Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is probably one of the most loved novels released in the twenty first century. I honestly didn’t expect I would write anything about it – what could I add to the discussion that hasn’t already been said? But I can’t not verbalise exactly why I loved this book. Because, despite not a big fantasy guy traditionally, I adored Gaiman’s novel.
What normally puts me off from any “higher” forms of fantasy is how it tends to lose the human aspect. Smaller character explorations tend to give way to a bigger narrative arc. American Gods is a novel where Shadow, an ex-convict, learns that Gods literally exist as long as there’s still someone in the world who believes in them. But this leads to tension – the “Old Gods”, e.g. the Egyptian and Norse Pantheons, have found their positions usurped by new gods such as Media. Gone are the ritualistic sacrifices, instead populations now sacrifice their time sat in front of a TV. The main tension of the text is that a war is coming. But this war never comes. In a sense American Gods is the atypical fantasy novel in that it skips the big flashy climax for more intimate character resolutions. Instead of a mythical fight, the reader is shown a series of conversations that conclude several different character relationships.
But it’s not just the humanist tendency of the writing which appeals to me. I adore the way that Neil Gaiman operates a bait and switch, a long-con in both theme and writing. Illusions are a central theme of the novel. Shadow obsesses over coin magic, learning how to misdirect an audience so that the real trick is never really noticed. The enigmatic Mr Wednesday is a con-man who swindles his way across America. There are numerous other examples throughout the text. I love the idea that the concept of “smoke and mirrors” is being explored within a text that deals with both literal gods and the concept of religion in an an increasingly secular world. After all, Marx once called religion “the opiate of the people” – a distraction from the real problems facing the world. Maybe I’m reading this from too much of a marxist standpoint, but I certainly think Gaiman touches upon this by literally making the Gods low level crooks and schemers.
But was makes American Gods a truly outstanding book in my opinion is the fact that the whole “bait and switch” theme is also reflected within the actual text itself. For example, one of Mr. Wednesday’s first lines in the text is “oh I suppose they call me Wednesday these days”. It seems enigmatic, mysterious but in fact it immediately eludes to his real name. Wednesday in Modern English derives from the old English Wōdnesdæg, aka Woden’s Day. Mr. Wednesday’s true identity as Odin is always there. There’s a similar use of language concerning Shadow’s prison cell mate, Low Key Lyesmith – Loki Lies-Myth. There aren’t any twists to American Gods, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather than shock the reader with narrative developments, Gaiman instead allows his audience to see behind the illusion he himself you created. He openly told you who these men were from the offset, you were just too distracted to notice.
All this embedding of illusion and trickery reaches it’s head in the final act. I was initially quite disappointed with the ending, it seemed to be such an anticlimax and then the text seemed to just peter off. But the more I reflect on it, the more I realise it was perfect. There never was a war, all the tension was just orchestrated by Odin and Loki to provoke one. Pull away from all the smaller illusions and scams and the reader understands that it was part of a much larger trick. Two Gods played their fellow deities and men alike as part of a grand scheme to secure their own power. One could look at this as a comment about the nature of modern warfare, with both sides fighting for illusive reasons as to consolidate the power of both their leaders. Personally I read it in humanist terms, and an allegory for America. Gaiman presents the reader the most epic story imaginable – a battle between all powerful immortal beings – but then allows them to see behind the curtain and understand that it boils down to two scared lonely crooks trying to find their place. America on the foreground is an epic story, a mixing pot of various different cultures sharing in a common dream that hard work leads to prosperity, but perhaps with his work Gaiman suggests that we try too look “backstage” in our own reality to see the people really pulling the strings?
If you couldn’t tell already, I adore American Gods. God knows [poor pun intentional] how excited I am for Brian Fuller’s adaptation of it. For all my misgivings of fantasy as a genre, Gaiman’s text can be found guilty of none. Though this novel is literally about Gods, what it figuratively explores is exactly what it is to be human.