Friday, 17 August 2012

American Gods

Even a few days after finishing it, I’m still not sure what to make of American Gods, and whether I really like it, or not.

This is the first book by Neil Gaiman, an author-hero to the library sector, that I’ve read. Hence, I’m not used to his writing style or subject matter, so this was a bit of a new experience.

It’s set in America (obviously) and, well, it’s difficult to say much without giving away spoilers. I’m also a little wary of the large and fanatical following for this book but, hey, nothing is liked by everyone. Not even chocolate.

The cover, and some other reviewers, have used the phrase ‘road trip’, but that’s a bit inaccurate. The action did move across several - though not many - places in the USA, and not always by road. A large chunk of the novel takes place in one town in Wisconsin which the received wisdom of people who have tried to identify where it is based on have settled on the authors home town (in real life).

The plot revolves around, erm, Gods. In America. Gods of many forms and shapes who have been brought to this (in some ways) new country by immigrants. And also newer gods, who express themselves in different ways (You may not watch “I love Lucy” in the same light again). The main character within is “Shadow”, an ex-prisoner who falls in with another bloke, “Wednesday”. Shadow I found disappointing and emotionally a bit detached, dulled. He rarely seemed surprised; in fact, possibly never. A case in point being the reappearance of his wife, where most people would have reacted in a different way. Shadow himself isn’t developed much as a person, and there’s hardly anything about it from childhood until when the novel starts. Then again, he’s probably not supposed to be a ‘main’ character, as the gods take a more central (and interesting) role in the book.

And there are many gods in the book, with the timeline moving around to fill in their back stories. Some fleshing out of a few of the human characters might have been better, especially Sam, the student and coffee shop barista from Madison. She was particularly under-developed and appeared at times merely as a plot movement device.

The book - which exists in several editions of varying length from ‘long’ to ‘sole Labor Day weekend read’ - is rich with metaphor, dream spaces, and the more considered forms of the human world(s) colliding with those of the supernatural. There’s also several good passages of writing. Sam, stuck in a car with someone who may or may not be a serial killer, elicits a long list, over several pages, of what she believes in:
"... I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste ... I believe that anyone who says that sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly ..."
And our hero - well, possibly not - the main character of the book thinks:
“He sat down on a grassy bank and looked at the city that surrounded him, and thought, one day he would have to go home. And one day he would have to make a home to go back to. He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while; or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough."
There’s several major plot twists near the end, of differing levels of surprise, which were a good reward for sticking with the book. Apart from the climactic scene, the last few chapters of the book were notched up a gear over the rest of the text which meandered off in places. There’s plenty of characters, a few somewhat unusual sex scenes, and some violence (though perhaps not as much as you’d expect).

The main problem I have with American Gods is that it seemed quite ... familiar. I’ve read a lot of Clive Barker over the years and still do, even though he’s progressively mellowing with age. And many of the concepts and ideas in American Gods are present in Clive’s books from previous decades, especially Weaveworld, Imajica, Everville and Coldheart Canyon. I’m (definitely) not saying that Gaiman has ripped off Barker; many of the concepts can be traced back to other literature, the foundations of gothic writing, and before. But if you’ve read a lot of Barker, then you’ll know what I mean.

This particular book is over a decade old. It shows, implicitly; several of the sequences and plot progressions wouldn’t happen now, due to the Internet. There’s apparently a film version of this at a very early, not yet turned into a screenplay, stage, as well as a sequel on the way at some point.

One personal thing about the novel that I liked was that several of the places within I’d heard about previously, and want to visit, but haven’t yet. For example, the town at the notional centre of America (found in the 1930s by balancing a giant cut-out of America on a pin until it balanced), and The House on the Rock, with its Infinity Room and world’s largest indoor carousel. And a few others that I won’t say for spoiler reasons.

The ending, too, may be a little anticlimactic for some. Though, oddly, the last location in the book is the place on the top of my list of places to visit which I haven’t been to yet. And, because of the history of that place, seemed the most plausible passage in the whole novel.

I look forward to reading more of Neil’s writing. Hopefully there’ll be something I can get a grip on better (people keep recommending Neverwhere and Stardust, so they may be next).

Overall: 7 out of 10. A good read, but not an original one.

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