My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is a bad land for gods.
That is perhaps what rings in my ears the most at the conclusion of Neil Gaiman’s
American Gods, a heavy novel at just north of 400 pages that alternatively was either difficult to pick up or difficult to put down.
I had never experienced Gaiman in literary form before this book. I knew him from his comics writing, most notably The Sandman, and was curious as to his other writing. The title of this one arrested my attention, and it took me a bit to decipher what’s going on within the pages.
I’ll set the stage: Our protagonist, Shadow, is released from prison days early because his wife has been killed. He encounters a gentleman who wants to hire him as a sort of bodyguard while traveling to the funeral, and he agrees. He is then caught up in a brewing war…a war between the old gods, those of Norse, Roman, Greek pantheons as well as from various other traditions and countries…and the new gods, the gods of technology, of media, of all the things that America holds dear. Those are the gods that Americans have come to worship, and leave the old gods are fighting for their survival.
Yet…this is a bad land for gods.
It sounds gripping, right? And certainly, at the end, you’re drawn into the climactic conflicts in true graphic novel style. The book takes a while to pick up momentum…I was over 150 pages in before I felt like I was really moving, and after that point it was very start-and-stop. I found the novel outright difficult to continue at times, and, at around 250 pages or so, I was forcing my way through only because I refuse, on principle, to stop reading a book that I have started. Now, while that sounds bad, I’ll say also that the pacing is my only complaint about Gaiman’s craft here. His narrative is clear and imaginative, his dialogue nothing short of brilliant at times. I’m perfectly willing to concede that the pacing problem was me, not the author, and his craft at painting these gods…these gods in our country…is original, resourceful, and thought-provoking. Gaiman weaves in ancient religious traditions throughout the novel that I found myself wishing I knew more of, and I’m left with the feeling that these were frequently over my head.
So, my disappointment in the novel has nothing to do with Gaiman’s skill as a writer. What gives me pause is the discontinuity is what the novel says, the commentary (if I may over-use that word) that it makes. America is, in fact, a bad land for gods, as Gaiman states. It is a country of mis-matched origins, of disconnected histories woven into one, each bringing with it its own beliefs and traditions that have melded in a collision with a lack of history. Thus, traditions have been forgotten, and, in the rush of modern life, former religions are left by the wayside, discarded as futile and ancient, while new religions of business and technology replace them. Yet, even these religions hold little power, and are quickly forgotten as new religions are spun to take their places. And so, we reap the fruits of a shallow existence, of one without history or tradition or belief in anything other than what is most convenient. This is the world that Gaiman gives us in American Gods, and this is the critique that I find most true and lasting. And, in fact, had it been left there, I think that this would have been an outstanding novel because, agree with the statement or not, it is a powerful statement to make.
This, however, is merely (if I can apply that descriptor) the foundation for Gaiman to explore the concept and power of worship. The gods are left with power only when they are worshipped. The gods worshipped the most have the most power. As the protagonist tells us, human beings believe…it’s what we do, and thus we will believe in something, however shallow that something is as the former things fade into the background.
Is it, then this scattershot belief that makes this such a bad land for gods?
Again, that question is worth unpacking, and is enough for two novels. I applaud Gaiman for letting this circulate through his story.
Then, however…then comes the excessively didactic proclamation that the gods are, in fact, created by man, and only have power when man worships them…that man has not accepted responsibility for his inventions of belief, which now run amok and do damage while left unattended, eventually withering and dying away, impotent and powerless when forgotten. The breadth of Gaiman’s closure here seems to sweep all religions into this net, no faiths excluded, thus diminishing the very metaphysical statement that he makes earlier. Man, then, is the being with all the power, here, and the only true worship is self-worship…a remarkably shallow statement that leaves the reader empty after so much promise.
And yet…Gaiman hints at surprisingly redemptive moments through human belief. Shadow’s relating of the account of the thieves hanging on either side of Christ during the crucifixion, and reminding that the thieves should perhaps be remembered because perhaps they know spiritual realities more than many others, is quick, simple, and wants to be powerful. Later, the gods tell Shadow that it didn’t matter that he didn’t believe in them, because they believed in him…both stories of faith in something larger that ourselves that can salvage us despite our inability to do anything in our own favor. Is this fundamental state of the human condition also manufactured, left empty as it relies only on gods that we have created and are thus less than are we? Perhaps then, we are sacrifical to ourselves, or to our own creations, as would seem to be the case when Shadow hangs on the tree in the final chapters, an attempt at a Christological metaphor so obvious and so dysfunctional that I couldn’t have handled anything more glaring and in our face than it was.
I had read and heard much praise about this novel and, while certainly well-written, it left me profoundly disappointed in it’s lack of coherency and connectivity. Gaiman’s prose adeptly proclaims one thing, only to contradict it later. Perhaps that’s the point, and I’m missing something larger here, but I expected more of Gaiman. This novel is worth exploring…sort of. If your curiosity isn’t nagging you to read it, though, I can’t say that you’ll be happy it’s on your shelf.