I was doing some research on pantheon one day, for my book. One search result led to another, and several clicks later, I came across American Gods by Neil Gaiman.
I had heard about him before but did not read any of his work. I am a big fan of mythology and fantasy, but his work did not end up in my searches before (don’t know how I missed it before, you can imagine an embarrassed smiley here).
So, I bought a copy from Amazon and curled up in the blanket on the bed with my phone (I use Kindle app). It was a rainy, chilly, night. Everybody slept by the time I finished my work, household chores, etc.
That is how I fell under the charm of Mr. Gaiman and became his reluctant fan. Why the reluctance? You will know soon.
Neil Gaiman, the author
Let’s talk about the author first.
There must be a few people like me out there, who came across his name by accident.
Boy, I had no idea he was this famous (phew!). Besides being a big name in comics world (The Sandman), Mr. Gaiman already has quite a few successful novels in his portfolio.
American Gods turns out to be one of his most successful work of fiction till date, winning prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards for him.
American Gods, the book
According to Amazon, this book falls under science fiction and fantasy/contemporary fiction/action adventure.
However, I agree with many other reviewers that this book crosses multiple genres. There are elements of horror and tragedy cleverly woven into the spider web of the supernatural, mythology and modern dependence on technology and consumerism.
Yes, of course, the book is a tale of fantasy. There is no other way you can walk and talk with manifestations of Gods and other scarier beings or get your dead wife’s assistance whenever you are in a tight spot.
The set-up is in a current world (2001). Mr. Gaiman had expertly managed the tricky job of clothing mythical beings with elements of the modern world.
The story circles faith, power, manipulation and betrayal.
Are you remotely interested in or live in the world of mythology (like me)?
Are you a worshipper of technology and consumerism (again, like me?)?
This book is not about Good vs. Evil. This book is an apparent tug-of-war between mythical beings (namely Gods) and Modern technology.
This book is about faith and where it takes us.
Synopsis provided by the publisher
Days before his release from prison, Shadow’s wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America.
Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, while all around them, a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.
Scary, gripping and deeply unsettling, American Gods takes a long, hard look into the soul of America. You’ll be surprised by what – and who – it finds there.
Shadow (the protagonist) loves his wife and can’t wait to get out of jail to be with her again. When the wife dies, Shadow is released from prison, meets Odin, the All-father God of Norse mythology and his life changes in every way possible. He finds out his wife was cheating on him and is heartbroken. But the wife comes back to him (yep, still dead) and helps him get out of the trickiest situations.
Shadow goes through a journey of shocking revelation meeting new characters who are straight out of one’s darkest or most desired dreams. He meets Odin, Loki, Czernobog, Bielebog, Zorya sisters, Kali, Ganesha, Anansi, Anubis, etc. who are Gods of Norse, Slavic, Indian (Hinduism), African, Egyptian and other non-Christian or Pagan religions.
There are ifrits, piskies, giants, dwarfs, vila, rusalka, rakshasas, loa, and other supernatural beings (often categorized as mythical monsters) in this book.
The readers take the journey with him finding out that Gods are not beyond doing whatever it takes to live and thrive in the human mind.
The book cover
The one you see at the beginning of this post is my favorite. Many mythologies like Norse, etc. believes in the tree of life which reflects in this cover.
There are many editions, latest being the Author’s Preferred Text 10th Anniversary Edition. Check them out to see which one works for you.
The theme and plot
The book is as Mr. Gaiman said,
It’s about the soul of America. What people brought to America; what found them when they came; and the things that lie sleeping beneath it all.
So the American soul and belief system is the main character in this book, undergoing challenges and overcoming them, riding the shoulders of Mr. Shadow.
The book mentions quite often that
a storm is coming that represents the final stand of two different worlds of Gods and supernatural beings for a grasp of power through loyalty, worship, and sacrifice.
A storm or chaos is the signature of Loki, who is later revealed to be a part of the big plan.
This fight for faith is from the school of thoughts that Gods exist due to our faith. We conceive the idea of a superior power and believe in it, to let it live within and above us.
People believe…. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.
Mr. Gaiman’s brilliance lies in making us sit through around 600 pages of the stand taken by the old world Gods and supernatural creatures against the modern Gods enjoying current belief and dependence of human beings, without trying to throw the book calling everything bullshit.
The mix of magic and mundane, the symbolism of divine beings in human shapes, an outsider’s (did I mention Mr. Gaiman is English?) view of the American faith make this book a compelling read.
Interestingly, American Gods are Pagan gods, introduced to the land by immigrants, for ages. I can only identify the Hindu Gods and some Norse, African and Egyptian ones, but a google search helps understand better.
Those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting the modern Gods in this book yet, I will quote Mr. Gaiman.
There are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon.”
These modern Gods are very familiar to you and me. They are technology, internet, media, stock market, etc.
Men in Black and black helicopters represent American obsession for spooks and other-worldly beings (I am sure most of you have watched MIB).
Mr. Gaiman has carefully touched upon the ritualistic sacrificial nature of Pagan God worship. For e.g. Aztecs compared with modern car Gods in taking human lives to live and thrive; Bilquis taking lives of the customers who hire her for prostitution; Hinzelmann, a kobold formerly revered as a tribal god by ancient Germanic tribes. He protects the town of Lakeside, in the guise of an old man, by sacrificing one child each year.
The protagonist Shadow is a manifestation of the Son of God (yes in all possible ways), but that part comes much later in the book.
Initially, he is a two-dimensional character who loves his wife, is unhappy that she cheated on him, and follows one mysterious and kind of creepy Mr. Wednesday.
His wife describes him as
You are not dead,-
-I am not sure that you’re alive, either. Not really.
Again, she says,
You’re like this big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world.
We gradually learn that Shadow is an honest and straightforward man. He is not beyond robbery or assault, but he doesn’t cheat on his wife and always sticks to his word. He has his set of morals that he wouldn’t break even when hanging from a tree in the center of America. This firm belief in a gentleman’s word besides the guidance from the buffalo-man who haunts his dreams helps him see beyond the God’s manipulations i.e.
two-man con and finally stop the war.
After a few chapters, I couldn’t help but start sympathizing with Mr. Shadow. He may not be lovable, but he is dependable. Sometimes, reliable works well enough.
As I have already said, this book is a compelling read. I like mythology and am a slave to modern technology. So I read this book twice. Not because I loved it, but because I wanted to like it.
The first read did not give me an idea of what the book was. The writing is not complicated, the theme is. I was left wondering what was the purpose of the book and why have I spent more than 300 rupees on this book.
The second read made me say, “Wow! How did I miss that, before!” The symbolism often went over my head, the mild gore and violence barely touched me. I did like the dead wife making it her life’s mission (or death’s, excuse the joke in bad taste, just couldn’t help it) to help her husband out of misery and betrayal when it was she who had betrayed him on the first place.
Was she trying to right the wrong? You tell me.
I give it a 4 star because I like the plot, but I must mention that American Gods doesn’t make me go gaga. (After my first read, I had given it a 3 star in Goodreads.)
It is an intense read if you have the patience and interest in philosophy, mythology, and symbolism. It is not for those who like high/epic fantasy or general fiction. American Gods is a cross-genre book that pulls you out of your comfort zone.
I suggest you give it a try, maybe two before you decide this is not for you.
You never know, you might end up liking it, as I did.
Links for reference
Featured image was taken from Goodreads.