AMERICAN GODS – Neil Gaiman (2001)

American GodsI’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.



26 responses to “AMERICAN GODS – Neil Gaiman (2001)

  1. Great review. I think I’ve called it something like Skim Milk Philosophy.

    And I have to admit, I was disappointed by the lack of interesting ‘new gods’. Made me wonder why the war was even going on.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Yeah, I thought it was an entertaining read as well but to me it felt sloppy. Storylines and (to me) essential details left out or not properly followed up made it fall short of what it could have been. Decent but not a classic imo. I’m surprised it’s as acclaimed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agreed 100%. I think it’s so acclaimed because it seems to be about something important (the new gods of US culture) steeped in tradition (old gods), and Gaiman’s prose is better than most speculative fiction. As a result, people think it must be Serious Art, but it’s poppy and easy enough (a battle!) for mass consumption.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. This is like a much better written version of my review, so of course I approve.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think the most moving parts for me were the ordinary human characters, the ones who doggedly stick to humanistic principles, the unfortunates who lose their lives, the ones from an indigenous American culture who try to survive without becoming too conspicuous. The impending Ragnorak between old and new gods is like a sideshow to most of those who want to get on with their lives, within their community. Shadow, living up to his name, seemed like someone who acted (or, often, just reacted) on that interface between the two spheres, belonging to neither one nor the other.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with many of the reservations mentioned in your review and in the comments; but for me the lasting impression is not the machinations of gods playing their war games (perennial echoes of US politics here) but of ordinary people — the few we meet — trying to get on with their lives.

    (I’ll now have to look at my review and see if any of my current impressions match up with my immediate ones!)

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I read this book a couple of years ago (I read the French translation) and I actively disliked it but I can’t remember why which is weird, it might have been because it was a translation because after that, I read Black Dog which is short story set in the same world and I really enjoyed it. I don’t know, I might have to re-read American Gods to see if I still don’t like it…
    Your review was very interesting! 🙂


  6. I too agree with your main reservations about American Gods: I had no problem reading straight through the novel, but the underpinning “this is no country for Gods” theme seemed very shallow and Stephen King-ey. Maybe if I had read Plutarch’s Lives like the main character in the beginning, I would have appreciated it more.

    Stylistically, this book borders on excellent. I read it pretty close to when it first came out in paperback, and I still remember the vivid House on the Rock scene (a recommended visit for anyone in the upper midwest, btw).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Is that book on Herodotus part of Lives, or did Shadow read a book by Herodotus?

      Whatever the answer to that question, I’m unaware of possible links between Plutarch and the “no country for gods” sentiment. I must have missed it. Could you explain a bit further?

      Liked by 1 person

      • nope, my mistake – it was Herodotus’ Histories at the beginning. That’s another one i never read (sighs). Wikipedia declares that the central theme is that these Gods exist to the extant that people are around to believe them, which is consistent with what i remember. It doesn’t answer the question of why this is, and what does it say about the world we live in – especially if when the book takes place in the most religious of Western countries (and, well, plus Iceland).

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah, oof, I thought I had missed something. I guessed the Herodotus probably had some meta significance, but couldn’t be bothered to look into it, I generally don’t like these constructions/plants. Too obviously artificial, it lessens suspension of disbelief. So I avoid Wikipedia if I suspect it, especially if I (still) like a book when I encounter a possible case.


  7. Confession time: I’ve had this book on my shelf for quite some time, and I guess it’s been at least 8 or 9 years because I know it’s one of the last paper books I bought before acquiring my first e-reader. Still, I have not come around to it, not even when curiosity made me think about it as the news of the tv series started floating around. Now you’ve re-kindled that curiosity, so thank you for a very thought-provoking review! Who knows… one of these days…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s my favorite TV show.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How does it compare to the book?


      • I enjoyed the book when it first came out. I’ve been thinking about a re-read lately. I just started watching the TV adaptation and it has blown me away. I’ve read some negative comments about it being a bit ponderous, but it’s beautifully shot and visualised, well acted, and doesn’t hold back on the sex and violence. Worth watching just for Ian McShane’s brilliant interpretation of Mister Wednesday. Oh, and the Bilquis scene in Episode 1 is stunning.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. This is a book that I’ve owned for ages and not actually read. I don’t know why tbh – I like Gaiman and part of me wonders if this might be the book that I find I don’t like.. But, I decided recently to give audio a shot and picked up a copy of this – I must say it’s good so far on audio, I’ve also been watching some of the tv series and I think having some knowledge of the story beforehand is very helpful in that respect. I haven’t finished yet as it’s still very early days for me using audio and so half the time I forget to listed to the book when I’m doing other things or simply forget to take earplugs out with me! For now though, I’m enjoying the book.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I still haven’t heard on audiobook. AG’s atmosphere suits the medium well I guess. If you’re enjoying it know, you’ll probably keep enjoying it, it’s rather consistent.


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