Neil Gaiman American Gods:
the Author’s Preferred Text
Headline Review 2005 (2004/2001)
“Muse make the man thy theme, for shrewdness famed
And genius versatile, who far and wide
A Wand’rer, after Ilium overthrown,
Discover’d various cities, and the mind
And manners learn’d of men, in lands remote.
He num’rous woes on Ocean toss’d, endured,
Anxious to save himself, and to conduct
His followers to their home.” — William Cowper (1791)
Contrary to popular opinion the new millennium actually began at the start of 2001. This was the date celebrated by director Stanley Kubrick in the Arthur C Clarke inspired 2001: A Space Odyssey and with good reason — not only did this narrate a new beginning for humankind but it referenced the voyages of wily Odysseus after the sack of Troy. 2001 was also when the first and original version of Gaiman’s American Gods appeared and this too treated with new beginnings allied to wanderings, this time around the United States.
What’s it about? “It’s about the soul of America, really,” the author tells us. “What people brought to America; what found them when they came; and the things that lie sleeping beneath it all.” It’s also about a wanderer called Shadow who, in Cowper’s words about Odysseus, discovers “various cities, and the mind | And manners learn’d of men, in lands remote”. Of course we can tell from the title that it’s about faith and belief: when we believe in gods do they have a kind of physical existence in this world? And if we then cease to believe in those gods do they cease to exist?
The novel begins realistically. Shadow (a Jungian name, if ever I saw one) is nearing the end of his jail sentence, imposed for an uncharacteristic act of violence. Looking forward to returning home and seeing his wife Laura, he is surprised to be released early. Shocked by the news he receives he heads home, only to be offered a job by a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mr Wednesday. Things then take a strange turn and his odyssey zigzagging around North America begins.
It’s hard not to give too much away in a review of American Gods and I’ll have to resort to obfuscation and allusion to hint at what goes on over 600-odd pages. Shadow has taught himself conjuring tricks with coins, practising techniques that use sleight of hand and misdirection to dissemble and bamboozle; needless to say this is a more than apt metaphor for what’s going on during Shadow’s journey. His companion, Mr Wednesday, readily agrees to the accusation “You’re a liar.” “Of course,” he replies. “And a good one.” Little of what Shadow hears and sees, what he’s told, and what we vicariously hear and see, and are told, is what it seems. For much of the novel Shadow takes on another name, Mike Ainsel; Scots will recognise ‘ainsel’ as ‘oneself’, and folklore enthusiasts will know the Northumbrian tale of the fairy who is fooled into declaring himself hurt by ‘my ainsel’, a joke as old as the fooling of the Cyclops in the Odyssey by … Odysseus.
All that seems certain is that good old pathetic fallacy, the imminent arrival of the mother of all storms — Fimbulvetr in Norse mythology — which precedes Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods. But how will this affect all the gods, demiurges, culture heroes and fairies that have followed in the wake of all the colonisers of North America, both ancient and modern? Already living a kind of half-life as belief in them fades, are they not already doomed in the face of the new gods of technology and the media? Can the deities from all those old cultures — Whiskey Jack, Czernabog, Anansi, Anubis, Eostre, Kali and so on — survive when memory of them fades? And will Ragnarök be all it’s cracked up to be?
Much is made of the myth of Odin, the All-Father of Scandinavian mythology, and his threefold death from hanging, wounding from a spear, and hunger and thirst; and of the death of Baldr from wounding by a weapon made from mistletoe weapon. These of course are relevant to a narrative largely shaped by Norse myth, but I find little if any discussion of the elephant in the room: Odin’s death parallels that of Christ. Jesus gets, as far as I can recall, just one mention; Gaiman makes nothing of the fact that Christianity’s God should make an appearance like all those other immigrant deities. Or is Odin not what he appears to be either?
I’ve noted that American Gods is ‘about’ an odyssey, the “soul of America”, faith and belief. But it’s also about power: control over others, over people’s perceptions, over the natural order of things. However, at the heart of most great novels is people, and it’s people I mostly remember from American Gods. Not just the personification of deities (who, after all, are as human as the rest of us) but also apparently ordinary people like Laura, Shadow’s wife, and Chad the lawman of Lakeside, and Marguerite and Sam who belong more to the land than the Johnny-come-lately incomers during the past half-millennium. While Odysseus after his travails comes home to his faithful Penelope, we never learn what Shadow — whom we last meet in Iceland, home of the sagas — has to go back home for; but he is reassured that things will wait for him until he returns.
American Gods is a real tour de force and fully deserves its continuing reputation. You don’t need to be American to appreciate what an outstanding achievement it is — and it’s a cracking read too.