Divining Neil Gaiman: An Exegesis of American Gods
By Bryan A. Hollerbach
15 October 2001
Regarding American Gods, Neil Gaiman's new novel, two fanciful scenarios instantly present themselves:
In the first, a devout secularist notes the title in a bookstore window, scowls at its evident conjunction of church and state, and that evening, intent on purging the shelves of such reactionary trash, composes complaints not only to the store's owner but also to his city's mayor, various and sundry congresspeople, and, for good measure, Abigail Van Buren.
In the second, a staunch fundamentalist spies the same title, flies into a rage over what appears to be pagan nonsense -- by an English expatriate, no less! -- and that night skulks back to torch the bookstore's window display with a Molotov cocktail (which, thankfully, does little damage because its creator saved the good stuff for herself).
All whimsy aside, American Gods should by rights attract attention across a vast spectrum of readers: during the past dozen or so years, Gaiman has enjoyed a career of stunning diversity, and this book feels almost self-consciously summational, a novelistic milestone set with pardonable pride and no little fanfare along the literary freeway of one of our most promising young fantasists.
That said, it seems conceivable (if unlikely) that a reader here and there may have little or no knowledge of Gaiman's career. Thus, some background:
In the beginning -- no pun intended -- Gaiman worked as a journalist, writing and conducting interviews for the British editions of Penthouse, Knave, and other publications (an example of this work appears in Clive Barker's Shadows in Eden, edited by Stephen Jones).
In the late '80s, he turned his talents to comic books, memorably in Sandman (now and again d.b.a. The Sandman, reflecting a disdain for exactitude common to many comics' colophons); even though that 75-issue series concluded more than half a decade ago, its publisher, DC, has faithfully kept it in print in ten collections, in both hardback and trade paperback. Even more memorably, Gaiman collaborated with artist Dave McKean on several non-genre works, including the unnerving Mr. Punch (1994) and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (1997), a splendid treatise on the dangers of barter.
In non-illustrated prose, Gaiman has also been busy. With Terry Pratchett, he wrote Good Omens, a mirthful 1990 novel about the end of the world. (Its copyright page warns, "Kids! Bringing about Armageddon can be dangerous. Do not attempt it in your own home.")
Then, in 1996, through BBC Books, he published his first solo novel, the urban fantasy Neverwhere, which was based on a BBC2 television series scripted by Gaiman and was de-Anglicized by him for Avon Books the next year. Avon likewise released his Smoke and Mirrors, a 1998 collection of short stories that enlarged upon the small-press Angels and Visitations, an exquisite miscellany from five years prior.
Through Avon's short-lived Spike imprint, Gaiman next proffered Stardust, the 1999 expansion of a tale originally illustrated by the Arthur Rackham-ish Charles Vess in 1997 and 1998 for a four-issue miniseries from DC's Vertigo imprint, which directly collected it in a handsome, outsized hardcover.
Otherwise, he's written the BBC radio adaptation of Signal to Noise, an early Gaiman-McKean "graphic novel"; a teleplay for J. Michael Straczynski's acclaimed Babylon 5; and the English language script for Princess Mononoke, the Japanese animated tour de force released in U.S. cinemas in 1999. Other Hollywood work, it almost goes without saying, has beckoned.
In short, diverse may not adequately describe Gaiman's career. "I'm not a novelist any more than I was a comics writer or a TV writer," Gaiman once noted in Locus. "I'm a storyteller."
Coincidentally, the story of the work now under discussion bears a bit of telling. Gaiman, in an essay for Powells.com entitled "Books Have Sexes," traced the initial inspiration for American Gods to the spring of 1997. After Neverwhere, he had planned to work on a novel with the "working title of Time in the Smoke. . .about the nature of time in the city of London." More than a year later, though, after various false starts, the earlier inspiration sharpened:
"[W]hen I was in Iceland on my way to a sort of micro Scandinavian tour of Norway, Denmark, and Finland, wandering around Reykjavik in a very sleep-deprived state in summer when the sun never sets, all of a sudden the American novel came into focus."
