American Gods by Neil Gaiman is firstly an excellent book, and secondly, a bloody hard book to describe – the latter especially, making this a difficult review to write. The version I read, or rather listened to, was the Tenth Anniversary Edition with the author’s preferred text.
American Gods tells the story of Shadow, a man recently released from prison for a crime he did commit, and his journey across America in the employ of an old hustler, Mr. Wednesday. On his release, Shadow soon discovers that all the gods and other mythological figures that had ever been believed in are real; and that there are new gods rising – gods of TV, highways and the internet – who seek to replace the gods of old. Throughout his journey Shadow encounters a vast cast of mythical characters; from Thoth and Anubis to Suibhne and Anasi as well as the new g. Trying to identify the mythical figures, and the foreshadowing that comes with knowing who they are, that Mr. Wednesday, Nancy, Ibis, Jacquel and all the others represent is a huge part of reading American Gods.
For all that it features a cast that includes gods, leprechauns and djinn, assigning a genre to American Gods is almost impossible. Even Gaiman seems unsure as to what shelf the book belongs on in a library – in his introduction to the Tenth Anniversary edition he points out that American Gods has won awards for best fantasy, science-fiction and horror novel. (A literary critic would raise their bespectacled nose and say that given the construction of the prose, depth of the allusion and Gaiman’s raw talent, American Gods “transcends” mere genre fiction and should be considered literature; in response to the hypothetical literary critic I’d say, bollocks, and point them to Lev Grossman’s article on the divide – or lack there-of – between genre and literary fiction). Regardless, American Gods does not suffer much from it’s identity crisis – anyone and everyone will likely enjoy it.
Plot wise, American Gods once again defies easy description. The main plot draws as much inspiration from Hollywood as it does from literature; it has elements of old-school heist and road trip movies as well as nods to the amateur detective novels of the 1920′s and 30′s. Various sub-plots weave romantic and horror elements in to the book. The main thing that can be said for American Gods’ plot is that it is excellent. The disparate elements drive the plot forward and the book, despite being over 600 pages, never begins to drag. Even when there is very little overt action occurring, Gaiman’s subtlety and fascinating characters keep the reader engaged. As with many multi-plot books, American Gods has multiple revelations built into the last 200 hundred pages which make it even harder to put down.
Gaiman has taken some flack for both the perceived dryness of his prose and his characterisation of Shadow. On the first point, I found Gaiman’s writing to be excellent, I can see how someone might find it dry but thing that if they do, it isn’t the book for them. Despite my distaste for the concept of literary fiction being superior to genre fiction, Gaiman’s prose has more in common with Martin Amis than J.K. Rowling. Also, Gaiman’s style relies heavily on allusion and so, if someone misses the references, a lot of the writing may seem odd or redundant. On the second point, I also found Gaiman’s characterisation of Shadow to be excellent. While Shadow’s reaction to events in the novel may appear to some to be unrealistic, given that he has just spent three years in jail as well as the constant barrage of life-shattering revelations on his release, I thought he acted fittingly. Also revelations later in the novel further explain any oddness in Shadow’s personality.
Interestingly, American Gods features plot points that appeal to me both as a magician and as an atheist. Shadow’s coin tricks are an important part of his character and a number of plots in the book. Initially a method for killing time in prison, they become a catalyst for several important scenes. Gaiman’s behind the scenes descriptions are both accurate and extremely well written. The skill required to describe a series of technical moves in a way that doesn’t alienate a large portion of the readers as well as to actually engage them is immense – however, Gaiman nails it. If more magicians could write even a tenth as well magic books might be bearable.
Gaiman’s underlying premise – that gods exist because people believe in them, the more people who believe the more powerful they become and when no one believes they become powerless – is a fascinating idea. In a sense, it’s true in the real world. Whether or not a god actually exists is immaterial to whether it not it has power, that people believe they exist is really all that matters. The more people who believe in the concept of a particular god, the more powerful that concept becomes. And when nobody believes in the concept, it loses all it’s power. Zeus, once all powerful, has now been reduced to a character in bad Hollywood films while if someone dares to so much as draw Muhammad, they will receive death threats – and sometimes, just death. The actual existence of a god is in no way required for the concept to have power. This is blindingly obvious in the world today. The Abrahamic concept of god wields immense power over all manner of public and private discourse, both here in Ireland, and around the world. Debates that should be focussed on the scientific and humanitarian facts around issues such as stem cell research, abortion and gay rights are stymied at every turn by the continuing focus on the “morals” dictated by the concept of a Christian god. Regardless of whether this god is real or not, the power the concept has is undeniable. To me, Gaiman has simply taken this concept to its logical conclusion, and characterised the concepts.
American Gods probably isn’t for everyone. It’s a dark, long and sometimes difficult read. However, if you can give the book the attention it deserves it is a very rewarding experience. I can honestly say it is one of the best books I have ever read. In particular, atheists should get a kick out of the portrayal of gods. I had put off reading American Gods for quite a long time because I didn’t really know what I would be getting into. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Do yourself a favour and go to amazon and order it now!
As a final aside, one line in the book really stuck with me and I thought I’d include it here:
“It’s easy, there’s a trick to it, you do it or you die.”
Harry Guinness is a professional magician based in Dublin, to hire him, or for more information, go to www.HarryTheMagician.ie.
All links to amazon in this blog are affiliate links, I have to pay webhosting somehow! However, that in no way changes my opinion of the product. If I wanted to make money off affiliate links, I wouldn't write really long review of €5.00 books.