Friday, 19 July 2002

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (2001)

Edition: Headline, 2001
Review number: 1107

The relationship between the existence of gods and people's belief in them has interested several fantasy writers (Zelazny, Cabell and Pratchett among them), and the answers they have come up with are generally similar (when people stop believing, the gods in question dwindle and die). Gaiman has used the same idea to inspire a fantasy on a large scale, one which is really about life in modern America. For behind the scenes America is full of gods - all those brought over by worshippers from overseas: from Ireland, Scandinavia, Egypt and West Africa (and of course the Amerindian gods as well). But now that their worshippers have almost entirely abandoned them, for the new gods of consumer products, TV and technology. The stage is set for one last confrontation between the bloody and visceral gods of the past and the soulless deities of the future.

The central character in American Gods is a man named Shadow. In prison after a bar fight, he is allowed out early when his wife is killed in a car accident. He travels unhappily back to his home town, and on the journey is offered a job by a strange man named Wednesday. He is soon introduced to the strange dark world behind the facade of America. There are inescapable parallels between the world revealed to Shadow and that experienced by Richard Mayhew in Gaiman's earlier fantasy Neverwhere - the same idea that the supernatural is a dark world all around us that we normally ignore - but the two are very different characters.

In the end, American Gods is only partially successful. It comes close to greatness in places, but Gaiman seems to be unable to decide exactly what he wants to say about American culture; his own feelings are presumably ambivalent. This weakens several parts of the novel, even though it could have been made a strength. Echoes of Americana by other writers give a strong sense of place, even if they make much of the novel seem like a homage to Twin Peaks. Gaiman makes the reader feel even though he is a very good writer, he has never actually achieved his potential; he always seems to pull his punches.

On the cover of the Headline edition of American Gods is the rather gimmicky offer "As good as Stephen King or your money back". That marks out the comparison that the publishers want readers to make - so is it that good? I last read King about twenty years ago, in my early teens (probably the best age to read his novels). The fact that I still feel that I remember those I read is testimony to their effectiveness, but I never felt any great urge to read more. What King excels at is surface; his novels are as a result chilling and exciting. Gaiman, to me, has deeper ideas but these are not put over so forcefully - his language is more poetic. I have never felt that King could have gone on to create a classic (particularly since much of his writing seems to be merely an updating of classic horror ideas), but Gaiman clearly could do so.

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