He acted on that focus fast: "I wrote a letter to my publisher telling them that my next book wouldn't be a historical fantasy set in restoration London after all, but a contemporary American phantasmagoria."
Easier said than done. In his introduction to Smoke and Mirrors, Gaiman observed, "Most of the stories in this volume have that much in common: The place they arrived at in the end was not the place I was expecting them to go when I set out." Similar circumstances apparently pertained to American Gods. Although the novel had been scheduled for British publication as early as September 2000, Gaiman didn't finish writing it till January 2001. "The book turned out to be twice as long as I had expected," he stated in the Powells.com essay. "The plot I thought I was writing twisted and snaked and I slowly realised it wasn't the plot at all."
Moreover, Gaiman told interviewer Paula Guran, "At its longest American Gods was about 200,000 words: I trimmed that back to about 185,000 words for the final draft." To her he also confessed, "If I'd known how big [the novel would be] I might not have dared to start."
Given the historical record, one can only presume Gaiman deadpanned that confession: his ambition has long equaled his considerable talent. (A fellow British writer once admiringly denigrated him as "a Southern yuppie shark.") In the introduction to Angels and Visitations, for instance, Gaiman confided, "I sent the first story I ever wrote to Punch [the venerated British humor magazine]. . . ." Moreover, in an interview published almost five years past, he declared:
"You were asking earlier about my novels. . . .I do know they're going to be all over the place. When I finish writing them, it's going to be bloody hard to rack them, because they aren't going to slide neatly into the horror or the humor or the fantasy or science fiction or the mystery or the main stream sections of the book shelf."
American Gods embodies that declaration.
The novel focuses on the improbably christened Shadow Moon, a peripatetic 32-year-old imprisoned for assault and battery. On the eve of his release, Shadow receives numbing news: his wife Laura has died in an auto accident.
On the plane trip to Indiana to bury her, he encounters Mr. Wednesday, a lupine rogue who knows things about Shadow that he shouldn't and couldn't. Directly, even though he neither trusts nor likes the older man, Shadow accepts an offer to serve as Wednesday's bodyguard/dogsbody.
Then comes the uncanny.
Shadow's wife refuses to stay interred, for instance; smelling faintly "of rot, of flowers and preservatives," she visits him in an Indiana motel. Further, strange dreams plague him, dreams involving a bison-headed man and portents of a coming storm that seems more than merely meteorological. Wednesday, meantime, slowly reveals himself to be something beyond a grifter and roué.
How much beyond, astute readers will have deduced from his odd introduction aboard their storm-tossed plane: "[S]eeing that today certainly is my day -- why don't you call me Wednesday? Mister Wednesday. Although given the weather, it might as well be Thursday, eh?" (Such readers, to be sure, oughtn't congratulate themselves overmuch, in light of the novel's title and the name of a character mentioned on its very first page.)
More specifically, after a few nicks with Occam's razor, Shadow recognizes Wednesday as an American incarnation -- avatar likely wouldn't fit Shadow's personal lexicon -- of the Norse god variously known as Odin, Votan, and the All-Father (deities seemingly being as fond of aliases as the average petty criminal). Moreover, Shadow's new employer is plotting a divine duel to the death, a celestial showdown.
Why? Economics. "[T]here are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief," Wednesday notes at one point, "gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon." Unfortunately, worship, be it active or passive, appears to be a zero-sum game, a game being won rather handily by the nouveau divin.
As a result, Wednesday, with Shadow in tow, starts to marshal an opposition force, traveling hither and yon to recruit confreres only Gaiman and the late Joseph Campbell could perhaps identify. (American Gods, in all likelihood, will give birth to more than one thesis in comparative mythology.) Those confreres range from the more-or-less familiar, such as the Hindu goddess Kali, to the puckishly ineffable, like what appears to be the god of elision, encountered in that modern mecca to ineffability, Las Vegas.
