All through this story, it kept occurring to me that this seemed more like a dream than a story. You know how in a dream things all seem normal when all of a sudden someone or something appears, or something happens that is totally off the wall but in the dream it makes perfect sense. No matter what it is, it never occurs to you that it isn't real. And when you go from one sequence of events to something completely different, there is still a flow to it in the dream that wouldn't happen in real life. Gaiman is a dreamer who is able to take his dreams and make them as real to us as it is to him. That's impressive.
This is a story within a story. The small story is about Shadow who has just been released from prison only to find out his wife is dead. On his trip back home, he is approached by Wednesday with a job offer and their travels together begin. The bigger story is about the gods of humanity. For thousands of years we have believe in one God or another to the point that there have been hundreds or thousands of them. Many are not believed in or even remembered anymore but because they were believed into existence, they are still here. There are also many new Gods, Gods of the digital age. The new Gods want the old Gods gone and a war is brewing.
I'd like to say I loved this story. I really liked it a lot but there was just something about it that kept me from getting there. I can't even tell you what that thing was although I can see why this book is loved. On the flip side, I can even see why some don't like it. You have to be a bit of a dreamer yourself to appreciate it and not everyone is.
Shadow is in prison, nearing the end of a three-year sentence for assault and looking forward to rejoining his wife Laura. He's tried to keep his head down, learning coin tricks and cell block aphorisms from his low-key cell mate. And then the world he's been reaching out for shatters. Summoned to the warden's office, Shadow learns that his wife has been killed in a car wreck and he will be released early to attend her funeral. He subsequently learns that he has also lost his best friend, his prospects for a job, his illusions about his marriage and any reason to stay in an empty house in his little town.
Shadow accepts an offer from Mr. Wednesday, seemingly encountered by chance on an airplane. He will be Wednesday's chauffer, bodyguard and... something like a straight man. As they travel through small-town America, Shadow--and the readers--figure out that his employer and those he meets with are more than quirky human beings. They are gods created and sustained by human belief. The gods now face a crisis. As Americans forget about them, they begin to fade away. Already too many are gone.
Wednesday tries to do something about this crisis while Shadow plays a strange and increasingly central role in his plans. We meet several gods and see signs of their waning influence in an America that has turned its attention to television, technology, and more modern diversions. Guiman paints the gods large, with expansive personalities, diverse powers, and astonishingly short attention plans.
The gods' need for human belief creates a fascinating world where nearly everything important happens behind the scenes. The slow development of Shadow as a more engaged human being and perhaps something more, is a well-woven plot element. As we follow him, we ponder mysteries in plain sight that others overlook. Why are roadside tourist attractions places of mythic power? What goes unexplained in the small places that draw back from the outside world? There are answers.
Neil Gaiman's story is imaginative, pleasant to read, and captures something of what seems definitively American to a transplanted British author. It is recommended. Appreciative readers may enjoy Shadow's further development in Anansi Boys.
on July 19, 2004
1. Reflections: When this book was written, it became an immediate bestseller. Previously, Gaiman had only been known for his lengthy and verbose Sandman graphic novels, more of a specialist collection of the strange and beautiful. Why did people respond so well to American Gods?
2. Thematics: American Gods continually claims that the existence of gods is only because we need them, and when we lose the need, they fade into oblivion. Does Gaiman offer any solutions to this problem?
3. Characterization: From the moment we are introduced to him Shadow remains a mystery. As we follow him on his journey, it could be said that he is a walking shadow. Yet there is a deeper significance of his name. What is it?
4. Symbolism: Gaiman asserts that many objects in today's world, such as historical monuments, popular festivals, and contemporary philosophies, had their roots in a pan-theological foundation, or from the hands of many gods. What examples do you see in American Gods? What examples do you see that Gaiman doesn't mention?
5. Authorship: In Gaiman's other works, he often writes about similar themes. The gods in the contemporary world, the reality of the dream, the immortal nature of the spirit world, the failing of the gods to appease mortals and thus are forgotten, the mastery of the human over the material but limited in the spiritual: these are all themes be tries to work into his books. In what ways does Gaiman break with his tradition in American Gods? In what ways has his philosophy changed by becoming a novelist?
on June 24, 2004
I approached this book in a mood of some grouchiness. It had just won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards when I started reading it, and I was incensed. Another Joseph Campbell-esque piece of New-Agey balderdash masquerading (apparently successfully) as speculative fiction, I thought to meself.
And you know what? It's not that I was really even all that wrong...but the book is fantastic, regardless. Like most writers who cut their teeth on comic books (think Michael Chabon) Gaiman is better at short vignettes and set-pieces than he is at constructing a plot or drawing up particularly memorable characters. But this novel is so rich with vivid scenes and conversations and digressions that it's actually a quick read, even though by the end I wasn't entirely sure that it all added up to a whole lot.
