Review: Neil Gaiman — American Gods (2001/2004)

Neil Gaiman – –American Gods (author’s preferred text). Headline Review. London. 2004.

This novel was recommended to me by two people in the space of a week – first by a student and then by my sister. It was sign from the gods of reading.

First published in 2001, this reissued edition of American Gods is the ‘author’s preferred text’. For all of my reviews so far, this novel is the first to have really unnerved me. It is so vast, so sprawling, so peculiar, and so out of my usual reading range that it is hard to know where to start. I stand in awe of Gaiman’s ability to carry this heap of conflicting and tangled detail around in his head, because the structure of the novel is one of the most striking things about it, yet its order is only clear in glimpses, and not even at the end was I sure I had grasped it. It is like trying to see a whole forest, while also trying to see all the different trees, plants, animals, and paths at the same time. 

The story in brief: a man called Shadow is serving time for aggravated assault: he attacked his partners in a robbery, who tried to exclude him from the takings. Shadow is released from prison three days early because his wife, Laura, has been killed in motoring accident. It soon transpires that Laura was having an affair with Shadow’s employer and friend, who was also killed in the accident. Shadow is left with nothing to return to – no domestic bliss, no job. On a plane ride home, Shadow is more or less coerced into taking a ‘go-for’ job from a fellow passenger, a mysterious older man who introduces himself as ‘Mr Wednesday’. Those with knowledge of Norse mythology will immediately prick their ears because Wednesday is actually ‘Woden’s Day’, a.k.a. Odin. Sure enough, Shadow finds himself working for the all-father Norse god.

Odin is on the war-path: he wants to rally the old gods to challenge the new gods to a war, or, as he puts it, a ‘storm.’ What transpires is a road-story with a difference: Shadow must traverse the flat, empty expanse of the Mid-West in search of old gods and in flight from the new ones. Odin wants a way to restore his former power, which has faded as people have stopped believing in him, and it seems that what belief there is to go around is now monopolised by the new gods of the Internet, the television and of credit cards.

Gaiman’s narrative is based on a core proposal: that when people emigrate from old worlds to America, they bring their old gods with them. The beliefs and mythology of the old country comes with each new immigrant and hence, like an exotic plant, the gods and spirits of far lands must find a way to survive in the hostile, foreign soil of a secular, modernist place. It is suggested that most gods do not fare well once they are transplanted: a repeated refrain is that America is not a good place for gods. Science, reason, modernity, and materialism have drained the gods of their power. The old ways of forest and agriculture have been cut down and built over by the ways of concrete and silicon chip.

The second proposition of Gaiman’s tale is that gods are brought forth by and thrive on belief – and the things that come with belief, such as sacrifice, stories, and ritual. One of the most absorbing parts of his narrative is the vignettes about some of these old gods: piskies, mischievous sprites who come from Cornwall; a goddess of sexuality who now plies her trade on Sunset Boulevard; and a taxi-driving Ifrit from the Arabic world. They retain some of their old glory, but in this new land they have become mendicant deities.

Gaiman’s protagonist is aptly named as, like the hero of Anansi Boys, another novel of Gaiman’s, his chief characteristic is that he is nondescript. Shadow is described by his walking-dead wife, as “this big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world.” She challenges him, “are you sure you’re alive?” Indeed, Shadow is something of a cipher, a go-between for gods and humanity (and the reason for this is revealed) and a carrier of other characters’ beliefs and agendas. What the novel ends up being is Shadow’s road to becoming alive as he undergoes a harrowing experience. Gaiman expands his narrative to mythic dimensions as his protagonist is slowly transformed into a man who can change the course of fate, but, like all stories like this, before he can fill his new role he must first ‘die’ to his old life and journey to the underworld. The strongest parts of Gaiman’s novel are Shadow’s self-sacrifice, his descent into the world of the dead, and his crossing of the river of the dead with the river-guide – a figure of many faces and names across times and cultures. It is also hard to escape the parallels between Christian and pagan mythologies, as Shadow is tied on a tree, descends into hell, and returns to redeem himself and others.

This is what Gaiman does – he starts in the modern reality most of his readers call home, and ineluctably draws us into the archetypal under-layers of existence, the ley-lines of our imaginary life and the collective unconscious. By blending realism and myth Gaiman simultaneously exults the everyday, and levels the various mythologies. His novel imbues the unpoetic Mid-West of plains, small towns and civic blandness with a mythic dimension, while he also implies that the common ground of all belief is the human impulse to breathe life into abstract ideas.

American Gods has some humorous touches which also critique some aspects of modernity. Death, no longer dealt with by loved ones, has been passed off to professionals in the business. Hence the funeral parlour run by Mr Ibis, Anubis/Jackal, and Bast (with Horus having gone mad and done a runner). The god of the Internet is a fat kid with no social skills who struggles to remember more than a few lines of Yeats’ “The Second Coming” , will only eat fast food, and who cannot stand to be alone. The goddess of morning television speaks in bright, pointless clichés and refuses to acknowledge any darkness in the world. Similarly, the ‘black ops’ agents who track and threaten Shadow care little about the values of their employer – they merely want to make sure they are on the winning side.

While Gaiman’s focus is largely on plot, there are passages in this novel that made me pause and want to re-read. Even though Gaiman is a novelist of action, magic and ideas, he does also clearly care about language. I was noting down words for multiple visits to the dictionary all the way through and some phrases were arresting and beautiful: “He watched them walking away from him down the street, and felt a pang, like a minor chord being played inside him.” Ultimately, I had fun reading this and it sustained many interruptions as I marked stacks of exam scripts and wrote school reports. Gaiman mines the deepest parts of our imagination, the substratum of storytelling – the impulse to make-myth. One of the key points of American Gods seems to be that, despite our secular, technical lives, we are still making gods out of our fears and beliefs. Odin is always being reborn; we invest binary code and entertainment media with the same power that we once gave to totems. The novel’s ending in Iceland seems appropriate, as theirs is a state where belief in fairies remains alongside modernity – they will divert roads around certain sites so as not to disturb the little folk.

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