Author: Neil Gaiman
Audiobook or Real Book: I listened to the unabridged full cast production of the 10th-anniversary edition
Why I read it: I read it once in high school and really loved it. I decided to do a reread before the tv show came out.
Basic Plot Synopsis: After the death of his wife Shadow Moon is plunged into the world of Gods. He finds himself caught up in the brewing war between the old gods and the new when he accepts a job with the old con-man Mr. Wednesday
General Thoughts: I love this book. I did not really remember much of what I had read in high school beyond the basic plot structure and the Bilquis scene. I often cited my biggest reason for loving the novel the first time around was the “twist” ending. Coming back to it now I rekindled a much deeper appreciation for everything about it.
First, however, I’d like to get my primary complaint out of the way. I have to admit I am not a huge fan of Gaiman’s writing style, while I think he does manage to create a compelling atmosphere in American Gods, I find his writing style too choppy and disjointed. In fact, American Gods is the only book by Gaiman I’ve ever managed to read all the way through, although I did listen to Good Omens and The Ocean at the End of the Lane as audiobooks. Even as an audiobook I occasionally found myself bothered by his style in American Gods, but as with my first time reading it I found the concept, plot, and themes so compelling that I didn’t mind. (I want to make clear that this critique of Gaiman’s style is not actually an accusation of poor writing. While I personally do not care for his style, there is nothing objectively wrong with it. My criticism is about preference, not a declaration of good or bad. In fact, his ability to create a mood for me even as I dislike his style is likely indicative of a great deal of skill I am simply not appreciating.)
As for what I like about American Gods the original concept of the novel was something I was always going to find compelling. I have always been fascinated by religion and faith. When I was a child, I was extremely religious and, although I became agnostic in high school, I have remained interested in religion. I attended a catholic college where, although I did not major in religious studies, I took three religious studies courses—including one where I was introduced to the work of Jack Miles whose book God: A Biography will be the first nonfiction nonaudiobook I will talk about on this blog. A book all about the function of myth and faith in the United States whose characters are gods made flesh was always going to excite me. Thematically this book did not let me down. I do not feel like I fully appreciated what Gaiman was talking about my first time reading, or at least I do not remember appreciating it, but coming back to it I completely understand why I was supposed to reread it for my Sci-Fi and Fantasy Literature course in college (oops). Gaiman’s meditation on immigration and the American landscape is incredibly compelling. His nuanced exploration of the constant and cyclical culture clash between the old, the new, and the lingering creates compelling questions for the reader about where they place their faith and why and what kind of power that faith has. He also raises questions about how America functions in its own mythology. I love his characterization of America as a cruel place for gods, where the old gods cannot succeed and the new gods will become old before they know what has happened. Shadow’s final conversation with the land leaves the audience reeling with a renewed understanding of how little power gods truly have. (This was the place I was worried about the show. The trailer, and more notably some of the cast interviews, seemed to hint at the show taking the track of the new gods are capital B bad, and while the old gods may not be good, everyone should hate the new gods. Which, at least in my interpretation, is not Gaiman’s point at all. The new gods are no different than the old gods except that they are new and therefore powerful. So far, I am fairly pleased with how the show is handling this.) There are, of course, more subtle nuances and side themes in the novel, but this is already 650 words of slop and I would like to discuss the characters and plot before this begins to reach essay length. One final thematic note I would like to touch on, however, is Jesus. By listening to the 10th-anniversary edition (which is also the edition I currently own—although not the edition I first read) I was able to hear the scene Gaiman wrote between Shadow and Jesus while Shadow was holding vigil. Even in the extended edition, he leaves the scene as an appendix. Gaiman says of the scene “I felt like I was alluding to something that I couldn’t simply mention in passing and then move on from. It was too big” (532). I disagree with Gaiman, although I’m sure he knows best, as I am in love with the scene. I would recommend it to anyone, even if they have previously read the original publication edition, and am super pumped to see how the show will be incorporating Jesus based on this scene. Gaiman’s Jesus feels kinder and more open than any of the gods Shadow has encountered previously, but Gaiman makes it clear that he is no less troubled. He is successful, true, but that success has its own price. America has no tolerance for a God that is static, Jesus is many different things to many different people and not much of anything to himself. Gaiman is right that the 3-page meeting hints at something massive and forces the reader to again reimagine the world of gods in America, but I think it is worth it.
