Monday, September 26, 2016

Good Gods

For years, I'd been intending to read something by Neil Gaiman, but it was only recently that I finally got around to it. The selection was his novel American Gods, a choice spurred on by the forthcoming TV adaptation (co-created by Bryan Fuller), and the rave reviews the book received from my husband.

American Gods is the story of ex-convict Shadow, whose life is upended when he comes into contact with actual gods. These beings exist and have power because humans believe in them. But the power of older, traditional gods -- brought to America by immigrants -- is waning as new idols of technology are on the rise. Shadow finds himself in the employ of one god in particular, and caught in the middle of a power struggle between old and new.

Even as my husband praised this book, he predicted I wouldn't like it very much. He was right in that I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as him, and it took me quite a while to get through it. Nevertheless, there were things here that did appeal to me.

Gaiman definitely has a way with words. His writing is endlessly clever, from the turns of phrase he conjures to the fun conceits of many of his scenes. He's also top notch at characterization, whether letting you inside the head of his principle character, or painting a vivid supporting character in a single chapter. These two strengths work together time and time again throughout this novel, and a pantheon of gods is the perfect showcase.

Just when you think you've read the best scene (or you've met the best character) of the book, along will come another. There are Slavic gods, Norse gods, Egyptian gods, figures from American folklore, each with their own well-thought-out perspective on the world. There's the temptress goddess media, reaching out to Shadow as television characters. There's the god who immediately fades from human memory, and the slick writing Gaiman uses to portray this. There's the wily Mr. Wednesday, so vivid on the page that you can only imagine exactly the actor they wound up casting to play him, Ian McShane.

Yes, as a string of "episodes," if you will, American Gods is quite simply brilliant. (And one hopes that means it will make a brilliant television series.) As an overall story? Well, this is indeed where I didn't like the book very much. The notion of a conflict between old and new gods is an unabashed Macguffin, a Christmas tree to be decorated with shiny ornaments. Whole chapters go by without advancing the story at all; it's just Shadow in some self-contained situation involving some other god. Things move glacially toward a resolution that's rather anticlimactic. And it's surely not helped by the fact that the version of the book now most readily available is the revised edition, in which Gaiman restored 12,000 words his editor made him cut from the original.

I come out of American Gods with a healthy respect for Neil Gaiman as a writer, but a skeptical view of him as a storyteller. Usually, when the scales are balanced like that, my overall opinion of a book is negative. In this case, though, the writing itself is so smart that I'd have to grade the book a B. I will probably give Gaiman another chance at some point down the line. But it probably won't be until the right recommendation comes along.

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