Monday, August 24, 2015

“I think I would rather be a man than a god. We don’t need anyone to believe in us. We just keep going anyhow. It’s what we do.”

American Gods (American Gods, #1)American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Yes, it's still God's Own Country,” said the announcer, a news reporter pronouncing the final tag line. “The only question is, which gods?”
I opened Neil Gaiman's American Gods with 0 idea of what would follow, so gradually unpacking its mythical references to understand what the gods represent was an absolute joy. What are gods? Figures of worship, deities to whom we make sacrifices. Yet as we learn from the novel, "It's not always a good thing to be a god." Certainly not in America, which is not "good growing country for gods." (The same can be said about a lot of places, actually).

Shadow Moon, an ex-convict and recent widow, meets gods quite early on in the novel. The first (or so we think...) is the elusive and one-eyed Mr. Wednesday, who later becomes his employer and is eventually revealed to be Odin ("Wōden"), the Norse God. Other gods include the sledgehammer-wielding, chess-playing Czernobog, the truth-telling Zorya Vecernyaya, the goddess of warfare, Bast, and many more. These are all "real" gods, by the way, in the sense that they all have roots in Norse mythology.

(side note: Gaiman also raises the question of whether or not gods are "real" in the first place -
“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. So none of this is happening. Such things could not occur. Never a word of it is literally true.
"People believe, thought Shadow. It's what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.")
The gods with whom Shadow is affiliated are old gods, fading into irrelevance. We meet Easter, to whom Wednesday says, "They mouth your name, but it has no meaning to them." The old gods are no longer being worshipped. When gods "truly die, they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.” However,
“There are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon. Proud gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance. "They are aware of us, they fear us, and they hate us," said Odin. "You are fooling yourselves if you believe otherwise.” 
This is where Gaiman hits home. The whole idea about "gods" is a perfect metaphor - what do we worship, these days? To what do we offer our sacrifices? The media, the television, entertainment, excess? (Indeed, one of the new goddesses that Shadow meets is a woman called Media).
"People gamble to lose money. They may brag about the nights they won, the money they took from the casino, but they treasure, secretly treasure, the times they lost. It's a sacrifice, of sorts."
And thus broods the impending war between the old gods and new gods, the tensions of which form our main storyline.

What also makes the whole story special is that it is one loooong road trip. All the gods' important meetings take place at "road side attractions," considered sacred places in America, while their interactions also occur "Backstage," in the mind, in the world of the gods.

“In the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and the respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit.  Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.

American Gods is dark, edgy, and funny. Gaiman ties different characters and plot lines together in a way that is sometimes messy, but also gripping. He's an expert foreshadower, from hinting at Shadow's fate ("EVERY ENDING IS A NEW BEGINNING. / LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON") to Mr. Wood's death... ("No one alive will take your life. You will die a soft, poor death. You will die with a kiss on your lips and a lie in your heart.” every word is true.) Wood's murder has got to be one of my favourite scenes in the whole book.

Given all the gods mentioned in the book, an appendix would have been extremely helpful for the less-mythology-savvy readers of this book (e.g. me). It is also interesting to consider all the gods that are left out of the book (e.g. Tyr)- why did Gaiman make such choices?

Anyhow, American Gods is explosively fun to read. It's always wonderful to pick up a book outside one's preferred genre!

Gaiman's musings on life/death:
I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you're alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.
"What you have to remember," said Mr. Ibis, testily, "is that life and death are different sides of the same coin. Like the heads and tails of a quarter."
"And if I had a double-headed quarter?"
"You don't. They only belong to fools, and gods."
And here is an ode to fiction: 
No man, proclaimed Donne, is an island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other's tragedies. We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, made into an island) from the tragedy of others, by our island nature and by the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived and then by some means or other, died. There. You may fill in the details from your own experience. As unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life. Lives are snowflakes- forming patterns we have seen before, as like one another as peas in a pod (and have you ever looked at peas in a pod? I mean, really looked at them? There's not a chance you'll mistake one for another, after a minute's close inspection) but still unique.

Without individuals we see only numbers, a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, "casualties may rise to a million." With individual stories, the statistics become people- but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless. Look, see the child's swollen, swollen belly and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, this skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears? To see him from the inside? And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted distended caricature of a human child? And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies' own myriad squirming children?

We draw our lines around these moments of pain, remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us. They are covered with a smooth, safe, nacreous layer to let them slip, pearl-like, from our souls without real pain.

Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.

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