Along the way, as suggested, Shadow travels, sometimes with Wednesday, sometimes without, roaming a nation defined by macadam, an impossible sprawl of televisions with "motel-fuzzy" reception and "red and yellow and blue lights advertising every kind of fast food a man could imagine, as long as it was a hamburger." Gaiman once remarked, "England has history; Americans have geography," and he herein explores that geography, tracing an arcane network of roads and streets and highways and interstates from the wonderfully realized Cairo, Illinois, to the wonderfully fictionalized Lakeside, Wisconsin, with side trips of varying length and significance to San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, and Boulder, in a Baedeker of the outré describing a land where a fire-eyed ifrit out of Islamic myth pilots a New York taxi and a man is crucified in harrowing detail in rural Virginia and something like the Teutonic Götterdämmerung erupts atop Lookout Mountain in the northwest corner of Georgia.
Also along the way occur kidnaping, torture, and homicide enough to satisfy even the most sanguine Sopranos fan -- and, in fact, to tempt one to get punny with the phrase godhood.
It all ends anticlimactically, sad to say. After the fairly satisfying denouement to American Gods comes what's brazenly labeled "Part Four" and "Epilogue: Something That the Dead Are Keeping Back." This epilogue, unfortunately, comprises two chapters and a "postscript" -- almost three dozen pages of material. Worse still, in large part, it comes of necessity, because it answers questions posed in the tale proper -- What did Ganesh's comment signify? What became of sweet young Alison? -- and explains a brace of earlier coincidences that seem, on first reading, embarrassingly amateurish for a writer of such professionalism.
In that context, Gaiman's "purloined letter" goes at first unnoticed because of his skill at misdirection. (In an interview not too long ago, Darrell Schweitzer noted en passant that Gaiman, like his protagonist here, has a talent for sleight-of-hand.) At least initially, the epilogue satisfies because it ensnares the reader in the solution to the mystery suggested by the questions posed previously. Moreover, earlier in the novel, Gaiman primes the pump with ancillary narratives -- here the tale of a resourceful Cornishwoman transplanted to America in the eighteenth century, there a devastating sketch of Vikings and Amerinds -- which by their numbers make the ending seem like one last interpolation, thereby concealing its structural infelicity.
On reflection, though, one can't help but echo Gertrude Stein's "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" -- American Gods ends in anticlimax, and there's no denying it.
In the end, of course, that may matter little. If, like most, if not all, attempts at the Great American Novel -- and Gaiman's working title qua published title perforce positions the book thus -- American Gods falls shy of perfection, it does so in a grand tradition forgiving of incongruity, wherein, say, Huckleberry Finn and "Miss Watson's" Jim seek to flee the evils of slavery by heading south. In that light, some consideration should go to the manifold pleasures it provides.
One such pleasure: American Gods features some fine writing of the fantastic. (That might seem a given till one recalls any number of so-called fantasies with all the panache of a laundry list.) Consider, for example, this passage, in which Shadow undergoes his first extended encounter with the uncanny:
He was looking at Mr. Nancy, an old black man with a pencil mustache, in his check sports jacket and his lemon-yellow gloves, riding a carousel lion as it rose and lowered, high in the air; and, at the same time, in the same place, he saw a jeweled spider as high as a horse, its eyes an emerald nebula, strutting, staring down at him; and simultaneously he was looking at an extraordinarily tall man with teak-colored skin and three sets of arms, wearing a flowing ostrich-feather headdress, his face painted with red stripes, riding an irritated golden lion, two of his six hands holding on tightly to the beast's mane; and he was also seeing a young black boy, dressed in rags, his left foot all swollen and crawling with blackflies; and last of all, and behind all these things, Shadow was looking at a tiny brown spider, hiding under a withered ocher leaf.
