Thursday, August 4, 2011
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Let me start by saying that, over the past several years, I have become a huge fan of Neil Gaiman. I love Stardust and Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, both of which are smart, incredibly witty and thoroughly enjoyable novels. My children are also fans, with The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and Crazy Hair in our regular reading rotation. I have long been aware of his other, perhaps more popular or more revered works but have been somewhat intimidated by the intelligence in his writing and by my own perception of Mr. Gaiman as being more of a science fiction writer than I was interested in reading. However, American Gods: A Novel has been lurking on the edges of my awareness, slowly piquing my interest until I finally was ready to give it a read. And here's the thing, once I started, I could not put it down. It was intelligent, emotional, poignant, smart, funny and educational.
Shadow is in prison, so close to his release that he can taste it, but he has a bad feeling that something is going to ruin his early release. "Storm's on the way", he is told by another inmate and Shadow feels it too. So he keeps his head low and does his best to finish his time without incident. However, some things are beyond Shadow's control and there are higher powers at work than he realizes.
When ancient peoples travelled to new lands, they brought their beliefs and practices with them. These beliefs and practices manifest themselves as physical incarnations of Gods--Gods who have been left to their own devices as their worship and worshippers have faded over time. In modern America, they find themselves at odds with new Gods, created not by religious practice but by society's elevation of their importance. New Gods like media and internet, all of whom are in danger of fading without the adoration of America. Shadow finds himself employed by Mr. Wednesday who is trying to rally the old Gods against the new. They travel together finding all manner of ancient God, trying to convince them to join together against the new Gods in order to eliminate the competition, as it were.
At this point, I could write about how this novel makes a strong statement about today's society and the importance attributed to intangible things like technology. That Mr. Gaiman shows us that our elevation of these intangibles to God-like status has created an almost religious fervor surrounding things like computers and mobile phones and 24-hour media coverage. And also how much more relevant this statement is ten years after the novel was initially published. However, these things are secondary to the fact that this is a really good story. The characters are interesting and, in fact, educational. I found myself looking up new characters to see which pantheon of Gods the character fit into. Mr. Gaiman includes beings from Norse, African, Eastern European and Celtic mythology, as well as from Native American religions and American folklore. The story is tightly woven with plot twists that are both expected and unexpected. As I said, I could not put this down once I started reading it. Not only is the story entertaining and thought provoking, reading it inspired me to explore more of the old myths,which brought more reading pleasure into my life.
Overall, I have to say that I am so glad that I finally picked up American Gods: A Novel. While I admonish myself for not reading it sooner, this is a book that, for me, I had to be ready to read. And I fully intend to approach more of Mr. Gaiman's works as I become ready for them.