Tuesday, June 26, 2012

American Gods, you can't make me love you if I don't

First things first. I love Neil Gaiman. I LOVE him love him. This just happens to be the first book of his that I've read. And look, guys . . . I ACTIVELY tried to love this book as much as I love its author. A book has never been given a better chance at love than the chance I gave THIS book. It just didn't do it for me.

Go ahead, American Gods fans. I can take it.
So the setting is America, as you may have gathered. I think this, in a nutshell, is what I didn't like about it. (More on that later. Let it simmer for now.) Our protagonist is Shadow, a shadowy (I mean, come ON) character who's just been released from prison and learned that his wife and best friend were killed in a car accident while engaging in . . . a compromising activity. On his way home, Shadow is approached by a mysterrrrrious stranger called Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a mysterrrrrrious job. Events get weirder and weirder, and every time Shadow asks a question, he's told that he's not paid to ask questions and I break another pencil.

Also, America is full of gods from various cultures that were brought over in the hearts and minds of immigrants over the years. The old gods (think Anansi and Kali) are fading, because few actively worship them in the New World, and the new gods (think Media and Technology) are thriving from the focused adoration of the masses. And therein lies the main conflict of the story (I think?): the old unwilling to make way for the new.

This is all perfectly acceptable . . . and even GOOD. Interesting premise. Complex characters. A clever explanation for the significance of roadside attractions ("In the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they've never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit" [p. 118]).


As far as the content, one of the main complaints I've heard is that certain prominent deities (most conspicuously, the Christian one) don't figure into the plot at all. This particular aspect didn't bother me once I realized that the oversight wasn't an oversight at all.
"'It's going to be a white Christmas,' said Shadow as he pumped the gas.
'Yup. Shit. That boy was one lucky son of a virgin.'
'Lucky, lucky guy. He could fall in a cesspit and come up smelling like roses. Hell, it's not even his birthday, you know that? He took it from Mithras. You run into Mithras yet? Red cap. Nice kid. . . . So, yeah, Jesus does pretty good over here. But I met a guy who said he saw him hitchhiking by the side of the road in Afghanistan and nobody was stopping to give him a ride. You know? It all depends on where you are.'" (pp. 207-208)
If Jesus isn't adversely affected by the central conflict between old and new, it makes sense that he doesn't figure into the plot. And, in a Q&A at the end of my edition of the book, Gaiman confirms that the omission was a conscious decision.
"If you're asking why Christ doesn't turn up, it's mostly because he was, like Buddha, or several other individuals, much too successful and busy to be interested (or even interestable) in anything Mr. Wednesday would have had to offer."

There's THAT gripe settled.

But what kept me from loving this book as much as I wanted to was the writing style. It's clipped and cold and . . . kind of soulless. I didn't find ONE sentence that was underline-worthy in the whole book. Not ONE phrase constructed well enough to warrant reaching for a pen. Oh, wait . . . I just found something I underlined toward the end.
"The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies." (p. 547)
I really like cookies.

But, once again, Neil explained himself in the Q&A:
"I wanted to write American Gods in what I thought of as an American style---clean, simple, uncluttered---and push the narrator further into the background than I had on previous books."
Oh, Neil. You were trying to write "American"? Let's not try that again, please.

I'm about 100 pages into Neverwhere, and I am a MUCH bigger fan of British Gaiman. I've even underlined things! This is good news for me, a lover of Neil Gaiman who didn't QUITE love American Gods.

Now watch as I wantonly compare this book to other things: When I described the plot to my husband, he said, "Oh. So it's like Watchmen." *shrugs*

SOURCE: Gaiman, Neil. (2001). American Gods. New York: HarperCollins.

I'll never get a better opportunity to use this.


  1. "But what kept me from loving this book as much as I wanted to was the
    writing style. It's clipped and cold and . . . kind of soulless."

    YES. My friend loves this book, so I tried and then was all "noooooo! No like!" Or as I say in my poncey "literary journal": "It was fine. I just didn't feel like I got much out of it. I mean, hurrah, Shadow grew as a person. I really don't care much for the Journey of Self-Discovery stories."

    OH, and earlier, to agree with you: "He's not so much into the prose, is he?" So it's good to know there's a REASON for that, even if it's a faily reason. And what I've read of The Graveyard Book I very much like, AND his Doctor Who episode is one of my all-time favorites (and River Song's not even in it), so he's awesome. Just...not here.

  2. This post has shaken my faith in our friendship.

    Nawww... you know I be kidding.

    But seriously, what I loved about this book was the plot construction and not so much the sentences. The story was really inventive and the pacing is just about perfect.

    Maybe this is a book for boys? Like, there are definitely lady-books so maybe this is a boy-book (or maybe "gentleman-book" or "dude-book" or possibly a "Seth Cohen-book").

    I liked Neverwhere quite a bit, so I'm glad we can agree on that one. I didn't particularly care for Anansi Boys.

    Finally, on the Christ thing. I had assumed (incorrectly, I guess) that the Christian God wasn't a character because Christianity is monotheistic religion - so God is the only God and that really doesn't fit into the narrative.

    I should be sleeping now.

  3. Point for Odin

    I want to read some Gaiman cos his story in My Mother She Killed me was one of the only ones I liked. Maybe I'll start somewhere else cos while the premise of this one sounds interesting, I trust your taste. Unless I see this on sale or something, at which point I will ignore your advice and you can tell me "told you so" if I hate it.

  4. I love Gaiman because of Coraline and his contribution to Doctor Who, and I love his creative ideas, but his writing style's just not for me. (still struggling through Neverwhere)

  5. I always see Gaiman things around places and I'm all like 'oh, he sounds cool, I should read something he wrote sometime' and then I just completely forget about it/him. Soooo... I'm still going to do than only maybe not starting with this because, well, what does 'American writing' even mean?!

  6. I love when we agree about things. Sunshine and rainbows and glittery centaurs!

    I've heard only good things about The Graveyard book, and so far Neverwhere is quite good, although not blowing me away. But he's so nice on Twitter, and his hair is all scruffly.

  7. I always knew this would happen eventually. Our taste in books and music couldn't be perfectly aligned forever! But it still hurts, Brooks...it still hurts.

    The story is definitely inventive. I don't think Mr. Gaiman will ever suffer from a shortage of weird ideas. It frustrated me because I knew I SHOULD like it, but it wasn't hitting the right chord somehow. But if Seth Cohen likes it...well then, I guess I'll have to give it another try!

    That monotheistic dealy is another good explanation for the lack of Jesus action. That could have figured into the decision, I suppose.

  8. You should probably still read it...even though I kind of told you I hated it. But I didn't HATE it. I just didn't LOVE it. And it's one of those books everyone talks about, and it's always good to know what people are talking about I think. Are you sufficiently confused now?

    He also wrote a short story called "A Study in Emerald" for an anthology combining the worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft. The more I hear about it, the more I reallllllly want to read it.

  9. Coraline (the movie) traumatized me forever. BUTTONS FOR EYES. I don't think I've seen his Doctor Who episode. I need to catch up on that show soon...like today.

  10. It means NOTHING GOOD, Laura. Nothing good at all.