By Rachel MacFarland
Whether you’re a reader or not, you’ve likely encountered Neil Gaiman. In some respects, he’s like a British Stephen King: he leans toward darker narratives, nearly everything he writes becomes a film or a show, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he has some dweeby garage band (that last one is pure conjecture…for now). Supporting my case is American Gods, the book I just finished, which is also currently streaming on Starz.
The book was originally published in 2001, but I read a Tenth Anniversary edition, which includes a forward from Gaiman, and expands on the original text. And while I don’t know how much the additional text beefs up the original, I know that I read 742 pages, and that doesn’t include the scene with Jesus (which did make it into the show, though not the Ten-Year edition cut, except as a separate piece tacked on the end). My point with this convolution of book and show: Gaiman seems to really dig renditions of himself. I, however, feel like I stumbled into a round robin singing circle of Row Row Row your Boat, except the boat is all weighed down with man-gods.
For the record, this is the first book I’ve reviewed that I loathed more than loved, and it’s worth mentioning that I was reading Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness at the same time, and Le Guin makes Gaiman look like a tater tot. It certainly didn’t help his cause that she was his measuring stick, but still—there’s a difference between books written for entertainment and books written for exploration. Le Guin is an explorer. I don’t know what Gaiman is.
And there are moments when I was entertained. For one: a significant portion of American Gods takes place in Wisconsin, which seems fairly out of step for a “rockstar” like Neil Gaiman, but it’s always delightful to find your home in someone else’s story (I’m thinking Leonardo Di Caprio in Titanic, now). Granted, Gaiman seems to think casual incest is acceptable here, and while I wish this was more shocking, it isn’t: our worldly reputation is not exactly stellar. But hey, look, Wisconsin’s on TV!
The premise of American Gods is an impending war between the old gods of the United States and the new ones. The old gods are generally of immigrant descent, brought over through a thousand or so years, and struggling to survive against the rise of the new gods: manifestations of Media and Technology. One repeated line in the text is as follows, although this quote is not exact: “this is a good land for men, but not a good land for gods.” Gaiman himself went on a months-long road trip through lesser-known parts of the country, writing this book, searching for the American Soul, as if such a singular concept exists, like a key stuck under a Slurpee machine at a roadside truck stop, just waiting to be discovered.
The narrative comes through the eyes of Shadow, a black male ex-con who is released from prison early in the book, and is promptly recruited for an ask-no-questions job with a mysterious, charming old white man named Wednesday. Understanding unfolds at Shadow’s pace, as things are revealed to him or as he starts to piece together his strange new life: traveling around, meeting gods, and figuring out what role he’ll play within the context of the war. As I said earlier, Wisconsin factors in fairly significantly, particularly the House on the Rock, which is the first place where Shadow gets a glimpse of the magnanimity of the gods. And, admittedly, the concept Gaiman runs with here is interesting (although not original)—that America consists of “holy places” laid over with campy tourist traps, built out of homage, mystery, devotion, and fairly bad taste. In this way, he touches on a sort of magic, or spirituality, buried under collections of animatronic marching bands and a big whirling carousel. The concept offers some endearment to this country’s tacky roadside attractions, although the darker truth is that this was a land already filled with holy places, destroyed by colonization, and while Gaiman does attempt to go there, it’s not in any real, meaningful way. Overall, he keeps our dark side pretty milk toast.
And this is what I don’t understand about this book—it seems to be a genuine attempt by Gaiman to wrestle with god(s), as far as taking on an Epic, or an Odyssey. He went Big. But the whole thing feels soulless, a chase-down pursuit of overwrought anticlimactic moments. There are all these characters that are introduced and barely developed, or gods with deep-historical references, but unless your world mythology knowledge is encyclopedic, you have only a murky understanding of where he’s at. Not to mention that the whole narrative reads with this Grease Lightning/Fonzie/1950s noir sense of “cool,” which is to say: it isn’t cool. It’s the worn-out tale of the empire, with some new flashes and zings.
My loathing with this Fonzie-noir motif only deepens with regard to Gaiman’s treatment of female characters. For one, there’s a significant absence of women. Sure, there are female characters, but they may as well be lamps and tables, as they are basically props to compliment all the Manly Maleness. And secondly, the few women characters who did have some solid potential are either violently beaten to death or rendered grotesque until death. The one woman he does leave alone is a lesbian. And okay, as some flimsy excuse—Gaiman is a weird dude and he writes weird books, that’s his thing. But reading American Gods felt like I accidently caught the patriarchy as a teenager, masturbating while looking at itself in the mirror. So much of the story feels so out of date, while dragging out this shoddy masquerade of pompous, edgy badassery. But the spectacle does leave just a teeny bit of doubt in my mind: is this dressed-up pig Gaiman’s critique of America, and I’m mistaking his bad impression of us for bad writing? Or is his impression of America soulless and his writing is bad? I’m pretty sure it’s the latter. But not entirely sure.
Despite my loathing, I still find value in reading and critiquing stories that attempt to wrestle with this country’s demons, however badly they miss the mark. Such attempts still offer an impression of our written, storied landscape—the lows informing the highs.
I’ll close with this fun fact: I was writing this review during the Superbowl, within which Bruce Springsteen recited a Jeep-poem, set at the Center of America, in Kansas, which happens to be a significant setting in the story of American Gods.
Because there’s always man-gods, as far as the eye can see.
Rachel MacFarland is Co-Publisher/Writer/Curator at Ope! Publishing in La Crosse. Top image credit: Starz.