This past month I finally read a Neil Gaiman novel. I’ve been wanting to read his work forever, as he’s a sort of mythic figure in nerd culture for his comic books, his work on Doctor Who, and his fantastical stories and books. I know a lot of people who are huge fans, so hearing that his novel American Gods was being made into a Starz TV series, I settled in to explore what might be the most famous work from Gaiman.
American Gods poses a fascinating idea: What if pagan gods were trying to survive in modern-day America? Immigrants would bring their beliefs from their original countries to the United States, and the gods would survive through people’s belief — however long that lasts.
So what if the goddess Bilquis (the Queen of Sheba) — a divine being who eats men alive as they worship her during lovemaking — lived in the United States today? And how would the ancient Egyptian gods fare, if they made their livings as modern undertakers? The idea that their enemies would be today’s media and technology — the things we American are currently obsessed with — manifests into exactly those kinds of new gods, like Media and the Technical Boy. So a war is brewing between the old gods and the new.
That’s the premise of this novel. The plot is a little harder to define.
We follow Shadow, an ex-con just out of prison who learns that his wife Laura has just died. She comes to him frequently, as a sort of ghost. He thinks he’s going crazy. But being aimless without her, he embarks on a road trip with new employers, including Mr. Wednesday who turns out to be an old god. (I had to look up the origin of the weekday Wednesday to learn which god he represents.) As they travel across the U.S., Shadow meets gods all over the place.
It’s an amazing idea for a story, but its delivery is sort of like being locked up in a car on just this sort of road trip, with a lot of long-winded people.
Let me preface this by saying I liked Shadow — he’s quiet, honest despite his past, and curious without being overly eager. I listened to the audiobook version, and he always sounded soft-spoken and sturdy. He casually learns coin tricks from the gods. He makes friends with cops and gods and cons alike. He has drinks with anybody, without passing judgment — although he finds it messed up when Wednesday hits on a 16-year-old girl, and he doesn’t really want to see Lucille Ball’s tits when Media offers to show them to him. He takes long walks in the freezing cold just to get away, to think.
Shadow is somebody you don’t mind being with, whether you’re talking or just enjoying the scenery in silence. He clearly loves and misses his wife, and the sequences where he sees her or remembers being with her were some of the most poignant parts of the book. He’s also a lot more level-headed than the gods he’s around, acting as a sort of grounded, human voice of reason some of the time. So hanging with him on this road trip wasn’t so bad.
But the other characters are all over the place, and while some are fascinating to meet — especially Bilquis who I mentioned before — you spend very little time with most of them. Mr. Wednesday occupies the most space as Shadow spends his days traveling with him. Meanwhile, the occasional out-of-place scene depicts another god, who you may not have met yet, and then leaves them there to return to Shadow. There are also storybook scenes (narrated by Neil Gaiman himself in the audiobook) which show the gods arriving in America in the past. Some of these sequences I enjoyed hearing. But they can be jarring, because they are one-off scenes that remove the reader from Shadow’s story, sometimes for long spells. It felt like they didn’t quite belong there. While I understand this is a story about gods — lots of gods — I guess I prefer less jumping around and dislocation.
And that’s my biggest problem with this novel. At over 18 hours of audiobook time, it’s a wheezing giant of a story, which in my opinion doesn’t even have much of a story. As much as I liked Shadow, I never felt overly connected to him, and I certainly didn’t relate to the gods I encountered. Maybe that’s the nature of the book’s concept — being thrown into a story about a bunch of gods means you’re going to feel pretty detached. And if that’s the case, maybe this just isn’t my kind of story.
The dry writing doesn’t help. Obviously Gaimain is a talented storyteller, but he writes a very particular kind of story in a very straightforward manner. There’s only occasionally real poetry to the prose, while there are plenty of cliches, or phrases I’ve heard before. I kept wanting to hear something truly profound, but the revelatory moments and true reveals are wedged into the last hour of the book. I’ll admit, I really liked how it ended — I just wish I had more to engage with for the first 90% of the book. I think you just have to appreciate the simplicity of the way Gaimain tells this epic story, and accept that things will be slow at times, confusing at others, and crazy always.
Despite not really enjoying the process of listening to this book, I find myself remembering a few key scenes in vivid detail. Gaiman is a magician at coming up with bizarre scenes and small stories that just stick with you. Like Media taking over Lucille Ball on Shadow’s TV screen and talking right to him through the set. Or Bilquis devouring a man during sex. Or Mr. Wednesday telling Shadow about the fiddle game, one of the cons he runs. Or Shadow walking in below-freezing temperatures until a cop picks him up, and he can’t even get a word out of his mouth because he’s freezing shut.
American Gods is like a premise that never quite became a plot. It’s a meditation on its themes. There’s a war between the old gods and the new, but this is just hinted at for most of the story. It’s more of a road trip book, like On the Road but with characters I personally didn’t relate to as well, scenes that pulled me away from the main story, and frankly a lot less action. That’s why, while I appreciate the overarching concept Gaiman came up with here, reading the story was a tedious affair for me. Maybe I should have just settled in for a long ride, but instead I kept hoping for something to happen — some action, some insight, something big. It took too long to get there.
That said, I am glad I pushed myself to finish reading the book, because it is obviously so well-loved and respected by so many. And so much of the weirdness Gaiman throws at the reader is unforgettable; even not loving the book, I’ll always remember those crazy scenes, which is proof the book is something special.
I’m very curious to watch the Starz show and see if it brings some of the story to life for me. If you’ve read the book or watched the show, I’d love to hear your thoughts, too!