Perhaps because of his earlier work in journalism, Gaiman also exhibits an eye for mundane detail that would escape a lesser fabulist, as in a slick early sequence wherein Wednesday defrauds a bank -- Gaiman makes the scam all too believable. One likewise immediately thinks of the following account by Mr. Czernobog, a crotchety Chicagoan as gray and imposing as the bow of an icebreaker:
"I got a job in the meat business. On the kill floor. When the steer comes up the ramp, I was a knocker. You know why we are called knockers? Is because we take the sledgehammer and we knock the cow down with it. Bam! It takes strength in the arms. Yes?. . . .Is not just strong though. There was an art to it. To the blow. Otherwise the cow is just stunned, or angry. . . ."
As mimesis and soliloquy both, that passage shines, and similar bits recur throughout the novel. "You don't want to ask after the health of anyone, if you're a funeral director," the cranelike Mr. Ibis (who is indeed a funeral director, of sorts) informs Shadow a third of the way into American Gods. "They think maybe you're scouting for business."
As the preceding suggests, despite its subject and its scale, the book doesn't want for humor, happily enough. "Even if I did set out to write a bleak, horror novel," Gaiman stated in an interview published around the time he was having the first inspiration for American Gods, "I have a strangely, cynically sunny disposition." An example of that disposition occurs in the first chapter, in fact. In a bar, over a Southern Comfort and Coke, a ginger-bearded man almost seven feet tall introduces himself as a leprechaun, prompting this exchange:
Shadow did not smile. "Really?" he said. "Shouldn't you be drinking Guinness?"
"Stereotypes. You have to learn to think outside the box," said the bearded man.
In the real world, of course, such a retort would horrify: those who customarily use the phrase think outside the box also customarily traffic in dehumanizing euphemisms such as downsize. In context, though, the professed leprechaun's use of the business jargon surprises and delights.
Similarly, three-quarters of the way into American Gods, Shadow and two of his companions encounter one of the new deities, Media, "perfectly made-up, perfectly coiffed," who reminds him of "every newscaster he'd ever seen on morning television sitting in a studio that didn't really resemble a living room" and who speaks with the plastic bonhomie of the cotillion crowd. The encounter sparks this drollery:
"Media. I think I have heard of her. Isn't she the one who killed her children?"
"Different woman," said Mr. Nancy. "Same deal."
Presenting themselves throughout the novel are other grace notes less readily classifiable, ranging from an easy allusion to The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, to bits of offhand sagacity ("People only fight over imaginary things," Mr. Nancy tells Shadow toward the end). Enumerating them, however, would constitute overkill. Suffice it to say that American Gods warrants readers' attention -- and that Neil Gaiman's next project, whatever it may be, should warrant even more.
Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. New York, 2001.
The novel's British printing deserves mention. A product of Headline Book Publishing, a division of London's Hodder Headline, it was typeset by the delightfully named Palimpsest Book Production Limited. Its cover poses the question "Is nothing sacred?" and shows the sign for the Stardust Motel beside a cruciform telephone pole. The cover also bears a banner declaring both "GUARANTEED OR YOUR MONEY BACK" and "As good as STEPHEN KING or your money back."
Gaiman, Neil. Angels and Visitations. Minneapolis, 1993.
Gaiman, Neil. "Books Have Sexes."
Gaiman, Neil. Smoke and Mirrors. New York, 1998.
Gaiman, Neil, and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens. New York, 1990.
Guran, Paula. "Neil Gaiman: Pretty Decent." The Spook, July 2001.
Horsting, Jessie. "So Long, Sandman." Midnight Graffiti, No. 8 (Winter/Spring 1997).
Morehouse, Lyda. "SFC Interview: Neil Gaiman." Science Fiction Chronicle, Vol. 20, No. 5, Issue 202 (May 1999).
Morrison, Grant. "From My Pulpit." Tripwire, Vol. 1, No. 16 (Spring 1997).
"Neil Gaiman: Of Monsters & Miracles." Locus, Vol. 42, No. 4, Issue 459 (April 1999).
Schweitzer, Darrell. "Weird Tales Talks With Neil Gaiman." Weird Tales, Vol. 56, No. 4, Whole No. 320 (Summer 2000).