Sunday, February 3, 2013

Thoughts: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Some stories are smooth and satisfying, easy to follow, thematically consistent, and tie the plot threads into a neat little bow at the end.

American Gods is not that story.

When Shadow, waiting to be released from prison, learns that his wife is dead, he finds himself free but at loose ends. He takes a job from a old man who seems to be strangely fixated on him. While driving Mr. Wednesday around, running errands for him, and helping him run con jobs, Shadow meets an assortment of very odd people. He comes to believe they are ancient gods struggling to survive in the America's cultural desert. Short memories have begotten flashy, dangerous new gods: media, technology, credit. With Shadow's help, Mr. Wednesday is gathering an army to fight them, so the elder gods can reclaim their rightful place.

But all is not as it seems. Shadow has been left in a small northern Wisconsin town to wait for Wednesday: a friendly, helpful town with a place for everyone and a wrongness at its very center. A secret third organization, trying to foil Wednesday's plans, kidnaps Shadow, threatening to torture him. Meanwhile, Shadow's dead wife, Laura, has come back...

American Gods is a tangled knot of mythology, mystery, horror and warped Americana. Woven through Shadow's story are short, fascinating, interludes on how some of the elder gods came to America and what the newer gods are up to as they ascend to power. 

Gaiman's writing is lively and his deep understanding of myth make for an thoughtful read. Oddly and significantly, many of the meetings with the elder gods are quite banal, while scenes like that of Shadow foolishly trying to walk to town during a dangerous cold snap, take on a mythic quality. The plot winds around its subject matter in coils, rather than a straight line.

But the many, many story threads stubbornly refuse to jell into a whole, and Shadow's passivity doesn't give the story much of a rudder. (Humorously, even Mr. Wednesday comments on it at one point.)

There is much to like here, and readers who like fiction that grapples with philosophy will find much to challenge them. But readers who like their stories to be plot driven with tidy endings may be frustrated.

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