on May 29, 2002
Neil Gaiman's "American Gods", an intentionally oxymoronic title, is about the impending battle between the old gods (pick your poison: Odin, Loki, Vishnu, etc.) and the "new" (junk culture: TV, advertising, gambling, etc.). Stuck in the middle waiting to find out his destiny is a mortal man named Shadow. Soon to be released from jail, Shadow looks forward to a reunion with his wife Laura. Sadly, this reunion is not to be (or, it is not to be in the way Shadow envisions it). Shadow, stricken by grief, is thus enlisted in a battle, one that may decide the fate of the world, by a mysterious man named Wednesday.
Similar thematic territory was covered, with much more panache and verve, by Douglas Adams ("The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul") and by Neil's "Good Omens" writing partner, Terry Pratchett ("Small Gods"). Both books took a sidelong glance at the subject of modern deities and found an awful lot of humour there. Gaiman treats his subject with solemnity, and to my mind this is one of the reasons why the book suffers.
Fortunately, the story begins with a dramatic bang. Gaiman sets up his characters well, and then proceeds to create the universe in which they will live. He never betrays the beginning, but at times he lets the narrative (or, to describe it more accurately, the loose assemblage of scenes) get away from him. "I feel like I'm in a world with its own sense of logic. It's own rules," Shadow notes at one point early on. "I'm just going along with it, you know?" This is true, and it begins as a wonderful creation in Gaiman's hands. But later Shadow becomes more frustrated with the direction his life has taken: "Nobody tells me what [the rules] are. You keep talking about the goddamn rules, I don't even know what game you people are playing." This kind of frustration seeps into the reader's thoughts as well. Gaiman takes great care in hiding his motivations from both his character and his audience. You keep expecting a payoff, where the rules are explained, at least implicitly. But that rarely happens, and when it does it is quite unsatisfactory.
He also neglects to assemble a unifying narrative. What we have, instead, is an extended version of 'variations on a theme'. Shadow's adventures, although different and interesting every time, still follow the same basic formula. It becomes tiresome after a while. And what narrative it does have goes on for far too long. "Not only are there no happy endings," someone says near the end, "there aren't even any endings." Too true in this case. Further complicating things is the fact that this book has both an epilogue and a postscript. Gaiman may not have wanted to leave the world he's created, but the reader can't wait for it to finally be over.
All that being said, there are moments here that carry a tremendous amount of stark weight. One scene, at an odd boarding house, has Shadow losing a game of checkers only to face a frightening punishment: a sledgehammer to the head. Thankfully, he's able to put it off. Or is he? Later, we see Shadow in a moment of extreme sacrifice. Gaiman's descriptions of the broken man's thoughts in this chapter are heartbreaking, and believably authentic. The scenes in Lakeside, a small-town safe haven, if taken on their own (with some obvious re-working) might have made a wonderful self-contained short story. I just wish that Gaiman had found a way to string these events together in a unifying manner. Out of nowhere, you find Shadow talking to Lucille Ball, as Lucy Ricardo, on an old black-and-white TV. Or, apropos of nothing, Gaiman's narrator barges in to admit to the fictionality of the story he is telling: "None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as a metaphor." These are all great bits of writing, but they don't fit together to make a cohesive whole.
"American Gods", for me, is a very frustrating read, for just these reasons. It has boundless potential, but at every turn Gaiman fails to reach the high levels he's aiming for. It makes for a powerful work, one that's often boring, at times quite frustrating, but in moments quite exhilarating. At nearly 600 pages, anything is going to be hit or miss. I was just hoping for a few more hits from Gaiman, a writer I've admired in the past. I admire him here, too. I just didn't enjoy him that much.
on May 26, 2004
British writer Neil Gaiman seems an unlikely candidate as one who would attempt a novel that seeks out the heart of America because he is not from here. In American Gods, he introduces us to old gods and the modern technological gods of modern life.
