American Gods: Author’s Preferred Text by Neil Gaiman (New York: William Morrow, 2011; originally published in 2001. 560 pp)
Neil Gaiman is a bestselling author of more than twenty books. He has received numerous awards including the Newbery Medal, the Carnegie Medal, the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the Locus Award.
Nothing New Under the Sun
A wise, ecclesiastical thinker once said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Such sentiments are particular true for the arts. Everything feels derivative. With music, the Western scale provides 12 notes. It’s no wonder an old musician sues a new musician every quarter or so for plagiarism.
Painters have the same issue. Why else travel further through the Dadaist wormhole?
And let’s not forget narrative. A few weeks ago, I researched the latest Bram Stoker award winners because I’ve read a few horror novels and I’m interested in expanding my horizons in the genre. But every last synopsis felt well-tread.
Luckily, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods proves there is something new under the sun. This novel might be the most inventive book I’ve read in years.
Shadow and Wednesday
The story follows Shadow, a convict soon to be released from prison. With the corrections facility making corrections in his life, Shadow looks forward to living the straight and narrow. After some requisite relations with his wife upon release, Shadow was ready to live better:
“Third, after he and Laura had come out of the bedroom, maybe a couple of days later, he was going to keep his head down and stay out of trouble for the rest of his life” (5).
But the gods have other plans for us mortals.
Sadly, some freak occurrences leave Shadow without a job or a wife upon release. But, a random meeting with an odd stranger going by the name, Wednesday, provides Shadow with an unusual job opportunity.
A New Job. A New War
This job, although ethereal in description, lifts Shadow to a sovereign plane of existence. Wednesday is a god, one of many spanning the United States.
“When the people came to America they brought us with them. They brought me, and Loki and Thor and the Lion-God, Leprechauns and Cluracans and Banshees, Kubera and Frau Holle and Ashtaroth, and they brought you. We rode here in their minds, and we took root. We traveled with the settlers to the new lands across the ocean” (122-123).
These old gods—deities whose sustenance depends on active belief—face new opposition in television, the Internet, and other forms of new media. Given the lack of belief to go around, these gods are prepping to face off in a battle for all the belief left. It’s a war.
“The war had begun and nobody saw it. The storm was lowering and nobody knew it.
Wars are being fought all the time, with the world outside no more the wise: the war on crime, the war on poverty, the war on drugs. This was war was smaller than those, and huger, and more selective, but it was as real as any” (328).
And that’s what I call a premise.
Weight of Subject
Even though Gaiman writes well, I wouldn’t classify American Gods as literary fiction. There’s no intent to wow you with lofty words, the weight is in the subject itself.
And that subject is awesome. The sheer inventiveness of imagining an America in which generations of gods have become wayward wanderers across the country, seeking whatever sustenance they can find and aiming for one big battle for the hearts and minds of America is the kind of ingenious art worth celebrating.
There’s nothing new under the sun except, American Godst; it’s worth a read.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5