Sunday, May 15, 2011

American Gods by Neil Gaiman: Impressions


American Gods, as a novel, is like a good scotch. Slightly offensive in its unfamiliarity to the palate at first, and then the complexity rolls out on the tongue in waves. The finish is long, smooth and satisfying, evaporating into the formless shape dreams take when you awake. Okay, so obviously I have no idea how to describe scotch, or this novel, but that description seemed as good as any.

Shadow, the protagonist, is a man you never actually get to know, but that's not the point. He's the every-man (and woman) character, the one that represents the best and the worst and the numbest in us. The book opens as Shadow is about to be released from prison after a 3-year stint for assault, although the details of the event don't come out for some time. A mysterious stranger, Wednesday, seems to keep appearing in his life at impossible places, persistently insisting Shadow work for him on some ambiguous task that he refuses to explain. They go on several trips about the country, visiting places such as the House on the Rock, which I visited on a family vacation way back in 1994 and, as I remember it, is exactly as it's described in the book. Minus the carousel experience, and Rock City, which I'm now determined to see sometime soon.

This book puts the road-trip wanderlust in you, I must warn you, especially if you're into weird roadside attraction-esque places, which, apparently, I am. It's hard not to just hop in the car and try to find some of these eerie places, and disconcerting to be halfway familiar with many of them, having grown up in the Midwest. I also must warn that it might take a little while to get into - I'd say it started to pick up for me when the characters made it to House on the Rock.

Shadow encounters all sorts of gods from all sorts of countries, myths, and religions. They are a dying breed, here in America, where we are always on the look out for the next best thing, which will then be quickly discarded for the best thing after that, and so on.
Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end. 
These gods are flawed and human-like, grifters and chauffeurs and funeral home directors. All ordinary places and events seem suddenly eerie and extraordinary. This is not a novel for those without the ability to suspend disbelief. The dead don't always stay dead, and the living aren't always fully alive.
"This isn't about what is," said Mr. Nancy. "It's about what people think is. It's all imaginary anyway. That's why it's important. People only fight over imaginary things."
The old gods are battling with the new gods, but no one is entirely sure why. They are all, essentially, afraid of being forgotten, for that is the death of them. And remember:
None of this is actually happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as a metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you--even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over the opposition. 
American Gods is clever and insightful and well worth the read, possibly one of my favorite reads this year, although, I've been fortunate enough to be on quite a roll with the book choices thus far.  How this escaped my eyes for so long is beyond me. It should be one of the next 5 books you read.

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