Tuesday, 5 July 2011

American Gods

I've finally gotten around to reading this, having waited so long that they even published online for free at one point.  On the other hand, it does mean that my statue of limitation of spoilers has expired.

Except... I can't really think of a way to discuss this book without (very slightly) spoiling the fifth year of Supernatural as well.  So that's what I'm going to do.  Anyone behind in their Winchester watching (though , really, it's about the same level of spoiler as mentioning that Season 1 features wendigos and Bloody Mary), look away now.

I know a lot of people argue that "Hammer of the Gods", at the tail end of the season, owed more than a small debt to this book.  Having finally read it, I'm not sure that's entirely fair.  Gaiman doesn't get (nor has he claimed) exclusive rights to re-imagine various deities within American life.  Yes, both book and episode introduce us to Kali, Ganesha, Baron Samedi and Odin (as well as Loki, kind of), but any gathering of various pantheons that doesn't see the coolness factor in including a half-man half-elephant, four-armed Goddess of Death, or bad-ass Voodoo Bokor just doesn't understand how the fuck fiction is supposed to work (you could make a case that Odin was a nod to Gaiman, actually).

If anything, it would seem more plausible that the entire concept of Supernatural owes a debt to American Gods (which was published four years before the show went on air), at least in it's early stages.  I've gone on record as saying that as obviously more accomplished, well-accomplished, and funnier the later seasons have been, Season 1 remains my favourite year purely because its atmosphere has never been bettered.  What that season managed to convey perfectly is how big America is, and that once you're out in the incomprehensible expanse of the wilds that lie outside every city, you are absolutely on your own. [1]

American Gods does the same thing.  Gaiman notes in his brief essay at the end of the book (I read the unabridged version) that the key difference between America and Britain (or any other European country) is that whilst we are about history, America is about geography. Whilst we, metaphorically speaking, build upward, America sprawls outward.  The US is perhaps simply too vast a place for any kind of unified historical identity to ever really assert itself.  As much as Sarah Palin was mocked a few weeks ago for utterly failing to understand the tale of Paul Revere (and rightly so; it's one thing to not know a story, and another to not know it during a photo-op based on that story), it's actually more surprising that Alaskans are expected to know any specifics about the Revolutionary War in the first place.  Yes, in the abstract, it's the story of their own freedom, but it also happened on the other side of a continent, more than 150 years before they became a state in their own right.

This is the key to the novel: America isn't a country.  The vast size of the land that it pleases Americans to say they own defeats such paltry ideals as nationhood.  How else can Texan politicians accuse New Yorkers of being unpatriotic whilst simultaneously demanding Texas secedes from the Union?  Each state, to a greater or lesser extent, decides what it believes America should be, and then fights with the other states that fail to live up to that arbitrary standard.

This, I think, is why the Land is so important, and why the Gods of the Old World find so little to sustain them across the Atlantic.  America's size is such that there can exist no real form of organised worship of anything.  Even Jesus, the one God to unquestionably find purchase in America, suffers here - the Jesus of the Southern Baptists of Arkansas might well be all but unrecognisable to the Jesus of north-eastern Maine, in any way that truly matters.

That's the territory of American Gods, then, and it works really well.  At least, it does the first five or six times.

The biggest problem with this novel is that there are only so many delicious chocolates you can eat in a row.  It doesn't matter how nice they are, how thick and creamy their taste, how quickly and satisfyingly they melt upon your tongue.  It doesn't even matter if it was made by Johnny Depp, or that chick from Damage.  Sooner or later, you start wanting to try something else.

American Gods, like Supernatural, is perhaps above all else a road trip.  Unlike Supernatural, it doesn't offer us a conclusion at the end of each chapter.  On and on it goes, introducing us to a veritable cornucopia of forgotten foreign gods.  Each one is well-realised, each one is interesting in how they've adapted to the circumstances of their situation.  Take any of them in isolation, and you have a fascinating scene, if not the beginnings of a whole new novel.

But it just... never... stops.  The vast majority of the first two-thirds of the novel are essentially a supernatural travelogue, in which the deities and mythic creatures Shadow meets are almost indistinguishable from the roadside attractions where they make their deals.  This is probably the point, of course, but if so, it's metaphor at the expense of story-telling.  It hardly helps that (again, deliberately) Shadow is not the most gripping of characters to join on a road-trip.

In fairness, the book picks up a great deal in the final five or six chapters, and concludes with multiple twists and revelations that, as one would hope, causes the reader to re-evaluate almost the whole book, and which suddenly takes ideas that were entirely innocuous upon introduction and twists them into whole new shapes.  The best mystery stories don't answer your questions, so much as they reveal that there were questions you never thought to ask, and American Gods does this very well.

Perhaps Gaiman is to be congratulated, then, in as much as he's inverted the standard cliche that it's better to journey than to arrive.  In this book, the arrival is stunning, flawless, a shining example of how to tie a story together.

It's just a shame that the journey to get there left me so cold.

[1] You can make a similar case about the first year of The X-Files, actually.  That's why my favourite first season episodes are "Ice", "Shapes", and "Darkness Falls", and why the show always seemed at its best to me when it returned to the "no-one can possibly help you" wilderness.

1 comment:

Jamie said...

I have always wondered why this book is revered so much. There are bits that work very well, and many of the gods are introduced in darkly atmospheric ways (Czernobog and his sisters, Anubis and Thoth, that mad Irish leprechaun, and, particularly, the dream sequences with the buffalo-headed man, which were always the most vivid for me), but you're right that the trope keeps on repeating itself far too many times. This is, I think, exacerbated in this version of the text, the version I re-read having first read the shorter original (which I have to say I enjoyed reading more - not that I really noticed where the insertions were, except maybe in one of the climactic scenes).

As to the ending though, I have to say I disagree there in some ways. Some of the ending I was deeply affected by - primarily the time spent on the tree (although I'm not sure that such a sacrificial scene wasn't handled far better in Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry), and the resolution of the kobold story was brilliant. However, the actual climax to the central story was such a damp squib - even considering that the central twist was certainly cleverly handled, and, yes, forced you to reevaluate what went before - that it deflated my enjoyment entirely. It was only the horrific emotional punch in the gut that we get from the kobold thread that stayed with me long after I had read it, and that still inspired some interest.

I suppose the problem I have is possibly the fact that the main plot is essentially a con. I had a similar reaction to The Prestige by Christopher Priest, but the trick in that was much more integral to the underlying thematic basis of the novel - to the deflation you feel when you find out the mundane explanation for a magic trick - that I can forgive it much more. I don't see that as much here, the gods present aren't generally of the 'organised religion as a method of control by trickery' aspect, but generally more primitive and elemental.

Plus there's the blankness of Shadow's character - I don't know if that's intentional, hence his name, but reading it through a second time and his lack of fire or charisma leaves a gaping hole at the heart of the story. I felt sorry for him, but he never really engaged me.

Anyway, my two cents.