REVIEW: AMERICAN GODS
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Neil Gaiman: American Gods
© 2001; author's preferred text, 2011
– March 27, 2021
I will be honest. I want so very much to like Neil Gaiman's books. I do. Perhaps that is because I so enjoy the movies: Stardust, Coraline. (O.K., the tv show American Gods mostly bores me.) But, so far it just has not come to be to any great degree. The first one I read was Neverwhere, which I enjoyed enough but did not think much of. It was rather for me just this string of events happening one after the other, with only minimal connection between them (outside of what holds them onto that string). And, to be honest, if I am going to spend time entertaining myself with that kind of thing I would rather watch a shoot-em-up movie because it only takes two hours. But, I guess it was enjoyable enough. It did not wow me, but I did finish it. (And I will not finish something I am not enjoying.)
Now, I was teaching at the time and my class kind of agreed with me: Neverwhere was enjoyable enough, but nothing special. What I really needed to read, though, they all agreed, was American Gods. Which I finally got to, a few months ago. Between those two I have looked between the covers of others of his books. I eavesdropped on a conversation that said good things about The Graveyard Book, but when I looked for myself — and I read more than a few pages — I was not wowed enough to buy it. (Indeed, if I remember correctly, the writing put me off. Maybe I misremember, though.) And, perhaps, if I found cheap copies in the used (budget, you know) I might pick that up yet, or Coraline, or Stardust. Like I said, I do want to like Neil Gaiman.
Oh! I should say I have read the first volume of The Sandman comics, and found that interesting. Never committed myself to the cost of buying them all (as I said, budget). Though, my daughter laughed when I told her that story and then pointed to all the DC volumes I have bought for my other daughter (and me) to read. I did recently find volume two used and in perfect shape. Perhaps I will give them a new go.
But, American Gods. Definitely much more ambitious than Neverwhere, and I can see — even for only reading the couple — how people would say this is the book to read. And it has what Neverwhere lacks: a plot that brings everything together rather than just strings everything along.
Except for Lakeside. Up until Part 3 it is a travel book, and the energies of the book is tied up with that motion. But it all completely stalls out in Lakeside. Indeed, the question must be asked, is there any reason for the long Lakeside episode to exist except for it to be a means by which Shadow ends up in jail, and thus captured by the enemy? By the way — and it is important to note this — I have a thing about heroes getting captured by the enemy. In video games I consider it very lazy plot structuring and it pisses me off every time. Here, perhaps Shadow being saved by zombie-Laura (what else to call her?) maybe makes it interesting. But, still, I hate when the hero gets captured, because that usually means the story is about to get contrived.
But Lakeside is greatly a flaw. A bunch of stuff happening that points no further forward than when Shadow leaves Lakeside. (Or was taken from Lakeside.) At which, as I said, I was wondering, "Why then did I have to read all that?" And it's not that the Lakeside stuff is not interesting. The problem is you do not want your reader feeling like the plot just ended, especially in a book whose energies are tied up in motion. Lakeside does not point to the conclusion of the book, and that's a problem.
You know, when it comes to it, the World Tree episode felt a little anti-climactic as well.
To be honest, once they left Lakeside, the book did feel like it wanted to go back to the episodes strung along one after the other style of Neverwhere. Wanted to, at least.
Now, as to that conclusion. It was a nice rap up. A nice idea to the story. Though, I was not wowed by it. In fact, everything about the final showdown felt odd to me, like the motivations did not quite fit what was happening. I think a little bit it is because up until Lookout Mountain the reader is greatly outside of it all, as though an exterior witness to the threat against the old gods and the threats of the new gods. (To a great degree Shadow is but an outside participant. And, really, the old gods seem totally apathetic until suddenly they all — or however many — show up.) And, to be honest, a great war on the slopes of Lookout Mountain just seemed silly to me. (I've been there. It was a while ago, though.) But I enjoyed the plot twist, however quickly narrated. It was not wholly out of the blue. And plot twists that are wholly out of the blue are bad writing.
A word on the intervening chapters? Some worked. Some did not. The first, Bilquis, chapter set a tone that sticks out from the rest of the book. It did not work, and I thought it silly. But others I found interesting. Some I found boring. So it goes. I am not sure with myself whether they as a whole added or subtracted from the book, because the book is not . . . . creative — symbolic? — enough in its language for interjections like that to effect resonances. The creativity of the book is in what happens, not in how it is told. The interruptions are mostly more intervening episodes that, to be honest, you can either take or leave. And I was paying attention, because how such things like that work is interesting (if not important) to me. And yet, curiously, there is a part of me that felt there needed to be many more of them, to create a kind of behind the scenes gestalt.
All in all though, I finished the book without too much laboring through it. The way Lakeside ended like a cook chopping the butt off celery stalks did piss me off a touch. But I enjoyed it otherwise. Not great literature, in no way. Gaiman is a more than competent writer, but nothing exceptional happens in the words. (Not in the two books I've read.) Not genre fiction, either, though. Which is important. He is definitely a better writer than that. If someone asked if they should read it I would say read ten pages in the middle and if it sounded interesting go for it. Well, if they normally read just genre stuff I would say "It's better than the crap you normally read." And I am not put off of wanting to read other things by Gaiman. For as I said, I so do want to like Neil Gaiman's books.