Gaiman is experienced in the field of mythology as he has already written several novels pertaining to the topic. He wrote The Sandman, a comic-book series, along with Good Omens, the dark fantasy Neverwhere, Smoke and Mirrors, a collection of short stories and poems, and Stardust.
American Gods revolves around Shadow on an adventure across America. Shadow's name describes his character in that while he is likable, kind, and motivated by compassion, he is also troubled. In effect he is a ghost, wondering without purpose.
After serving three years in prison for aggravated assault, Shadow is released to mourn the death of his wife, Laura, and best friend. Homeless, wifeless, friendless, and jobless, Shadow finds his life nonexistent. When a strange old man calling himself Wednesday offers Shadow a job as an errand boy, he has no reason not to accept. Shadow spends much of his time wondering about his role in all this. Laura's ghost comes to him several times and bails him out of trouble.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys mystery in the form of fantasy. And people who are interested in mythical gods can appreciate how they are represented in modern form in American Gods
on May 14, 2004
When I began reading this book, the premise seemed promising; I thought this would be a real page-turner. A man finds himself in the midst of a battle between old gods long forgotten and new gods. Whoa! Seemed like heavy stuff. The narrative is good. Shadow's whimsical sarcastic sense of humor had me laughing out loud at times (most memorable was the scene where he meets the raven). The book reminded me of Clive Barker's early fantastique novels (Weaveworld, Great and Secret Show, Imajica) where ordinary people became embroiled in matters involving other worlds. The problem with American Gods was there really was no plot so much as a pattern: 1.) Hear about the upcoming storm 2.) Move to a new location 3.) Hide 4.) Get discovered. 5.) Repeat.
So, along the way, we meet interesting characters (human and non-human), but nothing happens to propel the story forward. The only reason that I didn't quit the book early is because Shadow is a likable character and you do want to know how certain relationships end, if they do at all.
3/4's of the way, Gaiman finally writes "And so the storm began." I won't say anything about the storm, other than "That's it!?" But Mr. Gaiman could have turned a great premise into a cool book
on April 29, 2004
From the first chapter, the things that struck me most about "American Gods" was the similarity to Stephen King's writing style in some of his more mediocre horror books.
Like King, there are wonderful, creative ideas (old gods walking the Earth; new gods taking over for ideas like mass media and the Internet).
Like King, there are diverse characters with layers of issues (the main character, Shadow, develops a rather unique relationship with his dead wife, a plot perhaps more interesting than the earth-shaking main device).
Like King, there is a tendency toward adolescent melodrama (note especially how Shadow's wife dies).
Like many of King's novels, the ending fizzles. Perhaps there was nowhere to go that would live up to the incredible ideas presented earlier in the book, or perhaps others were satisfied with the (thoroughly foreshadowed, yet still somewhat disappointing) "twist" at the end.
(**SPOILER**: I would have loved to see the effect upon the world when some of the modern gods bought the farm--does the loss of the god of strategic arms limitation pacts immediately dissolve such pacts and ensure a new arms race? This would have given the events toward the end a more epic feel, though perhaps Gaiman wanted something closer in tone to the very last scene, which was somewhat reflective and more interesting than the entire second half of the book.)
The book did get me to do some research on mythology, though: some of the "name that god" you will inevitably play while reading the book is very enjoyable, and the amount of research put into the characters is stunning.
Don't expect the great American novel: expect an above-average action read.
on April 13, 2004
This is a pure 5-star book on originality. But its delivery gets bogged down about halfway through and never fully recovers. The book has a very native American feel as old gods and beliefs take form to oppose the new ways, mainly technology. The main character, Shadow, is very well done and is the perfect "anti" hero without drawing on pity. I very much enjoyed Gaiman's character of Shadow. It's one of the highlights of the book.
To me, the book hits a snow drift mid-way through after spending some time in the small Wisconsin town of Lakeside. I had a very strong impression the author was trying to figure out where he wanted the story to go, and there seemed to be quite a bit of wandering or observations without any meaningful connection. Sometimes, if you just keep walking, you'll eventually find the path. Well, he did find the path. Kinda.
