an entertaining and gripping story; he brings a pantheon of half-remembered deities and folktales into the context of America both in who the members were and how they have existed on this continent; and he constructs a gripping battle between the minor deities of yore and those constructs too-worshipped today. What I admire most about the writing is the balance the author strikes between vivid, realised depictions and letting the reader create and imagine as s/he reads. What’s also quite striking is Gaiman’s deftness with myth, his grasp of how stories live and breathe and the power they have.
The plot follows Shadow, just released from prison and quickly in the employ of a dark and mercurial character who seems to be working to bring about a confrontation between the Gods that were and those now more readily worshipped. Shadow’s is a dark quest: he seeks meaning and life in a world where he feels as trapped as he had inside. We learn early in the novel that he has ecountered two key learnings in prison: only do your own time, not anyone else’s; and “Call no man happy until he is dead.” (So nice to meet people, fictional or no, with a fondness for Herodotus!) As one might expect, these become the twin pillars that Shadow seeks to learn how to live. His adventure, which roams from coast to coast to the very centre of America (in Kansas, if we ignore Alaska and Hawaii), is an exploration of myth and of America itself: centred less in those major centres that we hear about so often, the novel is also a paean to Gaiman’s adopted country, reveling in the glory (and strange peculiarities!) of life in small towns unknown to all not from them and the weirdness of the various roadside attractions that can be stumbled upon.
It’s a marvellous novel, and well worth reading. Time to add some more Gaiman to my list.