United States: supersize gods

When you’re trying to get through 196 books in a year, size matters. If a book’s more than 300 pages, it’s a challenge. If it’s more than 400, it’s pushing it. And anything over 500 pages is just having a laugh.

Weighing in at 672 pages, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods nearly disqualified itself on girth alone — particularly when I discovered that the 10th anniversary edition featured an extra 12,000 words not published before. To my page-swamped mind, this was bordering on rude.

There was another objection too: despite having lived in the United States for 20 years, having children there and being married to an American, British-born Gaiman is not a US citizen and has said that he has no intention of taking citizenship. Would this book by a perpetual outsider really count as US literature?

But Carol, who recommended the novel, was very insistent and so, kissing my weekend goodbye —  and dodging the glares from Roth, Steinbeck, Oates, Hemingway, Chabon and the host of other American greats up on my bookshelf —  I holed myself up and began to read.

Bold, baggy and mind-boggling, the novel traces the fate of the gods brought to the land of the free by immigrants, right from the arrival of the earliest prehistoric visitors to the refugees and fortune-hunters of the present day. The story is told through the eyes of Shadow, who gets out of prison to find that his wife and employer have been killed in a car crash, taking with them his hopes of a normal life. With nothing to lose except his new-found freedom, Shadow goes to work for the mysterious Mr Wednesday, who seems to know an uncanny amount about his life.

Wednesday’s omniscience is no accident. As head of the collective of traditional gods who are finding themselves sidelined for the ‘gods of credit card and freeway, of internet and telephone’, he is rallying his troops for a battle between deities old and new. But as the storm approaches and breaks, it seems that the gods themselves may be labouring under false beliefs.

Gaiman’s writing is refreshingly approachable. At times echoing the stripped-back voices of Hemingway and Steinbeck, the narrative manages to carry humour and philosophical reflections equally lightly, blending fantasy, mythology and a quirky, humane perspective that is all Gaiman’s own. This is helped by some surprising imagery — the description of driving into Chicago, for example, so that the city ‘happened slowly like a migraine’, and the presentation of the hinterworld ‘behind the scenes’ are particularly memorable.

Gaiman also has the knack of making us care quickly. The narrative veers off repeatedly into stories of some of the many travellers who came to America to make a life and, for the most part, these are compelling in their own rights, as well as giving the philosophical and mythological arguments in the book a human face.

This gives rise to some great reflections on what it means to be a nation of immigrants. ‘Nobody’s American. Not originally. That’s my point,’ says Wednesday at one stage, articulating sentiments that resonated particularly strongly for me as a Londoner proud of having grown up in a city that is home to people from nearly every nation of the world. Given the definition of US nationhood Gaiman posits in his novel, he, as an ex-pat Brit, fits right in.

By rights, I should be angry with this book. It kept me up at night, it made me late for trains and towards the end it made my eyes go a bit fuzzy. If this book were someone I knew, I’d definitely be thinking about unfriending it on Facebook. But as a book, it’s an impressive achievement that leaves readers very little room for doubt of its power or the pleasure of spending time in its company. Several novels further into my quest to read the world, Gaiman’s characters still people my daydreams. Thanks Carol for introducing us.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Publisher (Kindle edition): Review (2011)

11 responses

  1. Oh wow!!! And how speedily you’ve read it. It really is an experience isn’t it? I’ve just read your summing up aloud to my husband who heard it with a big grin on his face. Congratulations.
    I hope others discover and enjoy the novel now too. Your next review of the Indonesian novel is another excellent response to a book that sounds very challenging. I can’t keep up with your reading around the world but I’m chasing you (mid-Cloud Street just now amongst many others including a slow and careful read of Ulysses to culminate in Dublin’s Bloomsday I hope). I’d like to invite to a meal too. Your shelves are filling up beautifully too – admirable.

  2. I’m reading this book this year. I know that. I put it on my list of books to read in 2012 and your review just makes me even more eager to get around to it. And to Gaiman’s other works too.

    • Thanks Christina. I hope you enjoy it. Gaiman was a bit of a controversial choice for the US as, although he has lived there for some years, is married to an American and has children there, he is not technically a US citizen himself.

      However the picture of the country he presents in the book is that it is a nation of immigrants and that everyone living there has origins elsewhere, so I felt it fitted. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on whether the book counts as US lit when you’ve read it…

  3. It’s a bit disappointing to see you picked this novel for the US. I should preface by saying that I’m not a fan of Gaiman; some of his stories are good, and some are lousy, and I think American Gods falls somewhere in the middle — poorly drawn characters without much motivation (I understand that they are meant to be archetypes, but still), dead giveaways as to what their real identities are, and a mildly interesting story. I found the whole thing a bit of a slog.

    Clearly, you would disagree with this assessment, and I’m glad you liked the book. But Gaiman doesn’t offer any interesting insight into the country. Anybody who’s spent a few days here, particularly in a city, can see that we are largely a nation of immigrants, with all of the conflicts that implies. What’s more interesting are the commonalities, and the traits that most Americans absorb, whether they grew up here or came from somewhere else. Obviously, there’s a ton of literature that deals with peculiar American obsessions, and you’ve probably read some of them, but here are a few suggestions: Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (everyone has to read this in high school, but there’s a reason for it); Exley, A Fan’s Notes (the flip side of Gatsby, about perhaps our biggest unspoken obsession, failure); Boyle, World’s End (about family legacies and power relationships). And these books barely discuss two of the biggest national issues, race/slavery and westward expansion/extermination of Native Americans.

    Anyway, I hope that when you’re finished with this project you have time to check out some American writers. Good luck!

    • Thanks PJ. Great to have your input. Gaiman was a controversial choice – sort of way of testing the boundaries a bit, both in terms of what constitutes national literature and the book itself. From what I’ve heard, it’s a novel that tends to divide opinion.

      Like you, I love The Great Gatsby. Haven’t read the Boyle or the Exley though – they are going on the list for 2013…

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • I am a big Gaiman fan, at least of his novels, but I strongly disagree with her choosing him as the US book. I have read the reasoning, but he’s British plain and simple. If he had citizenship when he published the book I’d say okay based on a technicality, but it’s not like the US has any shortage of good authors if you wanted someone less well-known.

      • Sorry, realized how negative that sounded. It’s good book, and this seems to have been an excellent project! I wish I had the time to do the same. But since this was the first review that I’ve read and I’m questioning this choice it really makes me wonder about the rest, first impressions and all. But I love the idea, I was hoping to be able to do something similar over my life-time, not a year. I’ve noticed I’m reading 3-ish groups of authors almost exclusively over the last couple of years, and I’ll use this site as a source of ideas to branch out of my Western Africa (Nigeria-Ghana)/ India-Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran/ Romani Gypsy binge.

      • No worries Robert – he was a controversial choice. For me, the US and UK were opportunities to test the boundaries of what counts as national literature because most of my reading was from those nations before I did this project. Because I had lots of people recommending books by writers who had lived ten or twenty years in other countries and claiming those as national literature for those places, I wanted to see how it would feel to read a similar example for the US. I’m still not entirely decided.

        Good luck on your own literary adventures!

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