Neil Gaiman is one of those authors who I’ve somehow managed to become a fan of without having read a single book he’s written. I first became aware of his existence upon watching the Doctor Who episode, The Doctor’s Wife, which despite its name turned out to be one of the best episodes I’d ever seen. Soon afterwards I watched the film adaptation of Coraline, which also proved to be a very well-written story. I’ve enjoy reading his insightful Tweets on his Twitter account for over a year now, and so I decided it was high time I came into direct contact with one of his books face to face. American Gods (2001) has sat on my shelf for a while since I spontaneously bought it in a bookshop, making it the obvious candidate to be my first foray into his work. I had high expectations which, I suppose, were never going to be met.
The first thing I noticed was that the characters were well developed and instantly engaging. Shadow, the protagonist, is a very likeable and unassuming character who undergoes real development throughout the novel. Beginning as a broken, lifeless ex-convict, through the events of the story he rediscovers his soul and manages to move on to a newfound sense of life. This progression felt convincing for the most party, although I don’t entirely understand the effect the Passion on the Tree had upon him. It took death to discover and partly resurrect his father to metaphorically bring himself to life? Sounds very Biblical! I imagine it would become clearer upon a second reading. I did enjoy the Tree sections however, even if they did lose some credibility by the fact that Shadow, seemingly inexplicably, volunteered to be tied to it for nine days. Again, would probably require a second reading.
The other characters which particularly impressed me were the more minor ones, such as Sam Crowe, whose attitude was enjoyable to read, and the majority of the residents of Lakeside – their diversity creating a village which felt very full of life. I also liked Laura’s character, though her unexplained state of being undead irritated me slightly (which applies to most of the business to do with coins, in fact), though it was described to gory satisfaction. It was an interesting decision to make most of the Gods decrepit, unhealthy, corrupt old men and women, but one which perfectly makes clear the idea of these Gods being ancient and abandoned. I think Gaiman may have overstated this point, though – I tired of the drugs, crude dialogue and general sense of “disgusting adultness” which pervaded the novel very quickly. Wednesday was an interesting character, characterised well enough so that when he is revealed to be the villain of the novel, sacrificing the other Gods for his own gain, it’s a surprising plot twist without being an unbelievable action for the character to take. The contrast to the ‘new’ Gods is well established: the new Gods are chic, technological and efficient, wielding a deadly charisma – precisely as you’d expect modern Gods to be.
The principle of the Gods is probably the best crafted idea in the novel. Having physical manifestations, personified figures of these mythical beings is genius. Gaiman’s research is clear, with each character based on a ‘real’ God. It’s fascinating to examine the idea of immigrants to America bringing their Gods with them, effectively replicating them (as the original stays in the homeland). The Gods feed on faith and sacrifice, becoming weak and withered when these dry up. In this way, Gaiman has achieved the extraordinary feat of making the human condition appear desirable in comparison to Gods. The Gods in America are particularly weakened, because, for some mystical reason, although America is a good place for humans Gods do not survive well there. Which is a fine idea, although doesn’t ring true. The USA is one of the most religious developed countries in the world -often fanatically so. Which, in turn, makes me wonder about the lack of the Christian God? Or Jesus? What about Allah? None of the ‘Big’ Gods make a presence, which is quite a major omission, if you think about it. This blog post discusses the omission well.
Another criticism I have is that the novel simply drags on for too long. I read “The Author’s Preferred Version,” with several thousand words added in which weren’t included in the original publication. Considering at least 50% of the novel is spent travelling around the US on a ‘road trip’, advancing the plot or very little as they do so, I would really have preferred the edited down version. This kind of story isn’t necessarily bad – for example, The Road achieves it marvelously – but American Gods lacks the substance to make it engaging, despite how well written it is.
I really wanted to like American Gods, which is why it’s paining me to criticise it so much. Have I been to harsh? Not given it a chance? Certainly, there’s much to enjoy and it did pick up towards the end, but on the whole, I was a bit disappointed.
Final rating: 6.5/10