Gaiman, Neil: (201) American Gods

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.

5 Comments

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  1. This is well after the event, but I absolutely agree with your comments. My feeling throughout the book was that I really didn’t give a toss what happened to any of the characters, most of whom, if they weren’t passive, were obnoxious (although I suppose no-one ever said the gods were charming people). The premise is great, tho’, and there are some momentarily funny bits.

    Perhaps those who hype it are thinking it’s great having something that references mythology, and actually, that part of the book is quite convincing. Personally, I need a bit more in plot and characterisation to keep me motivated. Diana Wynne Jones does a more entertaining job with Norse gods in 8 Days of Luke (in a novel half the size) – actually, I think she’s one of Gaiman’s influences.

  2. This novel was my first experience of Gaiman, and coming in with no expectations I found myself delighted. Of course, give me a novel that makes me pull my mythology reference books off the shelf and I’m happy. This struck me as very like the work of Roger Zelazny, whose passing I still mourn. I like to speculate about how our archetypes deal with the world I live in.

    I hadn’t noticed the passive protagonist aspect, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I agree that it is distressing to me and my worldview. And now I remember that Richard in Neverwhere was likewise annoyingly passive.

  3. Do you recall “Chance the gardener” from Jerzy Kosinski’s ‘Being there’? That Jesus-like vessel, from who everyone drew profound meaning in his child-like simplicity? A passive protagonist indeed! And, though I haven’t finished this book (I only started it this weekend) I see much the same from Shadow’s “passivity”; and, perhaps a certain parallel with that “lucky son of a virgin” as well?

  4. Harry: I’m not familiar with that work, but I hope you’ll report back when you’re done (with appropriate spoiler protection–see http://www.rot13.com/, for instance).

  5. You describe my exact reaction to the book, and much better than I could have done.
    I also find it interesting that while I read the Sandman only after I read American Gods, I still feel the same as you about the relation between the two. Reading the Sandman, I recognized some gods, and some themes, from American Gods, but the story is so much more powerful that I had no problem accepting it as a different story with new characters. I suspect that had I read the Sandman first, I would have enjoyed American Gods even less.

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