Sunday, February 21, 2016

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

The first time someone told me I should really read American Gods was back in 2004. It had been out for a few years back then and made quite an impact. It won a whole shelf full of awards and was nominated for even more. The most recent person to tell me to read this was my girlfriend, who wrote a very positive review about it a few years back. I guess it was time to let them have their way. I've read it. I think it was a good thing I didn't read it back in 2004 though. I'm sure I got more out of it now than I would have back then. Gaiman has delivered a complex novel and a very clever one. It is also a novel that will leave a lot of readers with the feeling that it wasn't what they expected of it.

It is well known that people create gods and bring them with them when they migrate. America is a hard country for gods. Many of them end up abandoned and forgotten, when their people die out, move on or start worshipping other deities. Of late, new gods have shown up. Gods of consumerism, capitalism, highways, television, Internet and other aspects of modern life. They are on a collision course with the old gods. In the midst of this brewing conflict, the freshly released convict Shadow is approached by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday. He is a man with a stake in the battle ahead and he means to come out the winner. It draws Shadow into a world of belief, divine realities and extinct religions he never knew existed.

I called American Gods a clever novel in the introduction and it is on many levels. Gaiman sprinkles clues about the identity of the characters around. Mr. Wednesday is a fine example. Wednesday used to be Wodan's day, Wodan being another name for Odin, the Allfather. A title that in itself has a meaning to the narrative. There are plenty of examples of this. Gaiman draws from a wide variety of sources. Egyptian, Norse, Celtic, Hindu and Slavic mythological figures are used in the novel but also figures form West-African, Caribbean and Native American folklore and even the odd biblical figure. America itself is not entirely without old representatives either. American legend Jonny Appleseed makes an appearance. It takes a well read reader to spot them all in one reading although Gaiman gets a bit more generous with his hints towards the end of the book.

We see most of the story through the eyes of Shadow. He does his name justice in many ways in the novel. He has made some bad decisions in his life and ends up doing time for his crimes. When he is released he is drawn into the shadows in another way, when Wednesday introduces him to the world of fading gods. Many things about Shadow remain unknown. His appearance is only vaguely described, his past, except for the time spent in prison and a few brief references to his mother, remains undisclosed.He leaves his old life behind him, adopts new identities and travels the land anonymously, without really putting down roots. He in effect becomes the Shadow he is named after, before coming out the other end and gaining a new identity to replace the one he's shed.

Shadow is the central figure in the novel, the linchpin the story turns around, the one who embodies the biggest mystery the plot offers. Gaiman does much more with the book than just tell his story though. There are numerous sub-plots and here and there seemingly unrelated interludes on the activities of various mythological figures and how they are doing in their  unfriendly new land. Adaptations and survival strategies are many but most of them seem to be stuck in the parts of America passed by by progress. They hide out in declining rural areas, poverty stricken parts of towns and cities, running businesses that are doomed in the face of competition by multinationals and national franchises. And yet, each of them retains a spark of their former power. In the end, Gaiman brings most of these plotlines together. The way he handles that is another way in which this book is clever. Many of the subplots contain elements that turn out to be significant to Shadow in one way or another.

It's this meandering structure of the story that will be problematic for a lot of readers. Shadow, as main characters go, is not the most lively of protagonists. This is an intentional choice by Gaiman. He goes so far as to have one of the secondary characters tell Shadow he is not truly alive. Shadow's responses to the various crises he faces is muted and he lets himself be led by Wednesday a lot. Add to that Gaiman's tendency to digress from the main plot and the fact that the climax of the novel will most likely not be what readers are expecting at the beginning of the book, and you have a recipe for one star reviews. From what I can tell, American Gods has gathered a few of those.

When you get right down to it, I like American Gods as much because of what it isn't as I do because of what it is. It is a book about belief but not religion, a book about a road trip but no celebration of small town life in the American heartland, a book about mythology but no clash of awesome Olympic type gods. Gaiman tackles these themes in his own way. It can be quirky but also tragic, and poetic but also harsh. Many of the ideas in this novel have been used before, by others as well as Gaiman himself, but he manages to mix them in a unique way. American Gods is a remarkable novel whichever way you look at it. Certainly a work that will divide readers but in my opinion a work of twenty-first century literature that one ought to have read.

Book Details
Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow
Pages: 465
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-380-97365-1
First published: 2001


  1. Oh well, I've been hesitating to put this one on my TBR-list, but I guess I'll have too, your review convinced me. thanks!

    1. Ben benieuwd wat je er van vindt. Het is nogal een alles of niets boek.