The ending was okay, but not the experience I was geared up for after reading the first half. It almost had a "Scooby-doo" feel to it ("...and if wasn't for you meddling kids...").
I don't mean to be unfair, and no doubt someone will hammer me on my lack of insight, but its my opinion that 'American Gods' is a good book that could've been great.
on March 23, 2004
I liked it. In fact, the more I think about it, the more time passes, the more I like it.
It didn't hit me over the head. Although I cared what happened next, I didn't stay up late reading. I didn't sneak off to bathroom, asking my husband to watch the baby "for a few minutes."
I wasn't sure what all the fuss was about - pages and pages of quotable blurbs written by reviewers I've never heard of. "An important, essential book" is a bit overblown. "Keeps the reader turning pages" is somewhat more lowkey, but a meaningless comment, really, to make about any adequate book.
There's nothing bad to say about this book. But it's lingering with me. The story's a giant metaphor, of course, which I'm still enjoying unravelling. This book is aging well.
Gaiman paints America with the reverence only an outsider could muster.
Gaiman's no literary genius, but he knows his craft well enough. It's idea that drives this book, not language. (More books might be better off if they had ideas like these.) I don't really see how American Gods could win both the Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel (the only horrific element is that dead woman who keeps hanging around) and the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Novel (there's certainly no science about it, and the fantasy is the kind that pervades our daily lives) - I'd sooner file this book in the magic realism genre.
I'm not sorry I read it and it has me asking questions about various mythologies. http://magnificentoctopus.blogspot.com
on January 13, 2004
If there were half stars, I would have given this book a 2.5. Instead I gave it a 3, because it truely doesn't deserve a 2. While Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, and one of the few "modern" authors I find captivating, this book was lacking something. How easily you can surmise numerous plot points long before you would wish to discover them, and when this leads to definite feelings of disappointment in the predictability of it all.
There are also so many characters and points that feel too shallow. You are introduced to them for a page or two and then they completely disappear from the story, or they reaper again for a few more pages and still seem just as pointless to the plot. It makes the book feel like it should have been: A) Longer or B) a series instead of one book. I believe that if the story had been explored in more depth it would have added more relevance and intrigue, and allowed things to unfold in a much less predictable manner. Many parts felt rushed and cramped, as if a certain idea felt crucial when it came about but adding it then lead to another, more important, plot point being cut too short.
The ideas in the book are wonderful, and the main character has a wonderful skeleton. Yet as a whole I didn't find it as captivating as Gaiman's novel "Neverwhere" or as the one he coauthored with Terry Pratchet "Good Omens...". So I have to say it was an enjoyable read, but disappointing.
on January 2, 2004
I bought this book amidst critical acclaim and some really great hype. And maybe that was a bad thing. It probably made me expect more from American Gods than one should fairly expect from any novel. Still, I can't change the past, and the fact remains that I found Gaiman's novel to be strictly average in almost every facet.
The main plot follows a man named Shadow (ugh) who has recently been released from prison after his wife died in a car accident. With nothing left in his life, Shadow gains employment under the mysterious Mr. Wednesday and enters into a world of con artists and grizzled old gods.
Now, with a plot like that, you'd think the story would write itself and you'd have an excellent novel on your hands. Well, you would ... if you didn't bog the entire project down with thinly-veiled allegories galore.
Don't get me wrong: I didn't miss the point of the book. I "got" all there was to get. But just because a book forces blunt symbolism into its story like jamming a square peg into a circle hole DOESN'T make it a classic. American Gods will make you think a bit, but its hardly the life-altering tome some of these people are trying to make it out to be. It probably didn't help that the only likeable people in the story were a few of the supporting characters (primarily Wednesday and Mr. Nancy).