I didn't even end up minding that the whole story was designed around the tired old "the Gods only exist because we believe in them" conceit. Because the gods that Gaiman thinks up really are magnificent creations. There's one scene where his protagonist has a conversation with the God that inhabits his television that still makes me shudder just to think about.
on April 23, 2004
Whatever happened to the gods of old? Gods like Odin, Loki, Thor, Horace, Ibis etc. What happens when the civilization that worshipped them no longer exists, or no longer believes in them? What happens when the gods of old become antiquated and are replaced with the gods of today, gods of commerce, technology, and media? That is the premise of "American Gods" and yet the book is so much more than the encapsulated sentences. As immigrants came to America with their beliefs, the gods of old found America a horrible place to plant roots of spirituality. The spiritual meccas and shrines of today can be found in monuments such as Mount Rushmore.
So what happens if the gods of old decide to make a stand and force out the present gods? Or is it truly a stand they want to make? And how did one ex-convict become so important to this approaching storm?
I found myself utterly compelled by this book. It was a novel that not only did I have a hard time putting down, but a hard time explaining. Part fiction, part fantasy, part religious treatise, "American Gods" is not an easily definable book, and for that I am glad.
This is the first book I have read by Neil Gaiman, and it will not be the last.
on April 20, 2004
Having been familiar with Gaiman through his efforts on The Sandman, it was no surprise to see many of the themes which populated that earlier work were evident in American Gods. What did surprise me was his ability to use these themes to create an original look at the nature of faith in America.
Gaiman once again utilizes his encyclopedic knowledge of ancient pantheons to explore the meaning and expression of belief. He performs this exploration by using his strong characterization skills to make each entity in the book seem alive and relevant to the reader. However, Gaiman's employment of these characters isn't just an attempt to demonstrate his talent. He shows that the gods brought over to America by immigrants are still alive, even though they have few, if any, worshippers. Gaiman implies that the reason why these gods survive is due to the strength of America's inherent spirituality. He talks about how the land itself is imbued with a spiritual presence. In Gaiman's opinion, this presence is strong enough to both sustain beliefs that would otherwise disappear and influence the people who live on the land.
Many American commentators have expressed surprise in the success of religious based entertainment like The Passion of The Christ and the Left Behind series. Leave it to a foreigner to bring forward a unique and entertaining perspective on why these forms of entertainment appeal to an American audience. By using strong characterization and engaging narrative, Gaiman makes a very powerful comment about the power of American spirituality. American Gods is essential reading for anyone who wants a different, yet engaging, perspective on religion in America.
on April 17, 2004
Weighing in at four hundred and sixty-one pages, rich in theme, inventive, researched and encompassing a massive vision, this book certainly seems like a kind of opus, but although it's a great read, I still think that Gaiman is capable of better.
His instinct is for escapist fantasy, showcased so well in Neverwhere, and American Gods is full of excess. Just as one phantasmagoric scene begins to settle in the mind, another is immediatley pitched at the reader, upsetting any sense of realism that might have developed. Granted, a novel about godhood in contemporary America can't be held to strictly realistic standards, but really skilled psuedo-fantasy can still have that urgent 'this is happening' sense, and American Gods often doesn't. The weakness is made more acute by the occasional moments of absolute realism, scenes involving ordinary people, which don't fit right with the rest of the novel. The impression I was left with was one of immaturity: 'Wow, wouldn't it be cool if all the classical Gods were just entities conjured up by people's minds, and still existed today?' But this would be forgivable, as in Neverwhere, if not for the novel's more realistic pretenstions, and a kind of seriousness it seems to aim for in the final chapters.
All that aside, Gaiman is a spectacular writer, and the setpieces of the novel have a cinematic quality. The writing is vivid and fluid throughout. The only scene which really seemed weak and difficulty to visualize (unfortunatley) was the climactic battle.
I'm still waiting on that masterpiece, and I am confident it will arrive.
on April 7, 2004
In America the land was the church. The land was the religion. The land was older and wiser than the people who walked on it. According to this book, America didn't have inhabitants to begin with. They all traveled here from somewhere else, and when they came here they brought with them their own gods in their minds. Each god that was brought to America was smaller than their counterpart left back in the homeland they came from. The people who brought them here then became acclimated into the new land and for the most part either stopped believing and worshiping these lesser gods, or they didn't pass their beliefs down to their decedents, so they in turn didn't believe. This made the gods weak. Then if it got to the point that no one believed in these gods anymore then they became forgotten and died.
In America, all of these lesser gods for the most part look like regular people or animals. They are con artists, drug addicts, prostitutes, cap drivers, and undertakers. Most of them are old. Occasionally Shadow the main character gets to see what they really look like and interacts with them.
Shadow is an ex-con who is hired to work as a kind of bodyguard for one of the gods named Wednesday. Mr. Wednesday is also known by many other names. A war is brewing between the old gods and the new gods since they believe there isn't enough worship to go around to keep them all going. It then becomes a mystery as to why Shadow has become such an important part in the whole scheme of things leading up to the war.
