Until now, author Neil Gaiman has been primarily known as the writer behind the remarkable Sandman comic book series. He’s written other things — a couple of novels, some other comics, and a battery of short fiction — but he’s still been mostly known as the Sandman guy. That’s likely to change, though, now that Gaiman’s novel American Gods has won both the Hugo and the Bram Stoker awards for Novel of the Year and now that his newest book, Coraline, is drawing rave notices.
I actually finished reading American Gods on Saturday, the day before it was awarded with the Hugo. Now, I haven’t read the other novels that were nominated this year, so I cannot honestly say whether the award was given correctly. I can only say that Gods is an excellent novel. The story is about a man called Shadow who has been paroled from prison on the same day that his wife is killed in an automobile accident. With nowhere else to go, Shadow ends up in the employ of a strange man named Wednesday who moves in some very strange circles. It turns out that Shadow is to play a part in a war between the fading, old-world Gods and the new-fangled American Gods, deities such as commerce and the Internet. Along the way, lessons are learned and secrets revealed, as is always the case in large-scale works like this in which nothing is ever as it seems.
Gaiman achieves an interesting mix of literal description and metaphorical construct in depicting the conflicts of his novel. At one point, he goes so far as to write:
None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as a metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman…religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.
The book is at times quite literal in its description of events, and at other times it takes on a dreamier, surrealistic tone — especially in passages involving Native American spirituality and its relation to the onset of American society and the constant arrival of new Gods. This can seem facile at times, for how else would one contrast the businesslike demeanor of America versus the more spiritual concerns of others? However, it gradually becomes clear that Gaiman is after something else, and the line blurs substantially as the novel progresses, and as we begin to suspect that the two sides depicted in the novel may not be quite as we are told they are.
Gaiman’s use of setting is also fascinating. The book is set mostly in the upper Midwest. (Gaiman himself lives in Minneapolis.) He invokes landmarks and attractions that will be well-known to anyone familiar with that area as settings in his novel, and particularly fascinating is his depiction of the seemingly idyllic town of Lakeside, Wisconsin which may not be quite as idyllic as it seems.
The novel is very episodic in structure, basically moving from one set-piece to the next. There isn’t so much of a linear development of the plot, which may bother some readers. Gaiman also includes small vignettes that take us out of the main action of the novel entirely in order to depict side-struggles and events in his America, where Gods interact with mere mortals. The most impressive of these, to me, was the lengthy vignette involving an Arab immigrant to New York City. American Gods was written before 11 September 2001, but it is difficult to not read this section of the book in that light. In fact, reading this book after 11 September is an exercise in the American spiritual landscape, as Gaiman makes us wonder just who our gods really are.
The book’s only flaw, in my estimation, is its conclusion. Gaiman leaves one particular story thread, and a fairly minor one at that, unresolved until after everything else has been dealt with; then he returns to that story thread and ties it up with a few more revelations. The answers Gaiman gives are satisfying, but the episode still feels a bit out-of-place. Perhaps, though, this is Gaiman’s intent — his way of depicting the continuing cycle of divinity at play with the profane. I’m not really sure.
I found American Gods immensely enjoyable, as a piece of contemporary fantasy in the manner of Charles de Lint or Robert Holdstock. Recommended.