What to write about this book?
I really want to like it. I want to write positive things about it. Because I’ve known the author Neil Gaiman for a while before reading my first novel by him. Up until then, I’d only read his alternate-universe Sherlock Holmes story “A Study in Emerald”, which I’d loved.
Now here I am, toeing a line.
The fact is: It’s taken me many, many months to finish this book, because it was so boring. Or not exactly boring, but … rocky. And yet, at the same time, there’s so much to like about it.
Here’s the thing: It’s such a pleasure to hear Neil Gaiman speak about anything that you can’t help but hear his voice when reading one of his texts. His voice is so distinctive. I felt like American Gods was read to me by the author instead of me reading it.
Maybe the problem I had was that, for me, Neil Gaiman’s voice doesn’t translate well into writing. Its calm, soothing manner at times seems ill fitted for a long, dramatic narrative. I think that’s it. I got the impression that the narrator’s voice felt reluctant to be tense.
So, there’s this aspect. And then there’s the plot.
The plot might be the biggest problem here. There isn’t much of one.
The basic premise of the book is interesting enough: over the course of human history, all the gods of all the small and larger civilizations whose people came to America arrived in the New World too. The problem: since America is the country of reinvention and newness, these gods began to gradually find themselves obsolete.
Fast-forward to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Shadow is about to be released from prison. He is looking forward to seeing his wife and resuming his marriage after a three-year hiatus. Once he is out, though, he learns that his wife is dead – car accident while orally pleasing one of his friends. From now on, it seems to the reader that Shadow is dead. He keeps going, but without aim, purpose or pleasure. On a plane ride, he then meets a stranger, Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job as his protector/bodyguard/speaker/companion. Shadow agrees, not knowing that he just got sucked into a war between gods. From now on, Shadow and Wednesday cruise through the country to find the other old gods and persuade them to join Wednesday’s battle against the new gods of consumerism and technology.
This basic pattern essentially continues over two- to three hundred pages (maybe more, maybe less, but it felt like all six hundred pages) and I found little to keep my interest going. Sure, there was a nice road trip through the desolate little places in heartland USA, but just like a road trip from the east coast to the west coast, it felt like it stretched on forever. Not even the mythological coat could diminish the tediousness. And while Shadow is definitely the protagonist of the book, he seems like a miscast, because he’s almost not there at all. Since he emerged from prison to find his wife having died betraying him, he is emotionally numb and just acting automatically. Like a person on auto-pilot. I get that this might sound like an appealing idea for an author, but for the reader it’s pretty hard to be thrown back onto himself.
It feels like this: While typically, the main character of a story is a ship the reader enters to sail the ocean of the story, jn this case, the reader doesn’t set out on the ocean on a ship, but on a piece of driftwood.
Let’s see … shadow-like protagonist, dry plot. These would be my main beefs with the book.
And yet, and yet … in spite of the book reading like a French experimental film, it’s probably because it is like an abstract film that I like it, after all. What the text lacks in conventional narrative tension, it makes up for in rich, inspired passages that you don’t find with any other author. Put differently: It makes up for it in Gaiman-ness.
Take for example the narrator’s short excursion into tbe sanctum sanctorum of every casino in the world: the money-counting room. Just look at this sentence:
The money flows through the casino in an uninterrupted stream of green and silver, streaming from hand to hand, from gambler to croupier, to cashier, to the management, to security, finally ending up in the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum, the Counting Room.
The entire book is spiked with suggestive nuggets like this, sometimes, like in this case, they are whole passages that go on for several pages, sometimes they are only paragraphs, sometimes only a sentence or a few words. Thus, reading this book, while boring if you’re looking for conventional excitement, feels also like a conversation with Neil Gaiman, which I’m sure many of you book lovers have on your secret wish lists.
Bottom Line: Like a good trip, it has its ups and downs, and also several dry spots, but it’s still the authentic Gaiman experience. If you like this author, you shouldn’t miss this book.