Shadow travels with Wednesday though America to try to recruit other gods to fight for their side in the upcoming war. At times Shadow becomes a kind of Jesus like figure (but not Jesus), and there are many comparisons you could make between them in this book. For the most part Neil Gaiman seems to stay away from religions such as Catholicism and Judaism, and just focuses on the gods themselves. Many of these lesser gods I had never heard of before, and it gave me an excuse to go out on the web and read their stories and learn about some interesting beliefs and legends. I wish I had known a little more about the Norse gods before reading this book. Some of the gods I learned a lot about were Odin, Loki, and Baldor. The other main characters in the book, Czernobog, Mr. Nancy, Mr. Jackal, Mr. Iblis, Whisky Jack, and Easter were also very entertaining. I also liked the character of Shadow's wife Laura a lot as well.
At times this book reminded me of the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" when Shadow and Wednesday start taking road trips to small parts of America to meet up with these different gods. In "Zen..." the main character is on a trip through the heartland of America as well, and also keeps having dreams, in which he is soul searching to try to find himself.
One of the towns they stay in is Lakeside which is a very nice town right out of the Twilight Zone with a mystery of it's own, and a nice side theme.
I was also reminded a bit of the movie "The Sixth Sense", but instead of seeing ghosts everywhere, Shadow sees gods.
The only detraction I can think of in this book was that some of the individual stories of how each god came to America was a little bit of a distraction, but Gaiman ties them all back in later in the book as having some necessary relevance to the story.
In the end you are waiting for everything to become perfectly clear and for them to spell it all out for you, but Gaiman doesn't do that. You have to do that for yourself, and a lot of it might still be left to interpretation.
It was a very good book none the less. A story that makes you think is always a good thing.
on March 10, 2004
The litmus test of a satisfying read is a sense of sadness when the cover closes on the final page because you must say good-bye to everyone you've met. Rarely is the ending of an enjoyable book satisfying, but in American Gods, Neil Gaiman provides not only an ending that is expected and fitting, but an epilogue and postscript that are comforting as well. There is nothing surprising about how this book closes, and that is what I liked about it most. If you trust the storyteller, he takes you and his story exactly where you both need to go.
I come to Gaiman, not from the Sandman books, but from Neverwhere (a moody, inventive, and haunting adventure tale) and Coraline (a children's novel that will take its place alongside those of Dahl and Burnett). American Gods is the next logical step for this writer: a far-flung epic that not only exceeds the author's reach, but does so in a way that will only make him better in his future efforts.
The central story here is of a man named Shadow who is caught between life and death in the human realm and immortality, glory, and obselescence among the earthly and ethereal forms of gods across the ages. Although the central story is a bit plodding and sputtering in places, the overall construction of the book and the always entertaining writing of Gaiman delivers a novel that was simply made to be read and enjoyed. The main character of this book really is America as seen through outside eyes, and everything that happens takes place only because of America. This isn't complicated literature, and it isn't a simple good vs. evil story, either. It just happens to be a fantastic read that exists on its own terms.
on December 18, 2003
I can see that many reviewers seem to think this effort by Neil Gaiman is somewhat of a disaster. The criticisms range from a thin plot, even thinner characters and that the story seemed to go nowhere (aha! a clue?). IMHO one of the main reasons for such criticism is because Mr Gaiman is more well known for his comic book stories than his novels. Perhaps for the reader of this book who is a fan of Gaiman's comics, the story would have been better told through a graphic novel. On the other hand, perhaps Gaiman's comics writing style was a little too evident in the book. For me, I think the book should be translated into a graphic novel (notice how I avoid the word comic) which would be great. I think one of Gaiman's strengths which shows up in the book is his graphic style of telling a story. When reading the book I could mentally picture the scenes being drawn. And this should be a positive aspect of the book - how many novelists are able to so evoke such imagery from simple words?
As for the thin plot and thinner characters...well, to each their own I guess. But I did not find the plot thin. Instead, I felt that it was a pretty good examination of several cultures and their respective beliefs which have come to the US and taken root there. Not being an American, I found it interesting to read that the US has at some time or other been the host of such diverse cultures - although the suggestion that ancient Egyptians established a colony in Florida could be where the fiction part of the novel comes into play.
As for the characters...well the Odin character was definitely interesting. An old man with many (non-magical) tricks up his sleeve...to raise cash. Shadow, the main character, on the other hand, does come across as rather confused. But this should not mean that the reader (and reviewers) should confuse his confusion for poor characterization. Shadow is a man just out of prison, who meets a tricky old man who shows him some really strange tricks along the way...and to top it all, Shadow's dead wife is coming along the journey in full physical form. Yes, I guess this makes it a "road story" but so what. I like to think of the journey is the interesting part and the end, if there is an end at all, is something which really isn't important at all.
Once again, good story; open your mind as you read it and you might like it. On the other hand, if you don't like the direction its taking after the first few chapters, then the option to stop reading is always there.