Monday, 26 August 2013

American Gods

As Carole's book group is (inexplicably) doing this novel tomorrow, I thought that (finally) I'd better get my thoughts down so that I can chip in in absentia.

American Gods by the British writer Neil Gaiman, is centred on Shadow, an ex-con released back into the world just as his waiting wife is killed in a car wreck. Bereft, he quickly finds himself bodyguard to a mysterious stranger, Mr. Wednesday, who involves Shadow in a series of cons as they journey across contemporary America. These travels include meetings with a succession of otherworldly characters that Wednesday is trying to persuade to join him, seemingly on a crusade. As events unfold, it becomes clear that Wednesday is actually a latter-day incarnation of the Norse god Odin, and that his various contacts are similarly disenfranchised old gods, at sea in a modern world where the new gods of television, the internet and the media have displaced them. Touching a raw nerve with these proud, supernatural has-beens, Wednesday intends to lead them into battle to restore some of the power and grip on humanity's imagination that they once enjoyed. But Wednesday's scheme is not quite what it seems, and there are other, deeper plots that even he is not aware of. Initially seeing himself as an outsider to this war, Shadow comes to realise that he has a pivotal role in deciding its outcome.

First the good. American Gods is easily one of the most imaginative novels I've read in quite some time (but see later, or here). Gaiman's central idea of old gods as isolated, largely powerless shadows of their former selves, cut adrift in modern America is simply brilliant. And he milks humanity's back-catalogue of dead religions, European and otherwise, to create a fantastic array of outlandish characters, all scraping precarious or anonymous livings in a society that no longer has any need for them. It's quite a feat making the reader, especially this reader, more than a little moved by the plight of once mighty gods kicked to the kerb by the materialism of the present-day and the gods that this has spawned. And the novel's main story arc is enjoyably twisty too, with a nice final act (or almost final act, see later) realisation of the gods, old and new, of what's really going on.

But, unfortunately, it's not all good. While I did enjoy the novel at the time, and am enjoying it even more in retrospect, it's frequently a bit of a chore to read. The downside of Gaiman's imagination is that he's not reined it in, and has stuffed the novel to the rafters with material that, while clever and fun to read, ultimately simply distracts. What's actually a relatively slight - but good! - plot becomes buried by just too much ancillary "stuff", to the point that I frequently lost track of why what was happening was happening. (And the novel's over-long coda involving a malevolent old god is definitely a stretch too far.) Even when a novel is full of imagination - perhaps especially then - it needs not to lose focus, lest the reader be overwhelmed. I did manage to claw my way back by the end, but I still needed to read Wikipedia's potted summary to get the whole thing straight in my head. Which is something of a shame for an otherwise masterpiece of imagination.

My other criticism is one that I've made before in another review of a fantasy novel, one that - I would argue - applies more widely to fantasy as a genre. Namely,

... that the underlying rules to which the novel is working are either flexible or completely absent. Characters die but can be brought back; inescapable situations suddenly have secret backdoors; mundane objects are revealed as powerful table-turners. Essentially, deus ex machina is the defining feature of the genre. After a certain point, the fun drains away when you realise that the corner into which the author has just painted his characters is probably something that can be (will be) got around with a few deft strokes of the pen. And, conversely, it can create situations where the reader might not unreasonably expect a reversal that never actually comes.
American Gods is no different in this regard. Which I don't really hold against it - since this comes with the genre - but it ultimately diminishes such novels for me. I simply can't engage with their characters in quite the same way as I would with a normal novel, where there are some things that you simply cannot come back from. Of course, my favourite genre - science fiction - also has more than its fair share of "gods from the machinery", but I'd argue that it tries to play a little more fairly within its own rules. True, gods do sometimes still appear, but SF novels - the good ones anyway - will retrospectively bend over backwards to explain where they came from. Fantasy novels are quite happy to flip Gandalf from Grey to White with nary a second glance.

So, in summary, a great - if completely sprawling - read. I'd more or less wholly recommend it, even for skeptics of the fantastical, but I'd encourage both paying close attention and making sure that one takes a good run at it. A solid 7 / 10.

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