Becoming Well-Read: American Gods

Ashley: Neil Gaiman is one of those authors who, from my understanding, “transcends” genre fiction. He’s won many speculative fiction awards, like the Hugo and Nebula, along with a Newbery Medal, and has loads of pop culture street cred for his work on comics and adaptations of his works like Coraline and the upcoming TV adaptation of American Gods. But his fantasy romps are also beautifully and literarily written, earning him tons of critical acclaim as well.

And honestly, while plenty of people have told me to read Gaiman, and excited talk about his works including his most recent, Norse Mythology, has floated around me, I’ve never bothered to pick up one of his books. Half the time, conversations about him with other people devolve into questions about his name. Is it pronounced Guy-men? Gay-men? (Hey, listen, I don’t know, you’re the one who brought him to my attention in the first place, person telling me to read his books — you tell me!)

I’ve never bothered to watch Coraline, either, which seems strange considering the only movies I usually watch are the ones made for children. Maybe I was scared off that it came from the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, because The Nightmare Before Christmas actually gives me nightmares and who needs that?

At some point, I started having pride in never having read a Neil Gaiman book, more than with other authors. I enjoyed when my best friend told me he genuinely didn’t know if I would like American Gods, because the writing is far from being Hemingway-esque the way I like it. What a rebel I was, not liking this author who had too much popular and critical appeal for his own good! What a fabulous rock I had found to live under!

With the impending release of the American Gods TV series, though, my rock looks less and less fabulous. I want to know what all the cool adults will be talking about. I want to know if I’ll end up liking it. I want to know who the American gods are. Don’t leave me behind, culture! Please forgive my transgressions. Let me make it up to you by finally reading American Gods.

What I Think It’s About: Gods who are American instead of Greek, because we don’t want any hand-me-down gods in America. Grapples with the concept of American exceptionalism. Gods get into epic god fights. Mere mortals suffer.

What It’s Actually About: American Gods follows this dude named Shadow Moon — yes, Shadow Moon, it’s a cool name, OK? — who has tons and tons of patience and is able to suspend disbelief with the best of them. After spending almost three years in prison, Shadow gets recruited as a bodyguard of sorts for an old Norse god going by Mr. Wednesday who’s traveling around America rounding up all the old gods. While these gods have mostly been forgotten by the descendants of the immigrants whose beliefs brought them all to America in the first place, they feel it’s important to fight against the new gods Americans worship, like the technical boy, who represents our obsession with the Internet. And to think, this was in 2000.

Why You Should Read It Right Now: The TV series is a great excuse to read American Gods as soon as possible, certainly, but that would be selling this book far short. It’s been a long time since a book — particularly so strange a one as this — hooked me with its slow and steady reveals and supremely crafted metaphors. Gaiman earned all the awards he received for American Gods, for sure.

There’s also lots of talk about American Gods’ unforeseen timeliness, particularly given President Donald Trump’s policies around immigration and our increased devotion to the new gods wrought through capitalism in the digital age. Jeremy Egner in the New York Times writes about how, beneath the flashiness of the TV show’s imagery, American Gods “is a story about the power and evolution of faith, and of immigrants who helped to build and define American culture, only to see said culture turn against them. This overarching theme, as well as smaller vignettes about American newcomers, have taken on the sheen of advocacy, the show’s overseers say, since Donald J. Trump’s election and proposed immigration bans.”

These takes aren’t wrong, but they don’t tell the full story of what makes Gaiman’s story so compelling in 2017, when Gaiman himself admits “speculative fiction usually ages very badly.” Because there are bits of American Gods that feel simply laughably outdated, like a line about how Blockbuster will probably soon come to a small town and ruin the local businesses there, when Netflix has now destroyed Blockbuster. 

Other bits of the story feel heartbreakingly quaint, though, particularly in the beginning, when Shadow easily hops around on different airplanes, barely commenting on the security. In the introduction to this anniversary edition, Gaiman has a few lines about going to a book signing at the Borders in the World Trade Center in June 2001. The attacks of September 11 happened only a few months later. Borders is now a defunct company. Airports and airplanes have become such stressful things in reality and certainly in our imaginations. But none of this is reflected in American Gods.

Anansi Boys  takes place in the same world as  American Gods .

Anansi Boys takes place in the same world as American Gods.

That’s not a strike against the book — this juxtaposition of what America once was, both positively and negatively, to what it has become 17 years later is sobering, but goes with one of the book’s central themes. As Mr. Wednesday says, “[America] is the only country in the world that worries about what it is. … The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.” Fearing for America’s soul is perhaps one of the most American pastimes, and we’re all deeply engaged in it right now.

As someone who’s never been to any state in middle America, those “flyover” states, American Gods provides a much needed sympathetic connection. Shadow spends a lot of time in places like Wisconsin and Illinois, in little towns, getting to know locals and giving rides to hitchhiking teens. This, too, feels a little cutesy, a connection only made possible during a time when things like cell phones and Twitter weren’t prevalent. Or, it’s the city girl in me — Philadelphia, New York, Providence, San Francisco — unfamiliar with what it’s really like in America’s heartland.

Don’t worry — even if you’re sick of thinking about America’s soul, American Gods is still worth the read for its original and gritty take on mythology. It features a drunk, profane leprechaun who pulls gold coins out of thin air, an elaborate moral tale about stealing a tiger’s balls, and at least one pseudo-zombie. It’s fun, funny, and frightening, a heady mix that will keep you reading for hours straight. 

P.S. It’s pronounced Gaym’n, according to Gaiman’s site. Now you know.

Want to see what books Neil Gaiman loves? Check out his reading list.

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