I’m not generally a fan of horror, and while Neil Gaiman perhaps isn’t specifically writing horror, his fantastical worlds are often quite scary. However, I love literary explorations of mythology, faith, life, and death, and most of his writing, from The Sandman to The Graveyard Book, deals with these themes in one way or another. As such, I’ve been meaning to read American Gods for a rather long time. With the TV adaptation of this book fast approaching, I finally picked it up. Gaiman succeeds, as always, at setting the perfect atmosphere and at creating mysterious characters. However, although I love the exploration of mythological and religious themes, there are also a couple of things that prevented me from completely falling in love with this book. I will delve into all of it below.
Spoilers for American Gods (the author’s preferred text version) to follow.
The book follows Shadow, a man who is released from prison early after both his wife and to-be-employer are killed in a car crash. On his way home, Shadow is approached by a mysterious man with supernatural powers who calls himself Wednesday. He offers Shadow a mysterious job of basically being Wednesday’s errand boy. Shadow reluctantly accepts and is thrust into the middle of a conflict between the “old” gods, who were brought to America by settlers and immigrants, and the “new” gods, who were born from technological and societal progress and change.
I have always been fascinated by the idea of gods taking corporeal forms to roam the earth and the notion that gods are created and kept alive by people’s faith. However, they do present certain theological problems that Syng has already explored on this blog, so I’m just going to direct you to that excellent post. Despite the theological holes in his worldbuilding, Gaiman brings all these deities to life, gives us glimpses into their creation, and then shows these larger-than-life characters struggling with mundane circumstances in a way that makes you feel sorry for them. It’s a very surreal experience and it’s probably the strongest aspect of American Gods to me.
The “old” gods are juxtaposed, at least at first, with the “new” gods, who are currently thriving. The latter weren’t necessarily created from specific intentional worship or belief, and they don’t seem to have names, but they were brought to existence by people devoting a lot of time to things like television, technology, and money. The depiction of new media and technology as a wholly negative thing always irks me because there are also so many positive sides to it that people often ignore. And at first American Gods does seem to portray the new gods as shallow obnoxious bullies who want to destroy the old ones. However, as the book progresses, Gaiman shows that the new guys aren’t all that happy either. Some of them are worried about their own survival and even downright suffering from anxiety. It appears that both sides are simply fighting for their lives. I love the way Gaiman sets up this main conflict: both sides are so hell-bent on destroying each other that no one (including me) stops to question how exactly that is going to help them. In the end, it becomes apparent that there was no real conflict between the different gods to begin with and that they all could co-exist, even though it’s progressively harder for those who are being forgotten. But the same fate may befall the new gods tomorrow. These reveals save the book in this respect.
Interestingly and perhaps intended by the author, the protagonist of the book, Shadow, remains a bit of a mystery all throughout the book. As a protagonist who is kept ignorant of a lot of things, Shadow’s narration works to create that excellent mysterious and frightening atmosphere when one is plunged into circumstances they can’t fully comprehend. However, having essentially lost everything in the beginning of the book, it feels like Shadow spends the majority of the story moving around in an empty, shell-shocked state, simply going through the motions. It makes it difficult to understand what kind of person Shadow really is. In hindsight, I can see how that would allow Shadow to be a stand-in for humanity in general and show that gods aren’t the only mysterious ones, but I found it a bit boring and annoying as I was reading.
The main reason I couldn’t fully love the book is its portrayal of female characters, both human and divine. I mean, it’s not totally horrible and one can find excuses and explanations for the negative aspects, but lately I have very little patience for that sort of thing. A lot of the characterization of the female characters focuses on their curves and beautiful faces. Even Laura’s (Shadow’s wife) main defining characteristic, at least in Shadow’s eyes, often seems to be her beauty. These descriptions feel rather objectifying and male-gaze-y. Additionally, as I already mentioned, Laura is killed essentially before the book begins. She’s not fridged exactly, as she is reanimated, but all she does is try to get him to forgive her for cheating and somehow get back together again (even though she’s dead). The two main goddesses in the book are Easter and Bilquis. It’s unclear what their exact dominions are, but the most prominent feature of Easter is her curves and Bilquis is a sex worker who devours men she sleeps with through her vagina.
All in all, American Gods is a more complicated and philosophical book than I expected. Given that the point-of-view character isn’t in the know about a lot of things, it can be a little difficult to follow, but it also creates the excellent scary, mysterious atmosphere that I’ve come to see as Gaiman’s signature. Trying to make sense of this book from a theological and logical perspective will probably leave you unsatisfied. However, suspending disbelief, ignoring the occasional peek-through of the male gaze, and letting the story sweep you away along with Shadow is sure to give you a unique reading experience.