Neil Gaiman is easily one of fantasy's best contemporary storytellers and of all his books, American Gods
is often called his magnum opus. Yet, as a novel, American Gods
is not as grand a story as it is a fictional work constructed of a hodgepodge of ideas. Yet for all the convolution created by this mix of ideas, Gaiman's work is still entirely readable and a fascinating exploration of contemporary American society.
There are certain hallmarks to a Neil Gaiman novel. One of these is the reinterpretation of old ideas that have been in existence for centuries. Gaiman fantasy is a rather postmodern rendition of fantasy, and as such, feels familiar to the reader, despite its weirdness. Another is the use of metalanguage techniques and intertextuality. Neil Gaiman is no stranger to referencing both himself and other literature, a technique apparent in this work and one which works superbly.
The beauty of Neil Gaiman is that even when he's writing at a China Mieville level of weird, his story is still enthralling. Here, he creates a book which while fantasy, could also be described as a noire or gothic mystery with a touch of magical realism or even an American road trip novel. It is a genreless work, in a way, which the author himself acknowledges is shown in the varying awards it has won.
The plot follows Shadow, who is released early from prison on the advent of a tragedy. A tragedy that throws him into a world of spirits and gods. His tourguide to this world is the equally mysterious Mr. Wednesday it is clear this refers to Wodensday or Odin's day and a Mr Lock Key Lyesmith also exists who represents Loki. One could say there is no plot to American Gods
save the type of plot of a road novel, with the journey and so forth across America. But there is a plot, only it is a convoluted one more concentrated on ideas and expression of ideas than storytelling.
The main idea of this novel is that there are old gods and new gods and that gods can die. When a god dies, if they are memorable enough, they will return and be reborn. There is a suggestion that Shadow, who Gaiman revealed was really titled Baldur Moon, was indeed Baldur reborn in such a way. This is also shown through some of the themes, but never really revealed. The old gods are Norse, Egyptian and more abstract entities - the Roman and Greek deities seem to have been overlooked, perhaps for logistical reasons. The new gods are such things as Media and Town - gods of commerce and plenty.
These two types of gods exist for a major reason, to show of the conflict that has always existed between tradition and modernity. Between old and new, between the worship of ritual and idea and the worship of the body and self in capitalist agenda. Yet, even these old gods are not immune to the corrupting influence represented by the old gods and in a cynical way Neil Gaiman shows off that the old ideals of worship eventually merge with the new.
It is fascinating that the sites of worship in Gaiman's novel are roadside attractions. Pieces of obscurity that exist to attract tourists and that no one knows why they exist in the first place. American Gods
may not be Neil Gaiman's greatest storytelling effort, with his characters a little under-defined in places (particularly how everyone keeps telling Shadow how stupid he is, rather than Gaiman showing the reader). That said, it is a fine exploration of the ideas and things behind American society and while it may not be a true exploration it is a decent one and a fine courageous effort from an outsider looking into that culture. American Gods
deserves to be read as an exploration of the negatives and the positives of life, though Gaiman tends toward the negative hedonistic representation of the society he draws. As such there are scenes of sex, drugs and rock and roll that may turn away the more squeamish readers or dampen one's like of the novel. The beginning is also rather dry and provides less of a kick for the reader to engage with the story; for the most part Shadow is not a likeable protagonist, but he is a curious entity, if not particularly understandable. So read this work, not for the story within, a story of worship and gods coming full circle in America, but as an exploration of what a bizarre and interesting place the world is. And as a look into how a man or woman can find their place in the world.