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Thoughts on American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

December 23, 2011

A book I really liked, but a book that could have been so much more effective.

The idea’s what sells it: old gods, alive in America. It’s in the title. There are new gods, too, in case you’re wondering. A sundry assortment of them.

Here’s the problem: it felt too much like fantasy. It felt too much like selling an idea to be a story.

Let me preface: literary fiction and fantasy fiction have two very different ways to telling stories. Literary fiction generally focuses on the characters, their relationships, and their issues to power the story. Fantasy fiction puts the onus on the world that’s been built to carry the narrative. I don’t think either of these is better than the other, to be fair. I think if you have both, you have a truly effective, magnificent novel. Too little of either and things begin to fall to trope.

Too much world, too little character. That’s the crux of this review. We are placed into the shoes of a character who seems like he has a lot going for him but who really just exists to provide a vehicle for plot and we follow him around an exciting world. I mean, it’s exciting: all the gods of every pantheon, living together. Whenever you meet a character you wonder, “What new god is this, now?”

But Shadow. He should have a character. He has an interesting back story. He has interesting issues. He just doesn’t exist in them. They are ticks on a list to make him seem memorable, but the man himself is best defined by the sheer number of automobiles he buys throughout the book: he is a wheelman, driving the plot from place to place so that we can appreciate the wonderful world Gaiman has drawn across the map of America.

The other major characters suffer similarly. Weighty issues and complexities are broken down and become the least common denominator. Motivations are usually one line, very simple: either “He is a good guy” or “He lusts for power” or “He wants to stay relevant in a difficult age.” That’s it, as far as motivations go. The most complex relationship in the book, Shadow with his wife Laura, is given some early play and then thrown away in favor of meeting more wacky gods and watching them get up to hair-brained schemes.

That’s a shame, too. I liked Laura. She was pretty much the only character in the book I felt like I could relate to. Every character wanted something, but only she was complex in her wants. Everyone else just wanted one specific thing, worst of all Shadow, who just wanted what he was told he should want.

All this said, I did quite like it. The world he creates is pretty fabulous, and the tale Gaiman tells is a good one, if over simplified. It’s important, however, for me to define it as purely fantasy, something out of an old fairy tale, instead of as a novel. It’s not really a novel. It’s just a world of mysteries and magic, and this is your guidebook. It’s telling you where to go, and you are following.

It’s worth noting this is the first of Gaiman’s books I’ve ever read outside of many aborted attempts at Sandman. His style strikes me the same here as it did there: too hyper for its own good. Too hyper-sexualized, too hyper-fantastic, too interested in telling fantasy to actually give us a story worth telling. I find myself questioning those who tell stories through style as Gaiman does here, because it always makes me think the writer is hiding something. Like if we pulled back the curtain, there would be nothing left.

I don’t know if there’s anything behind American Gods’ curtain, is all. It’s the experience of going to a luxurious theater and sitting down, preparing for a play with all of the world’s best actors, and the curtain never opens. Three hours later you leave, having sucked in the opulence.

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