Neil Gaiman – American Gods [Review]

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It’s been a while since I read a terrible book, the kind where I have to stop reading because the author just wrote something so asinine. I can’t believe this is the same author of Stardust. Both books are trying something similar by playing on folklore, only Stardust gets it, and American Gods just does one stupid mistake after another. Stardust relates the myths to human experience,American Gods is concerned with a bunch of super-beings whose struggles bear little resemblance to human lives.

The story itself is not great. The actual events consist of running around and talking to people. This is because Gaiman has no real story and he wants to show off the research he has done. Everything is written like a cheap thriller without the energy. Cliched sentences are all over the place. Paragraphs are dedicated to what may or may not happen. Pseudo-omniscient third person narrative, switching points of view because everything has to be told. The main character is passive and does things in order for us to have eyes to look at things, and because Gaiman had no better way to move the story along. He later almost develops this passivity. There’s a moment where someone comments on that trait, and a crucial scene at the ending. All of this has very little bearing on the plot and doesn’t take it to a different direction. Main Character also suddenly changes his behavior because it’s good for the plot. There is no deep psychology for the main character. Gaiman pulls a reason out of an ass at the end, but it was easy to guess it because it’s the most immediate reason, the one that requires little thought. It’s also a reason out of the character’s control. It’s not exactly a psychological trait, and Shadow could have said “Hey, cool story, but I don’t care”. That revelation, in of itself, does not explain the sudden change.

There is one salvageable part in the extended ending (Which goes way after the books run out of steam) when a mystery that appeared halfway through is solved. The conclusion and the scenes are pretty interesting, and if Gaiman wrote a straightforward thriller set in a small American town he’d have more access. He could have been explored his subject better, and relate this God business to actual human lives. This is the only time he does that. Later, a non-existent story arc gets an unimportant closure, where Gaiman tells us a lot of details and personal history of a character that appears for five pages. The plot would’ve changed little if this was removed

I could forgive the non-existent story if the ideas here were worth it. American Gods doesn’t pretend to be a story-centric novel anyway, but the whole premise it relies on falls flat. The war is, supposedly, between polytheism and technology, but were they ever at war? By the time the Industrial Revolution came around, monotheism ruled the west. Somehow, nobody from Judaism, Christianity or Islam makes an appearance. A few people do mention Jesus, and there’s a scene with some Arabic guys, but it goes nowhere. Thinking of it now, I have no idea what that scene with the Arabic people meant within the context of the story. Does anyone know of a pantheon that was common in what is now Islamic territories?

The idea of a “God” is also very vague. His modern gods include Media, Computers, and some people called Mr. Town, Mr. Stone, Mr. Wood, and like that. What does believing in these mean? They all exist, but when does the simply using ends and the worshiping starts? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have gods representing ideas like right-wing, left-wing, capitalism, communism, veganism, feminism, and other such ideas, which are truly abstract? It could even add an interesting dynamic where, while all of these are very modern, they also don’t agree with each other on everything. Oh look, here’s a much cooler premise – follow a bunch of characters representing these ideologies, who have to survive together despite their disagreements. Doesn’t sound that original, but much better than having a passive guy running around with Odin to show off Gaiman’s research.

He says some things about how Americans (Oh! Look at all these fat and stupid people!) switch gods frequently. Let’s forget that the book can’t decides what a god is. What is wrong with the zeitgeist constantly changing? In fact, it’s a good thing. Progress is change. We haven’t reached a utopia yet, and we’ll probably never will, so why not try to change? Not every change is good, obviously, but changing is the only way to improve. The gods probably feel pretty bad about it, but they exist only in the context of the novel. There is no explanation about why “a land bad for gods” is bad for humanity. This brings up another thing: American Gods is one of those novels that are detached from the human experience, where fantasy is not used to mirror or say something about humanity but is used to curl up in it.

The worse is the random bits of shitty writing. Very early, Gaiman tells us Columbus didn’t really discover America. He might as well have said, “This is for ignorant people who barely read the paper”. A character kisses Shadow out of nowhere. The same character goes off before on a monologue which has brackets in it. Nobody speaks with brackets. Digressions are something else. Schrodinger’s Cat gets mentioned for the sole purpose of, “Look! Science can be so cool!” and “Cats! Cats!”.

More offensive was the way the grieving of one character was treated. There’s a death early in the book which affects a few characters. One of them vanishes, only to reappear later in a very convenient way to move the plot from A to B. Said character’s action are framed as vile, and she gets called a ‘cunt’. I don’t want to spoil, but that tragic event isn’t going to make angels out of anyone, and if you’re considering her limited point of view, plus all her grief, her reaction is perfectly reasonable. It may harm our hero, but I can’t hate her. In her world, she’s the main character, not him.

No story, premise that makes little sense, attempts to comment on real life that mean nothing and some very bad writing. This doesn’t sound the guy who made Stardust. I had no idea what happened here. I remember choosing to read American Pastoral instead of this, to ‘get it out of the way’ because this seemed more fun. How wrong I was.

One pantheon out of five

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