Saturday, December 28, 2019

Bonus Book! American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Fantasy (2001 - 588 pp.)

After last month, last month again, and last week got academic in a hurry, it's a return to light(er) reading. This time, as with The Handmaid's Tale in October 2017, I'm commenting on a book that has recently been the subject of a popular TV series. This time, however, I've actually watched the Amazon Prime American Gods series, so I'll refer to it frequently.

Neil Gaiman's American Gods begins with a fascinating premise: what if various pagan deities were all around us in modern-day America? The book's opening quotation from Richard Dorson's Theory of American Folklore (1971) explains that Irish-Americans remember the faeries, Norwegian-Americans remember the nisser, and Greek-Americans remember the vrykolakas, but these myths are confined to the Old World. What if there were gods in America? What if homegrown American gods, like television and the Internet sought to supplant them? As a general rule, the reader is led to see the old gods as good and the new gods as bad, but as frequently happens in Blue and Orange Morality* situations, it quickly becomes apparent that each god should simply be appraised on its own merits.

American Gods, despite the plethora of characters, closely follows the internal struggle of Shadow Moon, the protagonist. The opening fifteen pages dig into Shadow's mind as he finishes a three-year prison sentence for his role in an armed robbery. From there, Shadow finds himself isolated from his wife Laura (dead), best friend Robbie (also dead, and in a way that is relevant to Laura's death), and from any possible opportunity for employment. Enter Mr. Wednesday,** a mercurial businessman who employs Shadow as his personal assistant. Together, Mr. Wednesday and Shadow travel across America, focused in the Midwest, where Shadow takes up temporary residence in the town of Lakeside. Lakeside's dark secret is one of the many subplots I don't recall seeing anywhere in the TV series; in the book, it primarily gives readers a place to locate Shadow without having to learn a new setting every chapter.

After seeing the series first,^ I expected to see the gods featured prominently. However, compared to the series, in which there are entire scenes of inter-god interaction with no human (or Shadow) present, there are only a few all-god scenes in American GodsUnlike in the series, where Bilquis has frequent scenes at her shrine and interacting with Mr. Wednesday, in the book she barely factors in at all. She only appears in two scenes, on eleven total pages (27-31, 373-379), and outside of those pages, no character acknowledges that she exists. In the show, she is a compelling character. In the book, she could have been removed entirely. Mr. World is the show's antagonist; in the book, he could technically be considered that, but he does not appear enough to have a compelling backstory.^^

The largest difference between the book and the series is in the portrayal of Technical Boy. Bruce Langley does not look at all like the fat, pimply Technical Boy portrayed in the book. By making Technical Boy better looking, more socially adept, and updated to reflect social media (as a character based on 2001 technology would be hopelessly dated; imagine a character meant to personify technological advance using Windows XP?), Technical Boy is a far better character in the series. In the book, he is annoying, which was likely Gaiman's intention. In the series, he is so well-done he comes off as a good guy.

The book's greater number of gods, but lesser importance attached to each of them, leads to numerous vignettes that allow Gaiman to transport the reader into whichever world he pleases. Odin, Tyr and Thor discover America in 813AD. (66-69) Gods interact with America in more playful ways, such as when Ibis and Jacquel explain contrast their personalized service at their funeral parlour with more standardized shopping experiences like McDonald's or Walmart. (193)

American Gods features a battle between the Old Gods and the New Gods, but it is never a battle in the way high fantasy novels portray battles. The most impressive homicides of the battle involve an instruction in godhood (507) and an invocation of a god's name (528), both of which are extremely impressive (and are scrubbed for names to avoid spoilers), but neither occurs within an epic pitched battle. The battle between the gods is calculated. This makes the gods seem more cerebral, which plays into Gaiman's narrative that gods do many things humans don't understand.

The interview with Neil Gaiman at the end of my edition of the book notes that American Gods first came out of an idea Gaiman had in 1997, that Chapter One was written in December 1997, and Chapter Two was written in 1998. The book was published in 2001. As I always wonder with any book published near the beginning of its decade: to what extent is American Gods really a book of the '90s? To those who see enumerated decades as arbitrary and useless, this may not matter. However, when thinking of American Gods as a product of the decade that brought everything from the pop-cultural backlash against televangelists to more extreme events like the stave church burning in Norway, perhaps maybe Gaiman was looking out at the world thinking: will the gods ever come back?

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 2

NOTE: I posted this review while watching the Peach Bowl (Oklahoma/LSU playoff game) and sipping an Amager Bryghus RyeKing (yes, that's an enormous American flag on the bottle). Football and Beer weren't characters in American Gods, but they wouldn't have felt out of place.

*Although certain gods are represented as more sympathetic than others, the gods' conflicts aren't ones that lend themselves to a straight good/evil calculation for the human reader. Is an ancient Norse god the good guy when compared to Television? I have no idea, and neither do you.

**Why is he not Mr. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday? Gaiman is telling you something, that's why.

^My cousin Patrick recommended me American Gods in 2004. I have had a copy in my apartment since 2014. I was going to read it sooner, but since I reviewed Coraline in 2018, I would have run afoul of my "no reviewing the same author twice in the same calendar year" rule. So here we are: through a cosmic dereliction of reading American Gods, it becomes what will almost certainly be my final review of 2019, and of the 2010s, for that matter.

^^Like Mr. Wednesday, Mr. World has some identity bait-and-switch happening. However, the book doesn't spend enough ink on Mr. World to make the reveal as exciting.

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