Saturday, May 31, 2008

American Gods

I've lost track of how many people have recommended Neil Gaiman's American Gods to me. I don't remember how long I've been meaning to read it, or how long the book (picked up at Half Price Books) has been sitting on my shelf. I suppose it was inevitable that there would be a shift between the various expectations people have built up and the actual book, but now that I've finished it, I find myself thoughtful and vaguely disquieted. (A few spoilers ahead. I tried not to, but there were a couple things I simply had to say.)

American Gods plays by dream logic, both in the way the story fits together and the way the point of view character accepts his world. Things happen that are impossible, without causality (or with strange causality) or simply only half-glimpsed ... and neither the reader nor the character asks questions, because this is the way of dreams. Symbols appear, figures and forms whose meaning is somehow known. Yet there is a search for sense in this dream-world - is it found? I'm not sure. The large questions are answered; smaller ones remain, and I feel almost as if the thing this dream lacks is the waking up. I came away from the novel feeling as if something had not been explained.

Maybe it would have worked in a three, four hundred page book, but I found that the character of Shadow was too passive. His actions were generally reactions, with a few exceptions - the checkers game with Czernobog, for instance. For someone who has as much strength of past as he seems to ... he stays very much in the background of this game that goes on around him.

What shines in American Gods are the people, the bizarre, prosaic random things they say and do - the little details that Gaiman sketches - their bizarre actions that inevitably make you say, "That's a person." They're people you might know, people you can imagine existing ... and the humans are far more vivid than the gods, in this respect. Many of these characters existed for the sheer purpose of coloring Shadow's world, and they did a beautiful job of it.

What was also interesting was the interludes depicting the lives of people who had created, influenced and been influenced by the American versions of the gods. These sub-stories were enjoyable to read ... and they also quieted a fear of mine about my "Journal of the Dead," where I have a number of side-stories that take up the equivalent of several book pages. Side-narratives, even long ones, can play a key part in fleshing out the underlying framework of a novel.

Overall, I'm glad I read the book; I'm not totally sure I liked it or the conclusion. One thing I was glad about was the fact that there was no "happily ever after" with Shadow's wife. After some of the things she'd said and done throughout, I thought a happy conclusion would have been false and hollow. An interesting experience.

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