All in all, its not going to kill you to read this book. It isn't what I'd call terrible. But if you've read anything even remotely similar to it, you'll be wishing it was THAT you were reading instead of this.
on January 2, 2004
Quite honestly, I am not sure. Gaiman's premise sparks with imagination---as I am unfamiliar with most of the writers that he thanks in his Acknowledgements---as to whether or not it is his own imagination or that of others, I am not sure. The main character, ex-con,Shadow, seems like a nice enough guy who reads Heroditus and has garnered quite a few other literary allusions even though we are told that his education is basic. On the eve of his release from prison, he discovers his wife has died in a car accident, a little later on in the story he learns that she died in the company of her lover, Shadow's friend. With this crushing truth weighing down upon him, Shadow meets and accepts a job with Mr. Wednesday, a man who seems to turn up when you least expect him and knows a little too much about Shadow's life. Suddenly, Shadow finds himself immersed in a battle royal in which Wednesday and an assortment of odd characters struggle to maintain some hold on an America they were forced to voyage to while in the believing minds of Old Country immigrants. Wednesday and his cronies are the old gods---Odin, Bast, and a cast of others---old, cranky and disillusioned by their diminished presence in American life as they are rapidly replaced by new gods of technology, wealth and power. Wednesday tells Shadow that "a war is coming"--a war in which the two will battle for supremacy.
Sounds great, doesn't it? Well, it is in parts. I found Shadow's sojourn into the small lakeside town in Michigan throughly entertaining--in fact if Gaiman had concentrated his efforts on making that his major plot, I think he could have successfully spun off all of his major themes in a more concise and precise manner that would not have left the reader scratching his head at major points in the story. Not being that well-versed with some of the gods and legends that Gaiman alludes to, I would have found an appendix detailing some of the minor aspects of this lore paramount to my understanding and enjoyment of the story.
After reading this nearly 600 pager, I regret to say that I don't think that there was much to ponder over, other than the rather obvious message that American life is consummed with immediate success and gratification rather than those which are founded on ritual and tradition. Shadow's role is never fully defined; other than his experience on the tree, he is very American; voyeur rather than participator---he may feel more alive, but what he does with that life, the story never defines.
Bottom line: Many of the other reviewers claim that Gaiman is a better comic book writer than a novelist. I have not read his Sandman series, but I have read some good graphic novels that promote conversations and make good observations on modern and not-so-modern life in an entertaining way. On a whole this book, does not do this. A good premise basically goes wasted. The tale of Hinklemann and the one untainted town in Michigan should have been given a little more detail and basically the same story could have been told with more impact. Recommended to those who want to read a 600 page book with aspirations to compare it with "The Stand".
on December 29, 2003
I finished American Gods this afternoon. A very interesting read, and some memorable lines and whatnot. The writing style was wanting in some aspects, but that didn't detract from a decent story. The ending was a bit of a downer, but I was satisfied with the way the author tied things up. The idea of Jesus hitch-hiking in Afghanistan was humerous, if inaccurate (any good Muslim would have stopped for the prophet Isa (pbuh)). Odd thing, though...I mean, where was Jesus in America and, more importantly, where was God? People believe in them, correct? But apparently, only pagan, technology, and intagible gods exist in a country where the majority of people worship in the major monotheistic traditions. Hell, even the gods of the Hindus make appearences, but God, the deity with the most worship on Earth? Nope. Or Jesus, who exists (according to the book) in Central Asia? Don't count on it.
Also, how does Shadow take all of this in so calmly? Mr. Gaimon would have us believe that one's wife dying is a perfect excuse to accept the most bizarre of circumstances (gods? undead wife? etc). Yeah, no dice. The man just floats through the book, almost entirely unphased by his encounters with deities and demons. The reader will encounter much difficulty in sympathizing with such an obscure, flat character. The most admirable things about him is the fact that he hooks up with Bast. Finally, it confuses me that a god lives on belief, but can be killed by bullets. Whatever. A decent read that went down easy for someone who lives on never-ending fantasy series, but it suffers from plot-holes, character development, and the writing style could use some polish.
Interesting, but would not buy it.