A while ago, I wrote about Michael Stackpole’s In Hero Years, I’m Dead, a story about superheros who are aging and retiring. A funny/serious book that speaks to our notions of the fantasy and the reality. In American Gods, Neil Gaiman tells a fantastical tale of the forgotten gods and mythological creatures of the many world cultures, how they came to America in the heads of their devotees and believers, and over time, were forgotten in favor of newer gods, like technology, internet, consumerism, etc.
Gaiman’s central premise is that these gods and creatures of mythology exist because people believed in them. When people stop believing in them, their powers wane, and they become impotent creatures themselves, scrambling over the centuries and millenia to make a living.
This idea is explored through the story of Shadow, an excon who is finally released from prison after three years, and on his way home, meets a strange guy who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. The characters have names that suggest their god identity. So guess who Mr. Wednesday is? Along the trajectory of this tale, Shadow meets a woman named Easter, a guy named Czernobog, who worked in a slaughterhouse before his retirement, a tall thin, beaky guy called Ibis, and his dog and partner, Jacquel, among many many others.
Shadow stopped in the street, and stared. “Are you trying to tell me that ancient Egyptians came here to trade five thousand years ago?” Mr. Ibis said nothing, but he smirked loudly. Then he said, “Three thousand five hundred and thirty years ago. Give or take.”
“This country has been Grand Central for ten thousand years or more.”
Mr. Ibis is a mortician. And Jacquel does the embalming.
“Coroner’s a political appointment around here,” said Ibis. “His job is to kick the corpse. It it doesn’t kick him back, he signs the death certificate. Jacquel’s what they call a prosector. He works for the county medical examiner. He does autopsies.”
From the heart, the liver, and from one of the kidneys, he [Jacquel] cut an additional slice. These pieces he chewed, slowly, making them last, while he worked. Somehow it seemed to Shadow a good thing for him to do: respectful, not obscene.
Mr. Wednesday is trying to recruit all the old gods to make war on the new gods, and enlists Shadow and some others to help in his endeavor.
This is a very long, complicated plot, with loads of characters, so many in fact, that I was having trouble keeping them sorted and remembering who they were, and the story jumped from scene to scene.
I found it a dense read, but compelling. I do feel that it was too long. There are a number of long side stories that I feel could have been left out to no detriment to the book, but then, I was not his editor, so what do I know.
It will greatly enlarge your knowledge base of lots of gods and mythological creatures, such as Mr Nancy, who is the living embodiment of Anansi, the spider god of African legend. It is filled with ifrits, pixies, deities and characters who are the manifestations of the different aspects of gods. Odin appears in two separate places as two different manifestation based on the belief system of the people where he is.
Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, house of many rooms.
It is very different from the other books of Gaiman which I have read. My thoughts about Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane are here. I have also read Coraline, which is really a children’s book. A delightful, Richard Scary kind of story.
It is a difficult plot to explain without sounding like a nine-year-old telling you the story of a movie he has seen: “and then ….. and then ….. and then……” So I will simply leave you with Gaiman’s own words:
One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story.