Only the Gods Are Real
It would be both incorrect and lazy of me to tell you that American Gods by Neil Gaiman is actually about American gods. For starters, the main gods are immigrants. (I would tell you exactly where they hale from but I fear that constitutes a spoiler.) So what is American Gods about? What kind of a novel is it? The short answer would be that it’s a fantasy novel about gods in America, but the longer and more accurate answer would be that it’s a road trip novel that also has elements of the best kind of fantasy novel. It’s a twisty sort of book; in some places, crime thriller, in others, a story about the old times making way for the new age.
However, I would expect nothing less from a man as artistically ‘twisty’ as Neil Gaiman. You may know him from many places or from only one; he has written a massively successful graphic novel series, numerous children’s books, an adult fairy tale and a book about the apocalypse in collaboration with Terry Pratchett, not to mention his most recent forays into screenwriting (his second episode of Doctor Who will air sometime in the spring of 2013).
The novel asks big questions and tackles large themes, but begins small; we meet our protagonist, Shadow, in prison. As you might gather, character names are clues for the avid reader. Shadow’s name is less a clue and more a signifier; as soon as we think we have the shape of him, he twists and bends. Even what he looks like is vague; all hints of physical appearance are given by other characters, although a recurring statement is that Shadow’s a ‘big man’. Shadow is released early when tragedy strikes, and he might have just drifted into oblivion had he not met the mysterious Mr Wednesday, a grey giant of a man who claims to be both a two-bit con artist and a former god and seems to know everything about Shadow, including how to push his buttons. When Shadow accepts his offer of a job, the two of them set out on a road trip that comprises of the entirety of America and even ‘backstage’, a place beyond the world where gods can walk freely and time has no meaning.
Gaiman himself stated that he wanted to write a ‘sprawling novel about America’, and the book does indeed sprawl. Here is where I would insert a word of caution; the structure is rather unconventional, and there are chapters that may seem superfluous at first, as they are completely outside of the main narrative and often feature characters that don’t reappear again. Yet there is a clear theme of ‘coming to America’, and without wanting to give too much away, each story has a very clear link to the people who appear and the action that happens in Shadow’s present. The shape of the novel is one that demands attention; this isn’t a book that can be read with one eye on something else.
The structure is not the only thing that needs a keen eye; Gaiman is famous for his high level of intertextuality, and American Gods is no exception. There are references and cameos from Edgar Allen Poe to e.e. cummings to Lassie to Gaiman’s own work, The Sandman. It sounds much heavier than it actually is; the story is exceptionally intelligent, but it is never ostentatious or self-conscious, which it easily could have been in the hands of a lesser writer.
The gods featured in the novel hale from all over the world, echoing the actual melting-pot population of America itself. That feature of the novel is a personal favourite, as it’s an incredibly true and clever way of showing us the history of America without ever telling us.
Despite the clear mythological overtones, it would seem that casual readers are not the only people to have had trouble with classifying the book in terms of genre, as American Gods has won the Nebula and the Hugo under the category of science fiction, the Bram Stoker Award for horror and yet another for fantasy (the Locus Award). However, this ambiguity is no slander to Gaiman’s writing, rather a testament to how good it is. The overall story has a clear place in the fantasy canon, yet there are passages where it truly seems like a horror story, in others, like a whodunit tale. If one were to sum up Gaiman’s writing in a sentence, it would be that ‘mysteries last longer than explanations’; there are quite a few things left unsaid and questions left unanswered at the end of the novel, yet it doesn’t feel like an unsatisfying read or lazy writing, merely as if there are things that we are not privy to us as mortals. It’s a fabulous, fantastical, timeless novel that will no doubt become a fantasy classic and stay one.
Oh, and if you do ever get round to reading American Gods, the answer to your question is yes, yes she did eat him. Like that.