Last week, like a proper fucking beat poet, I boarded a twelve hour coach – at midnight – to get me to New York City in time to read some of my poetry about poo and death the following night. I had a lovely time at the launch event for Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book, and after the reading I ended up spending several hours gyrating and singing, badly, on a raised karaoke dias in an Upper East Side gay bar, wearing a slutty sequinned dress. I had a great time. The day after I woke up, saw some art and some jazz, went and “kicked some trash” in Central Park, drank some wine, slept for a bit, woke up, saw some more art and then got another 12 hour overnight coach back to Toronto, which had – somehow! – pivoted to SUMMER during my absence. Thank fucking Christ.
To accompany me on my twenty-four hours of coach travel – knowing that I am pisspoor at sleeping on public transport and that sleep deprivation dulls the intellect – I picked up the trashiest, biggest, novel I had in my trunk of unread books: American Gods by Neil Gaiman.
American Gods is not the kinda thing I usually read, and I bought it, probably (definitely) half-cut (wankered), in a London station before a long journey at some point after I’d seen John Wick and decided I wanted to watch Ian McShane in something else. Ian McShane is one of the leads in the TV adaptation of this novel, but on that evening in a station I didn’t have access to it, so bought American Gods (the book) because I wanted to watch American Gods (the TV show). I think I made an error here, as this fun, simple, piece of trash fiction would probably work a lot better on screen with a tiny bit of tweaking and a major network budget.
I wouldn’t say American Gods (the novel) is shit, but I would say that it’s longer than it needs to be, it’s nowhere near as intelligent as it thinks it is and that the prose is sticky. Basically, American Gods manages to be fun because Gaiman is working with a strong idea: his execution, however, leaves a lot to be desired.
The fact that this book won multiple awards for genre-writing kinda justifies the general scorn with which literary snobs like myself avoid this sorta content: this is not a book that should have won awards. Yes, it is probably right for it to have been optioned and adapted by a TV production company, but it’s not a novel I could find myself recommending to anyone unless I was trying to imply that I thought they were a moron. This is a stupid person’s idea of a clever book. Again, that doesn’t mean it’s shit, in fact it’s a lot of fun throughout, but it isn’t clever, and it fucking behaves as if it is.
This applies to both the narrative and the prose. The premise is that the old gods and mythical creatures of Europe now live in America, transported by immigrants throughout history, kept alive by belief and memory. The new gods of, like, television and cancer or whatever, are on the rise and a massive confrontation is brewing between the old gods and the new. It sounds fun, right? It’s not hard to imagine this premise being used to create an exciting narrative, and it’s the power of this idea that makes the book work, because the characterisation etc is pretty indistinct.
All the gods are basically the same; there’s loads of dream and afterlife sequences that feel very derivative, and the notion of American Gods functioning as a “state-of-the-nation” American novel is as false as it is laughable.
No, as Gaiman writes in a pointlessly-included afterword, you don’t have to be an American to write about America, but this is very much America sketched by someone who doesn’t know that much about it. The protagonist, Shadow, is on the road most of the entire time covered by the narrative, but he is either in tiny, rural, towns or immediately in domestic settings on the occasions when he enters a city. Gaiman doesn’t bother trying to evoke the places of America that are internationally familiar (Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, LA, etc) because I think he knows he wouldn’t be up to it. It’s hard to write a city well: Gaiman doesn’t even try.
I’m judging American Gods as someone who’s read lots of literary texts exploring old ideas of religion and religiosity, and many of those – insert examples if I can be arsed [I can’t] – offer a more human exploration of the divine. If the gods here can die a physical death – as many can and do – then why do they not have a physical birth? There are inconsistencies in the mythology, there are references to well-known figures (Odin, Thor, Horus, Ibis… leprechauns), and also to more obscure historical deities. But the “new gods” tend to be physical objects: technology, cars, cancer, whatever. There is a conflagration of sacrifice and worship and the manifestations of belief that the gods feed off are blurred: if the old gods needed to be named to receive the “power” resultant from a blood sacrifice, why don’t “cars” or “cancer” need to be vocally adored to receive the physiological benefits causing deaths?
Gaiman’s idea, I suppose, is shallow. It’s deep enough for a fun, frothy, read that’s appropriate for twenty four hours of half-awake, half-asleep dazed reading, but it’s not something that merits much thought or discussion. Is it fun? Yes. Is it a good idea? Yes. Is it the best possible execution of the idea? Absolutely not. Will I ever read any more Neil Gaiman? I sincerely fucking doubt it.
I went in with some bias, I suppose, as I’ve never met a “Neil Gaiman fan” who I wanted a second conversation with. For mindless distraction, I suppose, American Gods does its job. For thought-provoking, intelligent exploration of the importance and risks of faith and worship, you’re gonna have to go elsewhere. Also, none of the most successful still-worshipped gods seemed to exist, which felt like a bit of a cop out.
Anyway, that’s enough on this fun, though mediocre, novel. I’m gonna do the washing up and have a shave.
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