American Gods by Neil Gaiman, first published 2002, 624 pages, ISBN 978-0380789030
America inspires both awe and loathing. The scale of the place; its open spaces, wealth, ambition and ability to turn ideas into global phenomena.
The Iranian youths rioting against “The Great Satan” are wearing blue jeans and iPods. The stone-throwing anti-globalisation protestors listen to American music. The most fervent supporters of American-style capitalism are the survivors of pure communist states; like Poland and Lithuania.
American-leftie self-loathing and declarations that George W Bush is turning the US into a fascist dictatorship are vastly amusing to those of us who have survived brutal autocracies.
Some outsiders are drawn to the US, to explain her. Not just to others, but to Americans themselves.
Neil Gaiman is a transplanted Englishman, now living in Minnesota. His oeuvre is vast. From The Sandman graphic novel series, to co-writing Good Omens with Terry Pratchett, to his astonishing collaborations with artist Dave McKeen that has resulted in several groundbreaking books and one film. Gaiman’s work covers the full generation-gap: Wolves in the Walls for young children, Coraline for young adults and his novels. The man is seriously talented.
And, once he moved to America, he wondered:
One question that has always intrigued me is what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands. Irish-Americans remember the fairies, Norwegian-Americans the nisser, Greek-Americans the vrykolakas, but only in relation to events remembered in the Old Country. When I once asked why such demons are not seen in America, my informants giggled confusedly and said, “They’re scared to pass the ocean, it’s too far,” pointing out that Christ and the apostles never came to America. – Richard Dorson, “A theory for American Folklore”
And he wrote American Gods.
“I know,” said Shadow. “But you know, the only thing I’ve really learned about dealing with gods is that if you make a deal, you keep it. They get to break all the rules they want. We don’t.”
Gaiman’s talent has always been to take the fantastic and to place it in a contemporary setting. In Neverwhere, set in London, he imagines a world where the beggars and street performers, so ubiquitous yet invisible from city to city, are part of a terrifying parallel world that intersects only briefly with our own through the stations of the London underground. American Gods is a vaster novel.
“This isn’t about what is,” said Mr Nancy. “It’s about what people think is. It’s all imaginary anyway. That’s why it’s important. People only fight over imaginary things.”
The gods are real. Every culture that arrives in America brings its culture and traditions with it. And their gods come too, to watch over their people and provide context and meaning in a foreign land. But America is poor soil for foreign gods. Gradually, unique cultures blur and blend. And the borders between cultures become no more than green beer on St Patrick’s Day or tossing salt over your shoulder to ward off evil. Instinctive, forgotten, misplaced.
“Soon,” said the crackling voice of the flame, coming from behind him, “they will fall. Soon they will fall and the star people will meet the earth people. There will be heroes among them, and men who will slay monsters and bring knowledge, but none of them will be gods. This is a poor place for gods.”
Without belief, the gods’ power weakens. And so they fight amongst themselves for the scraps that are available.
We find the title character, a man, in jail. Shadow is both the name and designation of our guide. Within pages of our meeting him his wife dies in a car accident and Shadow is left adrift, released early to go to the funeral. On the way home he is hired by the mysterious Mr Wednesday who we discover is the Norse god Odin. Mr Wednesday is preparing the gods for war; the old gods of legend against the new gods of technology. And Shadow is both observer and critical to the story’s unfolding. The gods are tired, weary, nervous. They are weak and bitter. It has been a long winter.
We do not always remember the things that do no credit to us. We justify them, cover them in bright lies or with the thick dust of forgetfulness. All of the things that Shadow had done in his life of which he was not proud, all the things he wished he had done otherwise or left undone, came at him then in a swirling storm of guilt and regret and shame, and he had nowhere to hide from them. He was as naked and as open as a corpse on a table, and dark Anubis the jackal god was his prosector and his prosecutor and his persecutor.
Gaiman delights in the vast variety that created the tapestry of cultures of the US. We visit the theme park at the dead centre of the US, the House on the Rock in Madison, strange small towns. All filled with their own communities and gods. It has become a fringe activity to try and figure out who all the gods are.
“I,” she told him, “can believe anything. You have no idea what I can believe.”
“I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen – I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run be secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkledy lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women. I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in Drive-In Movie theatres from state to state. I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink in to the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve in madness and alligators and toxic waste. I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like the Martians in War of the Worlds. I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian Shaman. I believe that Mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumble-bee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself. I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise and sheer blind luck. I believe that anyone who says that sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too. I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no-one but a moron would ever trust the legal system. I believe that life is a game, life is a cruel joke and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.” She stopped, out of breath.
Shadow almost took his hands off the wheel to applaud.
And amongst the gods and the strangeness we find America. That it is a world where pragmatism trumps superstition and the gods can only commit petty mischief in revenge.
Categories: Scroguely Works