This is a bad land for Gods… The old gods are ignored. The new gods are as quickly taken up as they are abandoned, cast aside for the next big thing. Either you’ve been forgotten, or you’re scared you’re going to be rendered obsolete, or maybe you’re just getting tired of existing on the whims of people.
Shadow, just out of prison and with nothing to go home to, is hired to be Mr. Wednesday’s bodyguard as he travels around America to warn all the other incarnations of gods, legends, and myths, that “a storm is coming.” There’s going to be a battle between the old gods who were brought to melting pot America by their faithful followers generations ago, and the new gods of technology, convenience, and individuality.
That’s the premise of Neil Gaiman‘s American Gods and it’s just crackling with promise! But unfortunately, that’s not really what this novel is about. It’s what the novel keeps telling us it’s about (and what many critics told us it was about), but it doesn’t deliver.
Yes, there are plenty of gods, myths, and legends, and Gaiman does great things with some of them (e.g., Ibis the undertaker and Mr. Nancy) but most are never developed and a reader who has not read an encyclopedia of folklore probably won’t catch all the clever allusions.
Yes, there’s Neil Gaiman’s characteristic style, which I always enjoy. His prose is clean, unvarnished, and exquisite. His characters are recognizable; His America is recognizable. In fact, this was the best part of the book (and what Gaiman does so well) — Shadow’s roadtrip across the United States gave Gaiman plenty of opportunities to showcase his humorous insights into the human condition and, in this case, small-town American life. This was lovely, and I enjoyed these parts of the book.
The problem with American Gods was that the plot, meandering this way and that across the continent, never solidified. Shadow goes to this American town, meets a few gods and legends, goes to this other place, meets a couple more… There are numerous short stories detailing the lives of these gods and the people who worshipped them, so we expect to see some of these folks again (perhaps at this coming battle), but we don’t. A few weird mystical things happen to Shadow and we anticipate an explanation for those occurrences. Then there’s a sub-plot involving Shadow’s undead wife who asks Shadow to bring her back to life.
I don’t want to ruin it for anybody, but let me say that the “storm” we’re promised doesn’t materialize. Every time there’s a conflict, or a tight spot, someone suddenly shows up and, knowingly or unknowingly, takes care of it. Shadow (and his dead wife) figure out what the bad guys are going to do before they do it. Characters who we hoped might play a bigger role, and events that seemed to be significant, just fade away. The whole thing kind of fizzles. The plot twists at the end aren’t clever or inventive — they just seem to be there to fit the role of “obligatory plot twist.”
The premise of American Gods has so much promise. I was anticipating some poignant social commentary on America and our habits of worship. After all, American Gods is a best-selling award-winning novel and I expect great things from Neil Gaiman. But it didn’t happen this time and I really can’t explain the critical acclaim for this novel.
Neil Gaiman‘s own introduction describes this book as: “big and odd and meandering” and in his postscript as: “a thriller, and a murder mystery, and a romance, and a road trip.” Suffice to say that you’ll be getting a quite an eclectic mix of genres, tones, characters and themes when you crack open American Gods.
Only days before his release from prison, introverted and taciturn Shadow gets the news that his wife Laura has died in a car accident. Numb with grief, he boards a plane heading for home, only to get a job offer from a man calling himself Mr Wednesday. The deal is simple: Shadow acts as a driver, bodyguard and gofer as Mr Wednesday goes about his mysterious business — what that might be isn’t entirely clear, but Shadow is an observant man, and the puzzle pieces are gradually put together…
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, as for a long time it’s deliberately kept ambiguous as to what exactly Mr Wednesday is doing. Like Shadow, the reader can only pay attention as best she/he can, and appreciate all the sights and sounds that the fantasy road trip offers them. Along with completely original people and places, Gaiman also incorporates real American landmarks such as Rock City and the House on the Rock (though describes them in such a way that makes you question their existence!).
To be honest, it took me a while to get into American Gods. It starts off pretty slowly, and for the longest time you have no idea what’s going on. There are chapters and passages that seem rather meaningless, and it’s not until the book’s halfway point that things start to make sense: characters’ motivations become clear; disparate plot-lines start getting woven together.
But one thing became clear as I made my way through the book — to enjoy the novel to its full extent you just HAVE to have a fairly thorough grasp of ancient mythology and the various pantheons of gods. Half the fun is getting a description of a new character’s appearance, personality and traits, and figuring out which of the ancient gods they really are. (An old man with one eye? With an affinity for Wednesday? I know who this is!) Though Gaiman eventually identifies each god explicitly, that still won’t mean much if you have no context for them.
It’s also jam-packed with other references, from Herodotus to The Beatles to obscure Scottish fairy tales collected by Joseph Jacobs. This is a book where Shadow can tell a raven to say “nevermore” without any explanation, so expect a lot of sneaky allusions to go over your head, as I’m sure many of them did with me.
As it happens, there are several editions of the novel floating around, and my recommendation is that you read the one published as “the author’s preferred text”. It contains about twelve thousand more words that the original edition, and comes with supplementary material such as reading group questions, an interview with the author, and “The Monarch of the Glen”, a novella that details another of Shadow’s adventures with the ancient gods.
