Friday, December 4, 2015

American Gods Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Harper Collins
Genre: Literary Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Series: American Gods Book One
Pages: 592

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The Great American Novel was a concept introduced in the 19th century in an essay by John William De Forest.  In that essay De Forest urges writers to create an “American,” sense of writing, or writing that expresses American sentiments and cultural values.

Largely a generational concept, Americans have been allured by the idea of finding and reading the next Great American Novel.  Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Sound and the Fury, The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, etc. have all laid claim to the title, with each of the beforehand mentioned books representing a different generation in American history.

Moving into the 21st century, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods looks to join the ranks of the authors who wrote the previously mentioned classic books.  By doing this as a fantasy novel, however, he is doing it in a way that has never really been attempted before.  His effort largely succeeds as American Gods paints a cultural portrait of the 21st century United States, while brilliantly juxtaposing it against a mythological war between all Gods in existence.

Ex-convict Shadow is released from prison after serving three years.  His plan to return home to his wife, Laura, and start his life over is dashed when she suddenly dies.  On the plane home Shadow sits next to a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday.  Wednesday knows more about Shadow than any man should, and what he wants is for Shadow to be his protector in the coming war between the Old Gods and the New Gods.

A war between Gods dropped in the background of what is mostly rural America is essentially what American Gods is all about.  The Old Gods, Gods from classic mythology, for example: Odin, Anubis, and Ra, are caught in a war with the New Gods.  New Gods are created by peoples worship of them, and they are largely representative of modern cultural values.  For example one of the New Gods is called the God of Media.

American Gods could have easily turned into a very dark comedy about the shallow values of people living in the 21st century, but it doesn’t.  Gaiman’s novel maintains its sense for being serious by focusing on the flaws of both the Old Gods and New Gods.  On the surface this is a book that has the makings of a classic good vs. evil story, but as Gaiman expressly states throughout the course of the novel, neither side is good or evil.  The ambiguities of the characters and the plot, along with this story’s sense of the unknown, are what helps create a deeper story and it’s what will keep readers reading.

Gaiman also incorporates a lot more mythology into his story than just appearances from famous mythological figures.  Often times when Shadow meets new characters they tell him stories that have a divine flow to them.  Some of these made up stories bare resemblance to classic mythological stories, others incorporate distinctly American ideas and values into them, creating a sense of the epic around the United States’ culture.

Realistic aspects of American culture are also portrayed throughout the novel, too. A lot of American Gods is focused on rural America.  Although major cities like Chicago and San Francisco are visited by the characters, most of the time spent in the book is usually in small rural communities.  It’s in these communities that a lot of the day to day life of Americans is portrayed to readers, and it gives readers a sense of small town American values. It also acknowledges how it’s unrealistic for small towns to remain separate from the rest of the world – a common issue with many rural American communities. If the characters aren’t in a small town then they are often driving somewhere.  In many ways American Gods feels like a road trip, which is a quintessential part of many Americans’ living experiences.  Overall, Gaiman portrays a critical but fair analysis of the United States’ values and cultural assertions.

Also contributing to the American experience, are the separate segments narrated by people living in America at different times during its history that conclude many of the chapters.  These segments span from the first peoples crossing of the Bering Strait, to an immigrant working in New York City in the 21st century. Additions such as these help show the great age of America the land, rather than America the country.  It’s also an interesting way of creating a sense of the epic, which further cements this unlikely story as a part of the fantasy canon.

Neil Gaiman is great at making readers feel a wide range of emotions over the course of a single event.  This is demonstrated early in the book with the death of Laura, Shadow’s wife.  Without revealing the details, different readers will probably have very different reactions to her death which could range anywhere from hilarity to horror, or the typical that’s so sad to I’m glad she’s dead types of reactions.  To get that wide of a variety of emotional reactions from readers over a single event, while sustaining this emotional pendulum swing and making it work within the larger context of the entire story is brilliant.

The only real problem with American Gods is the final chapter, which is the second part of the epilogue. I personally read the epilogue portion of the book (which is over 40 pages long) after taking a break reading the climax of the story. If the story concluded at the end of the third part, and the epilogue was maybe just the first part and a few snippets of the second part then story would have been better served, but by extending his epilogue as long as he does, Gaiman brings a lot of extra closure to his story that really feels unnecessary.  The unresolved plot threads that are left to be resolved in the epilogue really don’t need to be resolved.  A lot of the implications surrounding these unresolved plot threads, most of which occur in the town of Lakeside, feel like they’re added just to justify Gaiman’s argument that small towns need to learn to accept change.

The more you think about American Gods the more you appreciate it. It blends the mythological with realism, it destroys traditional notions of good and evil, and it captures the essence of American society heading into the 21st century.  American Gods is unique attempt at creating an Americana styled novel, and Gaiman delivers an excellent book that should appeal to fans of literary and fantasy fiction.

Score: 9.4

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