I’ve only seen the trailer of Starz’s adaptation of American Gods, but that firmly set the face of Ian McShane as default for one of its main characters – Mr. Wednesday, an incarnation of Odin. Ian McShane plays Al Swearengen in HBO’s brilliant – and sadly uncompleted – Deadwood. The mannerisms of that cunning brothel owner suit Mr. Wednesday well, and as books aren’t read in a vacuum, my Mr. Wednesday turned out to be an incarnation of Mr. Swearengen. Kind of fitting for a book about the dark side of Americana, and the casting people of Starz must have thought so too.
American Gods is Neil Gaiman’s most famous and acclaimed book: it won the Hugo, the Locus Fantasy, the Nebula, and the Bram Stoker award. Worlds Without End has it as number 6 of their most read books, and it’s on spot 2 of their list of SFF’s most nominated books.
I guess most people reading this know what the book is about: “gods and mythological creatures exist because people believe in them. Immigrants to the United States brought with them spirits and gods. The power of these mythological beings has diminished as people’s beliefs waned. New gods have arisen, reflecting the American obsessions with media, celebrity, technology, and drugs, among other things.” The book’s protagonist, Shadow, finds himself at the center of a conflict between the old and the new when he is recruited by Mr. Wednesday, just after being released from prison.
I’ve read the 10th anniversary edition, which added 12.000 words that were cut for the first version, and the praise on its back cover leaves no room for doubt: this is speculative fiction of the literary kind. I’ve written about speculative fiction’s obsession with Literature before, so I will not repeat that here, but rest assured, American Gods is no pulp indeed. Not being pulp does not make it a masterpiece either, so let’s start this review already.
Despite being famous, the book managed to surprise me. For those of you expecting lots of mythology and magic, look elsewhere. That’s not to say there isn’t any of that, but American Gods mainly reads like a road trip, a travelogue across the USA, with big chunks of thriller, murder mystery and even romance.
At first the book is episodic, a series of vignettes about people and places across America. There’s a clear hint what the main storyline will be, but it takes time to come to the forefront. This structure gets in the way of emotional investment in our main characters. We don’t get to know them well, not even Shadow, who remains mysterious throughout the book, also to himself. It gets better towards the end, but he remains a distant, aloof character. The same goes for Mr. Wednesday. Luckily the scenes with Laura, Shadow’s wife, do work, spectacularly so, and they form the emotional core of the book – together with a haunting interlude about slavery.
What also surprised me was how underdeveloped the “new” gods are. Gaiman borrows from old mythology, at times stunningly creative, and that gives the old gods a feeling of gravitas and depth. The new gods might not have been around for as long – and that can explain for less depth and history – but their mythology lacks ideas and, above all, swag. The balance between the two sides is off, and that hurts the story’s construction.
That brings me to the philosophical underpinnings of this 500+ page novel. What is it really about? Is it a postmodern book about the final, decisive victory of modernity? Is this actually a book about a paradigm shift? Gaiman has some meta passages about metaphors and such, and clearly is too clever to let himself pigeonholed by deconstructionists. Not everything in this book is what it seems to be – and I’m not even talking about the coin tricks. Yet this lack of conceptual clarity ultimately is American God‘s biggest failure.
Both in the introduction, as in the essay at the end of my edition, Gaiman is kind of pompous about this book being a Book About America. An American Novel. Gaiman traveled across the US to write it. He visited every place he wrote about. Writer’s honor and all. That results in the typical anti-capitalist observation here and there, and musings on obesity, but more boldly, Gaiman makes another, somewhat surprising claim.
One of the main ideas of the book, one of its core foundations even, is that America is “no country for gods”. It’s even said verbatim a couple of times, by different characters. Yet I still have absolutely no idea why. It’s just said, and taken at face value. There’s some talk about “the land”, but I have no clue whatsoever why Europe’s (or Asia’s or…) vast lands should be different in that respect. The fact that a significant part of the first settlers came to America because of religious prosecution in Europe, and the fact that in this day and age, the US is the single most religious country of the West, does not have a place in the book. The monotheistic Christian god is not even mentioned.
There’s an excellent scene with Jesus in the extras of the 10th anniversary edition – as if it were a DVD – and Gaiman writes of it that he decided to leave it out, because its subject is too big to tackle. I can understand and respect that, but it goes to show Gaiman took the easy way out, and wrote a book that’s more to be enjoyed than to be thought about. American Gods is fantastical, yes, literary, yes, but not intellectual nor mystical. One will not gain new insights in the nature of reality and religion by reading it. And while it is indeed a road trip across the USA, its sociological value is rather thin as well.
So, that leaves the question: is this recommended? Yes, as the prose is excellent, the story entertaining and clever, Gaiman’s imagination beautiful at times, and the book’s final 100 pages are an exciting climax to a fresh & original story.
It is however, more of an action park ride for the snapshot tourist than a visit for those who want to read every exhibition plaque in the Heritage Museum of Culture and Society.