Welcome back, everyone!
February’s Book of the Month was Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” which we will now look at in a no-holds-barred, spoilerific form right here. As such, remember, we will be SPOILING the book left and right. If you haven’t read the book and want to be surprised, then don’t read this blog. If you have read the book feel free to chime in with the conversation via the comments section. If everyone is ready, lets grab our seats and get started, okay?
In “American Gods,” we follow the bizarre events surrounding an ex-con that goes by the name of Shadow. Shadow, in prison for a crime that is never really detailed, is about to be released from prison when we first meet him. Shortly before his scheduled release his wife dies in a car accident, prompting an early release. Just out of prison, jobless, and rudderless, Shadow encounters a mysterious man that goes by the name Wednesday, who hires him to become a bodyguard and escort. In due time, we learn that Wednesday is not merely an eccentric old man, but in fact, Odin, the chief god of the Norse myths.
In the book it is explained that the gods of various lands are carried from the homelands of the people who have moved to America but, over generations, the belief in these gods faded, weakening the gods. The gods still exist, depowered to a great extent, but they can be killed. Wednesday decides that it is time for the older gods to face the new gods of America (which derive from the “worship” of media, the internet, even cars), to keep from losing all of their power.
What follows is the visitation to various gods by Wednesday and Shadow, to convince them to join this battle. The older gods are, for the most part, less than excited at the prospect of this war.
That is, until the gods murder Wednesday, broadcasting it for all the older gods to see. The older gods reclaim the body of Wednesday and prepare for battle.
In the meantime, Shadow fulfills his duty to Wednesday by holding vigil over his body. Essentially, the vigil recreated how Odin gained his power – by being hung from a tree for nine days. After a time, Shadow died and was judged, then brought back to life by the goddess Easter. During the time he was dead, Shadow learned that he was actually Wednesday’s son, and came to realize that his birth was actually all part of a plan by Wednesday. Wednesday was working with the leader of the new gods, who went by the name Mr. World. In actuality, Mr. World was Loki, the trickster god of Norse mythology. The two came up with the plan for the battle. The battle of the gods, dedicated to Odin, would empower Wednesday, while the chaos that resulted from the battle would empower Loki.
After reviving, Shadow travels to the battle, and basically explains the plan to all of the gods, how they were to be merely pawns in the power-grab. The gods, realizing they had been duped, end the battle and go their separate ways.
EG: Phew! Glad I’m through with that. I tell you, OG, trying to sum up a 600+ page book in a few paragraphs isn’t easy. And, you’ll notice I left out a huge amount of peripheral story as well.
OG: Yeah, there’s so much that happens between each of the lines of the above synopsis, but you’ve given the structure of the overall story here. As with all epic novels there are a multitude of digressions, flashbacks, episodes there only for fleshing out character, and all manner of minor asides. The only main thing I’d add, since it’s significant in what I took away from the book, is that between Shadow and Wednesday’s many trips around the country visiting various gods prior to the war, Shadow spends significant downtime in the idyllic town of “Lakeside, Wisconsin” under an assumed name. His cover is eventually blown as are many of the relationships he develops there. But, I have a feeling we’ll discuss that more below so I’ll leave it there for now. Overall, a heroic effort with the synopsis my brother. I didn’t envy you that.
EG: Thanks. And, yeah, Lakeside…well, we’ll get to that. So, I suppose I should start with some initial thoughts on the book.
Well…it was a book and I read it. I didn’t hate it, but it wasn’t anything spectacular either. I found that the book desperately needed some editing. The story that filled 600+ pages could likely have been put into a much tighter, arguably better 350 to 400 page book. The book seemed “patchy” at times to me because of the various other aspects thrown in beyond the main story. I didn’t even mention these in the synopsis, but there were several diversionary “short stories” within the novel that merely focused on single gods that were barely mentioned (if mentioned at all) in the main story. Sometimes these just took me completely out of the book. Removing those would have helped the flow of the story.
OG: Well, let me take your last point first. The asides were certainly diversionary and for at least half of the book seemed completely unnecessary to me. At one point I even emailed you in a panic over one particular vignette that threw me right out of the book but you assured me that that particular section would not be revisited. (Thank you for that.)
But, I have to say, as the story progressed and built I began to appreciate the overall structure of the book and how those asides didn’t just serve to populate this universe with other gods that just didn’t make the main story but each actually commented on the story as a whole and forced me, at least, to read things more metaphorically than I had been.
Which brings me to your main reaction which was ultimately different than mine. I gotta be honest. I hated this book for the first half. Couldn’t get into it and thought it was sort of a mess. But, it really started to come together for me as I slogged through and I suddenly found myself quite surprised to be flipping the pages at a faster clip. In that way it reminded me of another epically metaphorical novel, “Moby Dick.” Although it is in no way that level of masterpiece, it’s similar in how it takes a really long time to build the world and the characters in that world before kicking off the plot proper. For me, it began as really frustrating and ended up being pretty satisfying.