As for the characters, I can’t say I personally like any of them except Shadow. Although don’t take that to mean I don’t think they are all wonderful and well-written characters, they are. Shadow, for me, is extremely likable. His numb pain after years in prison and Laura’s betrayal are the perfect vehicle through which the audience can experience the strange and troubling world Gaiman has crafted. However, he is not reduced to simply an audience surrogate in his passivity. Shadow’s journey, to me, is a journey of empowerment and peace. I think that journey is made all the more powerful by the fact that Shadow is not explicitly looking for either and yet at the end of the novel Shadow is undeniably more content than he was at any other point. He understands his own value and his place in the world. He knows he has power, but he also knows that power is limited and he has made his peace with all his loss and all he cannot change. Laura’s assessment of him, as someone who was never fully alive prior to his vigil for Wednesday, and someone who became fully alive during it feels incredibly accurate. I feel like there is some deeper discussion that could be dug out of Shadow’s character, but this is just supposed to be my general after reading thoughts (despite having finished the book almost three weeks ago—oh well). The only other characters of real note for me are Wednesday, Anansi, Czernobog, and Laura. The three gods are static, which is in part the point of them. They are as much symbols as they are characters, not as a failing of Gaiman to give them complexity, but because they are what they were once believed to be. I’ll admit, I am not familiar enough with any of their mythological traditions to differentiate between where Gaiman pulled from myth and where he innovated, but I certainly find his approach to the gods compelling. Laura is the other character with real development, and I love her as a character even if I have no fondness for her. I know there are complaints about her treatment. The cheating wife punished with brutal death and none of it the fault of our betrayed protagonist is certainly a reviled trope for a reason and I make no excuses for it. I can only say that I love how Gaiman executes that trope. The Laura we meet is on, what is on the surface, the opposite journey from Shadow. He goes from absence through death to life while she goes from life through death to absence (I’m not sure absence is the best word to describe it, but it works). Her journey is no less valuable, thoughtful, or powerful. I also love, that while Laura and Shadow shape each other and remain tied together through their old life together their journeys happen independent of each other. Their spouse has a significant role to play in who they become, but they do not change for each other the way that it is hinted they may have when Laura was alive. I am very excited for the TV show’s promise to expand the role of the book’s female characters, namely Laura and Bilquis. I dearly hope that this expansion will also cover Bast. Although I love Bilquis’s introduction as much as the next person and am sure the show can draw a compelling storyline out of her, I think Bast is the goddess whose presence in the book most invites question and exploration. I would also like to see more expansion on Mama-Ji, whose blatant dismissal of Wednesday at the House on the Rock is a fantastic moment.
The plot of American Gods is rather flimsy, to me, it’s more a string of explorations of place and character than a coherent plot, but I do not think that harms the novel. There is enough of a story to keep you interested in the plot, but the war between the old and new gods does not truly get interesting until the con is revealed. The con is fantastic, both for its symbolic resonance and its shocking discovery, and I would argue even if the novel wouldn’t be cheaper thematically without it the plot simply would not be interesting enough to hold up the novel without it. Luckily, the twist is there and we do not have to worry about it. Coming back a second time I definitely appreciated the events in Laketown more. I remember thinking the subplot an odd aside, an interruption in the middle of an interesting book when I first read it. Returning to the book I realized first, that it actually slots in quite nicely with the main plot in a way I simply didn’t remember, and second, the plot line does a lot to show the power of human faith and communities first hand in a way that Shadow’s wonderings with gods simply cannot show him. The final scene with Hinzelmann also brings a nice cap to Shadow’s character, he has changed for the better but there is only so much changing for the better can really do.
One final note on the book is that, as a Wisconsinite, I must admit there is a part of me that loves this book simply because it takes place in Wisconsin.
Quotes: (I am not a note taker when reading. As much as I can see the benefit of reading with a highlighter or pen, and as much as I would like to be the kind of person who does so, I have never mastered the craft. While I do intend to try to improve on that, I listened to this audiobook before I had that goal. To be completely honest, I’m also not remotely sure how to go about marking a favorite quote in an audiobook. All that is to say, these quotes are mostly pulled off GoodReads and may exclude my actual favorite quotes as I cannot remember them. Also, I don’t have page numbers or timestamps for most of them)
“There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.”
“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.”
“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.”
“The important thing to understand about American history, wrote Mr. Ibis, in his leather-bound journal, is that it is fictional, a charcoal-sketched simplicity for the children, or the easily bored.”
Essay Ideas/Further Questions: If there was ever a novel that lends itself to essays on symbolism this is one. I would be particularly interested in an in-depth look at the types of coins and coin tricks
It could also be really interesting to approach the themes of faith and belief from a theological perspective. I do not know enough about theologians to make a judgment off the top of my head on what resources one should use, but it would be awesome
Of the existing scholarly work, I’ve seen on American Gods, much of it centers around the use of folklore in fantasy novels. An essay in conversation with these papers would work.
Obviously, one could try to detangle Gaiman’s ideas about identity—maybe with an in-depth character study of Shadow, even contrasting him with characters around him
Finally, I’d personally like to see a feminist critique of Sam Black Crow. For me, her speech on belief brings her a bit too close to manic pixie dream girl, but I’m not sure about that
Last Thing: It feels incredibly uncomfortable and presumptuous to make a comment to a reader here. The idea that anyone would find this and read 2000+ words of reader response, let alone find anything I have to say remotely worth thinking about, seems incredibly awkward and arrogant. But, I also know I would regret not saying it: if you have anything you would like to discuss or debate about anything I have said I would love to talk to you about it. Just leave a comment. Hopefully, if anyone reads this they won’t judge me too hard for saying that