Thursday, January 20, 2011

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. HarperCollins, 2001. 588 pp. 978-0-380-78903-0.

... in which the deities of the past struggle to matter and compete with the deities of the present.

Everyone has heard of Neil Gaiman. If you haven't heard of Neil Gaiman, I'm a little surprised that you're the sort of person who reads book blogs. He's certainly a master at taking a theme and running with it in original and spectacular ways. This book is no different.

The book's central protagonist is a man named Shadow. The book opens with Shadow being released a few weeks early from prison, because his wife Laura dies in a tragically pointless way. On his way home for the funeral, Shadow meets a mysterious man named Wednesday. Wednesday seems to know all about Shadow, and offers him a job. Over time, Shadow learns that Wednesday is gathering a mysterious assortment of people who turn out to be ancient gods, brought to America as people immigrated here from various other nations. These gods are kept alive through the strength of their people's belief. Shadow meets an impressive assortment of old deities, from a variety of different pantheons: Norse, Irish, Slavic, Indian, West African, Egyptian... the list goes on. Wednesday is gathering these old weakening gods, and preparing them for a final confrontation against the gods of the present: Media, Internet, etc.

This is a richly detailed book, with a multi-faceted plot where every conversation, every interaction, ends up having significance. I reread this book for participation in a book club (the first time I read it was probably 2003 or 2004), so I don't really remember how surprising I found the twists and conclusion. I think for a detail-oriented reader, or for a reader who is very well-versed in various ancient mythologies, some of the twists won't be a huge surprise. However, I think this is a book where it's not really the shocks and surprises that matter, it's the details and the characters.

Gaiman does a very impressive job with his research. Each god is portrayed as a well-characterized individual, complete with all of the idiosyncrasies that make each god unique. It's fascinating to see how Gaiman portrays each god's survival strategies. For gods that are kept alive through belief, it must be hard on the leprechauns and Basts and Odins of the world to find enough believers to sustain them. For more information on all the gods portrayed in the book, visit this website. Warning: that site is nothing but spoilers. In addition to the wealth of detail on the gods, Gaiman brings a great deal of detail to the setting, making each stop along the journey feel quintessentially American.

Overall, this is a richly detailed book with a compelling plot and a very satisfying ending. Recommended for anyone with a taste for modern fantasy, ancient mythology and theology, or just plain good fiction.

I leave you with some quotations:

Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you-- even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition.

Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world. p 508

"They never understood that they were here-- and the people who worshiped them were here-- because it suits us that they are here. But we can change our minds. And perhaps we will."
"Are you a god?" asked Shadow.
The buffalo-headed man shook his head. Shadow thought, for a moment, that the creature was amused. "I am the land," he said. p549

5/5 stars

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