AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman
Harper Torch, 2001, 592 pages, 0-380-78903-5, Mass Market Paperback, $7.99
American Gods has now, officially, left my “I own it but haven’t read it” stack and moved onto “novels I’d like to read again one day.”
When I first picked up American Gods, I don’t think I knew what to expect. Sure, I’d heard the scores of Neil Gaiman fans singing its praises, but somewhere along the line I had missed out on what, exactly, the book was supposed to be about.
And now I understand why. To say that American Gods defies description is to say that so much happens – and good for you if you can keep up – that to decide where to start writing a comprehensible synopsis is something like trying to figure out where to start cleaning a house that has several millennia of random cultural artifacts lying around in no particular order whatsoever.
Though, don’t get me wrong. This book has plenty of organization, and kudos to Neil Gaiman for the way he arranges the plot. Even I, someone who likes to think herself capable of weeding out the upcoming surprises in most novels, missed out on some of the most obvious character insertions and plot turns. Pride would have me claim that it’s merely a lack of familiarity with some myths and legends but, really, it’s because Gaiman did such a damn good job.
So where does that leave us with attempting to summarize the story? Well, let’s try it like this:
Shadow is counting down the days until he’s released from prison; counting and imagining exactly how he’ll spend his first night of freedom. But even before he has the chance to walk through the gates, Shadow receives the first message in a lifetime’s worth of bad news. Suddenly he’s free, but he has no idea what to do, which is about the time that a man named Wednesday offers him a job.
Shadow is, understandably, skeptical about the entire situation, and the longer he stays in Wednesday’s company, the less certain he is about what to believe. But there’s no denying the strange things that are happening around him, the strange dreams, or the strange people he begins to meet. And, of course, there’s the little matter of his wife….
And that’s, really, only the very beginning, but to stay more would be giving away too much.
I suppose I had expected a different sort of narrative, something where the author is speaking in more direct, possibly humorous tones. Instead we have a very tight third person limited view from Shadow’s POV, which is more structured and action oriented than the meandering internal narrative that I had anticipated. And it’s all for the better, as the way the novel is written is exactly the way I would imagine Shadow’s mind works.
Neil Gaiman had a pretty long cast of characters to work with and, somehow, he pulled it off. At no point did I sit around wondering where these people were. I knew they were somewhere, and I knew that, wherever that was, it wasn’t integral to the story just yet. The main characters to be concerned about were Shadow and Wednesday, and they were almost always in plain view. As for the rest, it was clear from the beginning that they were important but peripheral.
And it should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway – the more familiar you are with various myths and legends, the more you’ll understand the intricacies of American Gods. Some of the best moments in the novel were the paragraphs where I would sit back and laugh, recognizing a name or a character and reading about their new place in the modern world. It felt like I was sharing a private joke with the writer or, perhaps, with the characters themselves. Nudge, wink. (Of course, I never did figure out who was the man in the charcoal suit, and I’d still love to know.)
Overall, I’d say that this novel impressed me. As my first foray into Gaiman’s writing, I think it was a good choice. It’s long, but nothing in the novel seems out of place or pointless; it’s descriptive, but not too descriptive; and the characters that come along throughout the course of the story have so much personality – unique personality – that I wouldn’t mind reading entire stories dedicated to each of them.
Then, of course, there’s the ending. It has a very smirk-worthy quality, which is really the greatest thing you can ask for.