American Gods (by Neil Gaiman) – Review

Before I review this book, I think it should be explained why I decided to read it (and also why you should as well).

Neil Gaiman, as an author, has been floating about my field of vision for several years now, but I have never really paid too much attention to him before. My first run-in was when I read Good Omens, a collaborative work between himself and the almighty Terry Pratchett. The novel is effortlessly charming and wonderfully memorable for its themes and witty dialogue. However, as I was such an avid Pratchettite, I stubbornly assumed this was entirely due to ‘ol Terry, the writer of the impossibly diverse and epic Discworld series. As such, the name Neil Gaiman faded from memory.

My second (and third) encounter came through the silver screen. 2007 saw the release of one of my all-time favorite films, the cheesy, child friendly, and simply impossible-not-to love Stardust. It was one of the greatest stories I had ever seen unfold onscreen, so unique and well told. That, according to some of my well-educated college associates, was Neil Gaiman for you, as the film was based on one of his novels.

He proved his worth yet again with the arrival of 2009’s oddity Coraline, also based on one of his books. Like Stardust, it was an utterly unique story, totally unlike anything I had seen before. It may not have had the same lasting effect as Stardust, but there was no denying it at this stage: Neil Gaiman has imagination, and he knows how to tell a good story.

Following this, I began to hear the man’s name more and more. He had quite a reputation, and almost everything I heard about him was good, if not hugely impressive. He created the Sandman, one of the most popular characters in graphic novels today. He co-wrote the script for the movie MirrorMask, and even wrote English scripts for Studio Ghibli films. He is married to Amanda Palmer!

Clearly, I had to sample some of his work. I went to Chapters on Parnell Street and, because I had spent a great deal of money on a top hat and a bag of fake moustaches for a Halloween costume, I could only afford two books. I picked up Stardust, as I had loved the film so much. And, based on the fact that a good friend had loved the book so much she wrote a damn fine thesis on it, I picked up American Gods.

The plot:
We follow the exploits of Shadow, an ex-con who has only just been released from prison. On his way home, he encounters the unsettling yet charismatic Mr. Wednesday. Seeing a man down on his luck, Wednesday offers Shadow a job, one that has the potential to change his life. While working for Wednesday, Shadow will traverse the American lands, discover what makes people (including himself) tick, and meet the Gods.

For whatever reason, Gods are very popular in contemporary art forms. This is probably due to the Greek or Norse interpretation of the Gods, mighty warriors with rich histories, and who aren’t adverse to slapping naysayers in the face with a giant hammer. You only have to look towards the immensely popular God of War series, or Thor,  to see how it has pervaded modern society.

Well, Neil Gaiman takes a somewhat different approach. While slapping someone upside the head with a hammer does feature (in some shape or form), this novel is a serene and meditative affair. He uses the story of Shadow to satirize many aspects of American culture, as well as religion, tradition and the concept of worship. The central idea here is that people do not believe in Gods because they exist. Rather, Gods exist because people believe in them.

The first couple of chapters contain interludes, which describe how, over the centuries, people came to America from all over the world. These people brought their Gods (i.e. their beliefs) with them, hence their weaker incarnations in American today. A particularly fun aspect of the book is seeing how these Gods, when Shadow meets them, all have notable flaws that reflect this lack of belief. Wednesday comes across as a sleazy con man, Czernobog is a crotchety and irritable old man and Eostre (Easter) is an attractive though plump woman.

Shadow himself acts as an avatar for the reader. Despite the fact that we see almost the entire narrative from his perspective, we come away still knowing very little about him. He is a quiet, patient and simple man, which often has him confused as being stupid. He can be difficult to connect with at times, and more than once his motives for continuing on this journey are called into question. However, considering the progression of the plot, readers can decide themselves whether this can be viewed as a flaw or intentional.

Some of the best moments of the novel occur during the ‘down times’. When Shadow is forced to spend time in a quiet mountain town, it is immediately apparent how at home the author is with this style of writing. The way Shadow’s train of thought meanders when he is bored, little details in the things he does to amuse himself, these sections flow beautifully and naturally. One of the best standout moments in the novel features Shadow and Wednesday simply sitting in a cafe, idly discussing different types of cons.

The more fantastical elements of the novel vary. They are wonderfully creative, and Gaiman proves himself very adept at handling abstract concepts. His description of roadside attractions and the part they play in American culture is simultaneously quirky and ingenious. As well as this, he has a knack for seamlessly altering the tone of the book without it jarring. One minute, we may be reading a scene that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a Stephen King novel, while the next will be effortlessly upbeat and darkly humorous. (Considering the theme of the novel, darkly humorous is about the best we can hope for).

However, there is the issue of overcrowding. Many of the characters work their way quite naturally into the narrative. Shadow’s wife, Laura, is an exquisite creation, powerful and memorable despite her melancholy nature. However, these qualities do not quite extend to characters of the divine persuasion. For the first half of the novel, Wednesday and Shadow spend a great deal of time meeting the Gods and discussing both relevant and irrelevant issues. Most of these divine literary creations are wonderfully distinctive, but there are far too many of them altogether. The effects of their eccentric introductions become slightly nullified over time. You get the distinct sense that Gaiman is trying to top each encounter with something bigger and better. Admirable, but slightly over ambitious.

Despite this, it was with a muted sigh of relief that I discovered that Neil Gaiman retains his gift of storytelling, of which I was first wowed by while eating some crispy M&Ms in a dingy cinema. Despite a completely unorthodox narrative, he teases the reader into believing he is going to flounder into very predictable territory towards the novels conclusion. He leans further and further into the mainstream before pulling the rug out on the reader. It is different (and some people may find it slightly disconcerting) but it is a satisfying ending that will have you craving more.

There is a lot to love about American Gods. It has some intelligent things to say about American culture and the nature of worship/belief. The more you invest in this book, then truly the more you will get out of it.
There are some issues with overcrowding and the protagonist is a little difficult to relate to. These are just minor issues however. In its entirety, American Gods is both a charming satire and engrossing story that will easily hook any fans of fantasy or adventure.

With any luck, my good friend Aisling, if she reads this, may concede to leave some excerpts of her dissertation in the comments section, for the interest of other readers.

Best bit: 
Mike Ainsel’s time in Lakeside
Worst bit:
Remembering some of the names (minor complaint!)

Rating: 9/10

I know it’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town” – Canada Bill Jones


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. PS: Awesome Review by the by!

    • I just realized I used the word ‘wonderfully’ about six times in this review. It must be good or something.
      I heard about the TV series, cannot wait to watch it!

  2. Alas, while I couldn’t possibly fit my thesis in this small space, I will entertain you by showing you the following: American Gods is actually being made into a TV series! Here’s a link to the lovely Gaiman talking about the differences he’ll make to the story. Should be an interesting project.

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