American Gods is a deep and complex novel, one that’s soon to be adapted for television, which was part of the impetus for me reading it in the first place. In many ways it’s vintage Gaiman, specifically in his technique of updating old myths into contemporary settings, reforming them into something fresh but familiar. More than that, it’s a story of America’s identity, as explored by a (relatively) recent immigrant, and the thousands of contradictory components that make up its whole.
Neil Gaiman has a huge and enthusiastic following, so I figure there must be good reason for that. I really enjoyed his SANDMAN comic series as well as his books The Graveyard Book, Stardust, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane a few years back. However, my first impression of Neverwhere was that it seemed to go nowhere despite a magical London setting, and the meandering plot and fizzling ending of American Gods was a major disappointment considering how many awards the book won.
However, since moving to London I’ve been on journey to rediscover what fans love about Gaiman’s work, and after listening to Good Omens, Neverwhere, and Anansi Boys, I gave the full-cast of American Gods another chance. Moreover, I discovered that Starz had produced an original 8-part series recently, so I thought this would be another angle to explore.
The conceit that all gods old and new rise and fall depending on the number and intensity of their followers is neat. Setting that on a road trip across small-town Middle America is even more enticing, and constantly hinting that an epic battle of old and new gods is brewing builds a lot of anticipation on the readers’ part.
But what we actually get is a very meandering story that introduces dozens of characters representing old gods from a host of different mythologies, including Norse, Egyptian, Afro-Caribbean, Germanic, Native American, and others. Despite all these enticing ingredients, the final dish just didn’t deliver. In particular, the main character Shadow is a cipher, a brooding and melancholy ex-con who comes out of jail only to discover his wife recently dead in a car crash. Cut adrift, he reluctantly accepts the offer to be bodyguard and muscle for a shifty old grifter named Mr. Wednesday. This provides the vehicle for Englishman Gaiman to explore a series of small-town settings and characters and explore the heart of America. As others have observed, he does a decent job capturing this essence, both the fundamental decency of folks and also the deteriorating economic conditions that face many small towns.
What is painfully lacking is a forward-moving plot to build momentum from these side-trip adventures as Mr. Wednesday visits a series of his allies and cronies while committing grifts and cons along the way, something I think Gaiman feels is a very American tradition. It seems like Shadow is forever getting caught and facing death only to be saved at the eleventh hour by another ‘deus ex plotica’ (my own invention), and then hopping back in the car for the next encounter. We finally learn the overarching plot in the closing acts of American Gods, and it sheds light on the actions of Mr. Wednesday and his cronies, but after all the build-up about the ultimate battle between old gods and new, it was a huge let-down.
Another aspect that just didn’t work for me was the surprisingly explicit sex and steady stream of profanity. I’m hardly a delicate snowflake, but I didn’t see what this really added to the story. I almost felt that he deliberately ratcheted this up to give the book a more ‘gritty Americana’ feel. That might work for a book dedicated to the dark underbelly of America like the books of James Ellroy, but it didn’t seem to fit this story.
I listened to the 10th Anniversary full-cast audiobook edition, which includes 12,000 additional words and is the author’s preferred text. The various voice actors do excellent work and even Gaiman himself adds some narration and his voice is very charming. I just wish it were in the service of a better story.
As for the television series, it’s certainly in the recent mold of original series like HBO’s Game of Thrones and Netflix’s Altered Carbon. There is a lot of intense and bloody violence, profanity, and sex/nudity galore. It’s clear that producers for these shows have greater license to show and say what they want, and also are allowed to stray quite far from the original source material, like Amazon’s re-envisioning of The Man in the High Castle. The 8 episodes of Season 1 of American Gods start out with Gaiman’s source material and storyline, but expand the back stories of the many of the side-stories that gave the book its very episodic road-trip feel. The cinematography is excellent, and the actors do good work, especially Ian McShane as the wily and wizened Mr. Wednesday.
As you can guess from it being labeled Season 1, there is of course a Season 2 that has already been commissioned, though the directors of Season 1 have left due to creative differences with the studio, so the new season may have a different feel. In any case, the drama basically highlighted the flaws of the book in my opinion, namely the glaring omission of the Christian God and Jesus Christ, who by any measure are the dominant religious figures in the US.
While Jesus Christs (yes, plural) make an appearance in the drama series, unlike in the book, it is very peripheral and doesn’t address the basic concept of the story — that gods come into existence and derive their power from the number of believers. If that is the case, then all the obscure and ancient gods should be more like mosquitos (how many people do you know that worship Odin or Bast or the Anansi these days?). Where are Jesus, Muhammad, Jehovah, Buddha, etc., who should by rights be infinitely more powerful than these minor deities and crush them like bugs with a glance? Instead Gaiman gives us Techno Boy and Mr. World as the main examples of New Gods, but I never bought that conceit. So revisiting the story just highlighted this fundamental flaw once again.
I’ve read a lot of divided opinion about American Gods — some readers love it and consider it Gaiman’s best book, and others were unimpressed like me. Some have suggested that his most iconic work is his 76-volume SANDMAN comic epic, and I would agree with that. Now there are both the book and show to compare and form your own opinions.