EG: Oooh, our first major disagreement. That’s okay, I still love you OG, even if you are completely wrong. Just kidding! I just found that the aside stories broke momentum for me, in a book that was already sauntering along at a slow pace. And, since we are talking about aside stories, it seems a good time to bring up the issue of Lakeside. I could have done completely without the obvious and transparent “mystery” of Lakeside. I don’t know about you, but the second a child disappeared in that quaint little town I knew exactly what happened.
OG: Okay, not it’s time for true confessions. As much as it pains me to admit it, I am dumb. With movies, TV, comics, and especially books, I am really the best possible audience member – easily misled and completely gullible. Unlike you, I haven’t read a whole lot of mysteries in my day and wouldn’t know the first thing to do with a Rubik’s Cube. When I read a story or watch a movie I plunge right in and remain pretty passive. For whatever reason, I don’t turn things over in my mind and don’t catch the most obvious clues until their “Well, duh!” revelations. I can certainly see how this fundamental difference between us as readers colored the way we felt about the book. Also, it’s about expectation. I had no idea this was a mystery novel. Part of that is because it danced around a lot of different genres throughout it’s massive page count I think. All that to say, I didn’t see it coming. And, looking back at it, it’s a pretty rudimentary mystery and one I should have easily figured out. I have seen a handful of episodes of “Law & Order” after all.
EG: Now, see, you mentioned that part of the reason you didn’t suspect anything was that the novel took in a lot of different genres. That is exactly why my mind went directly to the mystery. The various genres made me open to thinking there could, in fact, be a mystery. And, when it was presented, especially as simplistic as it was, with what I thought were glaringly obvious clues, I immediately went there. You were probably better off, though, being open and not presuming. Likely made the whole thing more enjoyable.
OG: But, I have to say, I kind of think that’s all beside the point. The whole Lakeside portion of the book is not a Maguffin I don’t think. It’s meant, I believe, to portray the falsehood of the American dream. It’s meant as a Norman Rockwell trap to keep our hero from the truth and from realizing his true power and potential. The revelation of what has been happening there and how the townsfolk have been keeping things the way they are is there mainly to illustrate that main myth and ultimately the need to explode that myth. Of course, I know that even that seems pretty rudimentary and hit-you-over-the-head didactic, but as I said, I’m dumb. I’m sure that if the mystery had been more expertly weaved and revealed that you would have had an easier time accepting the Lakeside episodes as part of the greater story.
EG: Wow…you read a lot more into the Lakeside story than I did. I can go along with it being the portrayal of the falsehood of the American dream, how this one town can flourish independently of all the areas around it, and what the townspeople are willing to let happen to keep it that way, and the need to overcome that. But, in regards to Shadow, I don’t believe that the trap is there for him – I would say it is for the gods. The town doesn’t keep Shadow from the truth. I think it is part of the con. Wednesday puts Shadow in this little town, protecting him from the new gods. The new gods suddenly “buy” into the idea that Shadow is somehow more important than he really is. Their focus for a lot of the book is to get Shadow. It is like the coin tricks – Wednesday diverts attention from himself and his plan to fool ALL the gods by making everyone look at Shadow. Resources are diverted by the newer gods to get Shadow, and diverted by the older gods to help Shadow. All the while, the gods are distracted from the real plan. If the game was chess, Shadow was a pawn that Wednesday treated like a King, just to convince everyone else that Shadow was that important.
OG: Point taken. I guess it’s not really a trap in terms of the plot mechanics, but perhaps more of a trap for his character keeping him from pulling the wool off of his eyes, seeing things for what they really are, and choosing at great cost and the loss of this paradise to really, truly live for once. But, yeah, that really is more a trap for Shadow’s growth as a character and not really a trap for him in Wednesday’s grand plan.
EG: I also had a big problem with the number of gods in the book. Or, rather, how so many were touched on, but not really elaborated on at all. Which, in my mind, made them unnecessary to the story. Plus, some of the clues as to what gods they were just weren’t enough. I used to read about all sorts of mythology, so I picked up some pretty easily. Wednesday as Odin was easy. I know the origin of Wednesday to be Woden’s Day, or Odin’s Day. And, the blatant prison mate by the nickname of “Low Key” – that was kind of insulting. The rest though…I’m not familiar with them, and would have liked a little more blatant “This is this god.”
A lot of times, I would want to know more about a particular god mentioned, but I wasn’t at a computer to look it up, and by the time I got to a computer, I had forgotten about it. I don’t know about your copy of the book, OG, but mine came with a “Discussion Question” section in it. I would have gladly and happily exchanged that for a nice little appendix telling me about the major gods that were brought up in the book.
OG: Yeah, I had the “Discussion Question” section too. Pretty useless. I would have much preferred annotation or footnotes. Perhaps that would have made this too academic for readers, but I genuinely wanted to know the back-story on a bunch of these gods At least you had the mythology background to help you out a little bit. I felt at a real disadvantage here. And, I’d say that can’t really be all my fault. I think you’re right. Gaiman really missed the opportunity to give the reader a more enriching experience.
