"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Monday, June 20, 2011

American Gods

Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. New York: Harper Torch, 2001. 588 pages.

"Shadow is a man with a past. But now he wants nothing more than to live a quiet life with his wife and stay out of trouble. Until he learns that she's been killed in a terrible accident. Flying home for the funeral, as a violent storm rocks the plane, a strange man in the seat next to him introduces himself. The man calls himself Mr. Wednesday, and he knows more about Shadow than is possible. He warns Shadow that a far bigger storm is coming. And from that moment on, nothing will ever be the same." (description from book cover)

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Premise. As he admits in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Neil Gaiman is not the first author to discuss what gods, both modern and the modern fates of the increasingly archaic.  Yet Gaiman's sweeping narrative says so much about modern faith, but also how gods feel about being left behind. But more than that, as a non-native of the U.S., Gaiman is able to present an unflinching view about how this country treats gods, and it is fascinating.
  • Narrative Style.  In order to add substance to the feelings of the gods in America, the narrative jumps back in time to present stories of how different gods were brought to America by the beliefs of immigrants.  This not only highlights the breadth of the gods that came here, but how the difference in life here made it hard for them to survive.
  • Narrative Style.  While the stories presented in the flashbacks enhances the overall message of the novel, there are times when the main story line is so engrossing that the sudden shift in story feels jarring.
  • Language, Sex, Violence.  This is always a personal choice moment, but there is plenty of profanity, explicit sex (see "Somewhere in America" at the end of chapter 1), and quite a bit of violence.  If none of those are your cup of tea, then be forewarned.

American Gods is a beautiful, well-crafted book.  But it says some difficult things about American culture and the gods we worship.  Neil Gaiman has a unique view of the world that comes through in his writing, and it comes across as both cynical and hopeful.  Society may not be in the greatest shape, but there will always be a few people who will be willing to be decent people, if they won't sacrifice themselves for the greater good.  Gaiman also presents the idea that we are responsible for anything the gods do, because we created them with our belief. 

In Shadow, Gaiman has created a relateable and likeable protagonist.  Once Shadow realizes that he cannot escape from his new realizations about the world, he takes it all with a grain of salt, bringing a grounded quality to a story that might otherwise seem too fanciful. He also highlights that humans and gods may not have the same concerns, and while the gods may be focused simply on survival, humans have come to expect more out of life than mere existence.

As I mentioned earlier, the theme of what happens to gods past there time has been explored before.  The Mists of Avalon takes it to Arthurian legend, describing the conflict between the gold ways of the land and the new Christianity.  Even the original Star Trek episode "Who Mourns for Adonis?" looks at the fate of the Greek gods after they left Earth.  I wondered why we might be so drawn to such stories, and my hypothesis is we tell these stories because they are about loneliness, and they touch on a deep-seated fear of being forgotten. Gaiman makes the gods into people, and they are as petty and self-serving, but sometimes even as noble, as we are.  The length may seem daunting, but the book is well worth the read.


  1. I completely agree with each item in your lists of strengths and weaknesses. I found the chapter-ending interludes to be fascinating but afterward, one has to reconnect with the greater story each time. So, good for background, bad for pacing, but all-in-all quite necessary and insightful.

    As I read this over the weekend, I contemplated many of the same points you noted. What is it to be a "god" anyway? To Gaiman, any entity, any thing, any symbol, that is held up as a purveyor of potential good or pleasure begets a new god. I find this pointedly allegorical in relation to human nature, and spot-on at that. Taken a step further, one may argue American Gods is a rather scathing review of modern American/Western cultural ideology. At the very least, it's damn good and engaging writing.

    Thanks for the excellent review!

  2. I've had this book on my shelf for a while now (I tend to buy nearly anything Gaiman), but I haven't reached it yet on my reading list. After reading your review, I think I'll be moving it up to the top of the pile! Great review.