Book 29: American Gods

 

"There are stories that are true, in which each individual's tale is unique and tragic, and the worst of the tragedy is that we have heard it before and we cannot allow ourselves to feel it too deeply. We build a shell around it, like an oyster dealing with a painful particle of grit, coating it with smooth pearl layers in order to cope. This is how we walk and talk and function, day in, day out, immune to others' pain and loss. If it were to touch us it would cripple us or make saints of us; but, for the most part, it does not touch us. We cannot allow it to." 

Dates read: March 8-12, 2016

Rating: 8/10

Awards/Lists: NY Times Bestseller, Hugo Award

I'm an atheist. I was going to soften that a little, say that I'm agnostic, but when push comes to shove, I don't believe in god(s). I respect that other people do, and on some level I wish I did. It must come with a measure of comfort to feel like that there's a greater plan for us and what feel like personal setbacks to you are a part of that plan, that a higher power wouldn't give you obstacles to overcome that you weren't capable of handling. But when I search my heart I know that I don't.

Virtually every culture, around the world and across time, has some kind of religious/mythological belief system. Where did we come from? How are we to live? Those basic questions gave rise to hundreds, even thousands, of myths to give the answers (see: the entire Masks of God series I spent months of my life reading). In an anthropological/psychological sense, God did not create man. Man created the gods. And in Neil Gaiman's American Gods, we didn't just create them as concepts in the sky; they are corporeal beings and they need us, our prayers and our tributes, to thrive. But we as Americans haven't been giving them what they need for a long time now. What idols do we regard with something close to reverence today? TVs. Our phones. Our computers. And that has given rise to new gods in competition for our devotion with the old ones.

In its central and most straightforward plot line, American Gods follows Shadow Moon, a convict released from prison at the very beginning of the novel, and his work with the mysterious Mr. Wednesday to round up the old gods to do battle against the new in a final battle. But this isn't a straightforward novel, and its reach expands far beyond the basic premise. Gaiman explores the history of the gods, explaining how they got to the United States in the first place...from prehistoric travel across the land bridge over the Bering Straight, to the Vikings, to the slave trade and more. He shows us how these neglected gods survive in the real world: Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba, is a prostitute, and Thoth and Anubis have set up shop as undertakers for the minority community in a small town in Illinois. There's a short story within the novel of a gay Arab man, trying desperately to sell his brother-in-law's trinkets to distributors in New York City, and his encounter with an ifrit. There's a subplot about an idyllic small town in Wisconsin and how it stays prosperous and comfortable even while surrounding communities suffer. Gaiman has created a rich and thick and layered experience to read and absorb.

So why not a more glowing review, a higher rating? Well, as much as I appreciated it, I didn't connect with it very much. Shadow, our main character, is a cipher who neither speaks particularly often or has an especially rich inner life. And it makes sense, for who he's supposed to be: the only son of a peripatetic single mother who never had many friends growing up, who's spent a few years in the clink and loses the person closest to him right from the start. Why wouldn't he be withdrawn and closed off? Left alone in the world, why wouldn't he practice coin tricks instead of losing himself in his thoughts? But as much as I understand the characterization, it keeps the book at a distance, at least at first. As it moved along I got more swept up in it, but it still didn't quite click. It's actually a book I think would improve on re-read...now that I know what's coming and how it all plays out, I'd like to go back and start it from the beginning. Not right now. But eventually.

Tell me, blog friends: do you re-read often?

Note: Review cross-posted at Cannonball Read

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