But, I would like to take issue with your point about there being too many gods. I didn’t mind that at all. I went on this journey with Shadow and was as clueless to the world of the gods as he was. That was part of the fun. In a lot of ways it’s like Mark Millar’s “Wanted” when the lead (I hesitate to call him the hero) is shown the true world of forgotten superheroes and all-controlling super-villains it is all a bit overwhelming and there’s no way to fill in all of those back stories without grinding the narrative to a halt. It’s just world-building and making the universe more diverse and full. Also, you really get the sense that Gaiman is planning to flesh this out more in other books and that some of the minor figures may become major figures in other stories.
As for the Low-Key/Loki revelation, this is probably the height of my stupidity as a passive reader. I just didn’t catch it. It couldn’t be more obvious and I would think that having caught on to that from the very beginning you were probably suspicious of certain things a heckuva lot sooner than I.
Yeah, I really am dumb.
EG: Beyond all of that, though, I found that the biggest shortcoming of the book was the lack of elaboration on the Native American concept of the “Land.” I mean, the whole idea in the book was that America wasn’t a good growing place for gods, and by the end of the book, it looked, to me, like the “Land” was supposed to be a key player, that, in fact, Shadow was the unknowing agent of the Land, given the increase in the amount of Native American symbolism toward the end. Yet, this idea wasn’t really brought across clearly. I was especially confused, near the end of the book, when Shadow fell through the ice. The Native American “presence” within the book seemed to turn their backs on him and leave him at that point…for no apparent reason that I can figure out.
OG: I hadn’t really thought about it, but you’re dead right. (Geez, how many times am I gonna tell you you’re right? This has got to be inflating your ego) That stuff just suddenly blows up in importance at the end with no real warning. The sequence with Whiskey Jack and the others earlier on is done in such a way that you can’t distinguish it from the other visits to the other gods. It doesn’t seem to have any more or less dramatic weight than any other aside. I think if Gaiman had put more into the import of that section and that mythos he would have earned a lot more of the “Land” stuff at the end. That’s a shame and a missed opportunity.
EG: I’m also left wondering about the unresolved questions of who Shadow is. We learn he is the son of Odin (or, at least, the American version of Odin). Given that we learn that Thor committed suicide in the book, and how Shadow brought peace to the gods, I’m guessing that he is actually Balder. As such, does Shadow now live like the gods, as an immortal of sorts? We know he had some ability to affect things with his mind…but the end of the book, when he “removes” part of the sheriff’s memory, seemed to suggest that was a power he no longer had. I guess my biggest problem is with the fact that, though the center of the entire book, at the end, I’m left without having any real knowledge of Shadow. He changed throughout the book, I suppose…or, at least, we are told he changes that he moves from not caring about his own life to caring a lot…but I don’t feel that he changed. I think of him as the same, relatively passive, static character from beginning to end. His wife dies, but comes back to life, but he isn’t really fazed. He hangs naked from a tree, but it doesn’t really faze him. He even learns he’s the son of a god, but that doesn’t even faze him. I don’t know. Maybe I missed something.
OG: Again, your insights are starting to turn me against this book, man. As I read your comments about the character of Shadow it became more clear to me why the first half of this book was originally so frustrating for me. Perhaps it wasn’t the slow, deliberate world-building so much as it was how static a character the lead was. After all, it is Shadow’s story and he is our entree into this world. The fact that he’s borderline stupid and sort of a blunt instrument of a character makes it really hard to access the story from anything but the most surface of levels. But, it’s a corner that Gaiman has painted himself into.
The point of Shadow’s journey is him coming to life for the first time; really living after 30-odd years. And, while that’s a compelling concept and, for me, ended the novel on a high note, it does mean that you have to spend the majority of the time with someone that is sort of a dullard. But, my understanding is that there’s a follow-up novella called “Monarch of the Glen” that takes off from where this one ends up and follows Shadow on his travels abroad. I don’t know about you but I’d feel a little cheated to find that a lot of salient details about Shadow’s godhood and past life were included there and not in “American Gods.”
EG: Darn tootin’. I have also heard there is more that is explored in “Monarch of the Glen,” but I wasn’t reading THAT book. I was reading “American Gods” and if the author wants me to search out future works with the same character, then he really needs to give me that desire to know the character on a deeper level in the first outing. Otherwise, why would I make that effort?
Anyway, the book was the literary equivalent of Chinese food for me. I read it, and I came away still “hungry.” I’ll give it 2 ½ Running Steves.
OG: If we’re ending on food metaphors I’d say that for me it was more the equivalent of “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” An enjoyable and satisfying meal that ultimately ends badly once someone smarter comes along and explains to you what you’ve actually been eating. Okay, my metaphor’s not as good, but it’ll have to do. 3 out of 5 Running Steves for me.
(NEXT MONTH: We’ll be reading the classic sci-fi novel “ENDER’S GAME” by Orson Scott Card in the month of March. Please feel free to join in the journey and meet us again at month’s end to discuss the book!)