the contextual life

thoughts without borders

neil gaiman :: american gods

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i was introduced to neil gaiman’s writings in my early 20s through neverwhere, the 1996 novelization of his bbc mini-series. it was unlike anything i’d read before. granted, i wasnt the fantasy type, still far from it, but i have a feeling that even if i were to plow through shelves of genre fiction gaiman would still come out as a rarity. he brings fantasy back to its roots, when the form was considered literature—homer’s odyssey, beowulf, c.s. lewis—and not of the mass-market, throwaway variety.

the vivid world gaiman creates through his lyrical prose has an overpowering effect on the senses and fulfills a necessary element of fantasy: earnest escapism. the reader is lulled into a surreal world, wrapped in a warm darkness, and separated from the terra firma beneath their feet. suspension of disbelief comes willingly and with ease. not essential to a fantastical tale, however, is the opportunity for intellectual engagement.

philosophical questions are there for the reader to grapple with if they choose to do so but turning off the mind and enjoying the story without much heavy lifting is also an option; a quality which makes gaiman consistently accessible to brooding teens, brainy adults, and everyone in between.

nowhere is this more true than in american gods whose foundation is what the mythologist joseph campbell called “the hero’s journey”: the story of a hero venturing from the common world into a land of the supernatural. the hero meets with fantastical forces and wins a decisive victory. i won’t speak to the conclusion of the book but its hero protagonist, known to the reader only as Shadow, fits the description of the leading man—but, with a gaimian-twist.

american gods presents a hazy view of good and evil. even our protagonist is questionable, having just been released from prison after serving time for robbery. Shadow’s ambivalence towards his newly found fate—learning just before release that his wife had been killed in a car crash, meeting shady, folklorish characters in a bar who preform magic tricks, and being kidnapped and stowed away in a funeral home—was hardly reassuring.

the assumed leader of the traditional gods, Wednesday, is the shiftiest of the bunch and it’s not quite clear why Shadow is devoted to his every plan. but, like Shadow, the reader goes along with it and the flowing, drugged-out scenery keeps them in hazy bliss.

credit :: kimberly butler

ultimately, american gods is the story of old vs. new. the traditional gods of norse, greek, roman, and native american myth are pit against the gods of technology and finance. the storm clouds are gathering and it appears that everyone is in for a cataclysmic battle. they’re not fighting for physical turf, they’re fighting for sacrificial offerings of americans—the only way to survive without needing to work, which Wednesday appears to be hell-bent on avoiding.

the role of technology in our lives, and what seems to be the doing away with conventional practices, has been a well-worn subject in recent months, and one should remember that this book came out in 2001. the recent debate continues, however, to provoke a fair amount of writers to espouse either ahistorical, luddite dogma or idealized notions of scientific advancement. in american gods both arguments are strikingly absent. subtlety is one of gaiman’s strengths and he makes full use of it here. Shadow’s unquestioning loyalty to the murky Wednesday is not born out of any ideological affiliation; the leader of the old guard just happened to come along at the right time. but underneath Shadow’s apathy there’s a romantic side and you can’t help but sense his sincere desire to do the right thing; in turn you root for his side. but as said in this work, on more than one occasion, “america is no place for the gods,” and one is left to wonder if this is true.

 

:: [dig deeper] ::

american gods harper collins page
an interview with abc radio national’s book show
neil discusses his picks for best american comics 2010 on NPR’s talk of the nation
neil’s updated website with links to his very active facebook and twitter accounts
if you like neil gaiman’s stories, check out NBC’s now discontinued show heroes

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Written by Gabrielle

January 23, 2011 at 11:59 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , ,

One Response

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  1. […] Magician King). This was for the 10th anniversary of Neil’s American Gods, which I’ve reviewed here. Basically, all of Neil’s books are on my list but I’m looking forward to this one in […]


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