I found Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, American Gods, extremely frustrating the first time I read it. I thought perhaps I would like it better upon re-reading: perhaps my high expectations, or my narrative expectations, got in the way unfairly. I regret to report that I do not, in fact, like it any better now that I’ve re-read it. (This seems to be the week for frustration in this book log.)
Why is it frustrating? Oh, lots of reasons. I did have high expectations for this book, and justifiably so, I think. Since the amazing Sandman comic series concluded its 75-issue run, Gaiman’s novels had been enjoyable but slight, lacking the kind of power and depth Sandman displayed. The tale of a war between the old and new gods of America was just the kind of project I’d hoped to see Gaiman take on.
It may be unjust to compare American Gods to Sandman, since a ten-year monthly epic and a 400+ page novel are quite different formats. But too much of American Gods invites me to do so, to the book’s detriment. There are, of course, the gods, whose incarnations in America are quite different from the ones who dealt with Dream, which is somewhat disorienting, at least at first. (The other disorienting thing about the gods in this book is that Bast’s feline form is exactly what I’ve always pictured myself as in the “If you were an animal, what would you be?” game.) There’s the very basic theme of belief and story, painted over a broad canvas with stories embedded inside the larger tale.
More importantly, there’s the main characters. It’s been observed that Gaiman apparently has a thing for passive protagonists; Dream was passive, but for interesting and ultimately tragic reasons. Shadow just is. He is, in fact, one of the major sources of my frustration; it’s very annoying to be mad on behalf of someone who doesn’t appear to care.
The other main (and related, in spoilery ways) source of frustration is the plot. I don’t object to violating narrative expectations, but I want there to be a payoff for it. Here, I ended up saying, “That’s it? So what?” which is not what you want to do after 400 pages. To be sure, those 400 pages were a very smooth and easy read, with some great stories, characters, and lines (of which my favorite is probably, “Media. I think I have heard of her. Isn’t she the one who killed her children?” “Different woman. Same deal.”). But they don’t, to me, add up to anything: the plot’s resolution, its effect on Shadow—they just leave me frustrated.
A lot of people seem to really like this book, and it’s received quite a lot of critical attention. That’s great; Gaiman has an impressive body of work and deserves the attention. But whatever it is that people are seeing in this, I’m missing it.