Title: American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Completed: March 25, 2012 (#23)
Motivation: Recommended by a colleague on the basis of this reviewer’s favorable reaction to Neal Stephenson’s Anathem
Recommendation: Clever, often quite funny, science fiction
It is impossible to discuss Mr. Gaiman’s novel without first stating its premise: America, having no gods of its own aside from the autochthonous deities of the American Indians, had to import them. With each settler or immigrant bearing Old World beliefs came a corresponding Old World pantheon–Norse, Greek, Irish, Egyptian, etc. These gods, demigods, and various and sundry mythological creatures walk among us and are sustained by and thrive in proportion to the fervency of the faithful’s belief. America being what it is, while the market for leprechauns is bearish, the country is long on the new-fangled “gods” of technology.
Shadow, the novel’s peripatetic main character, is released from prison and is drawn into an allegorical conflict between the old and new pantheons, a struggle that leads him to embark on a cross-country quest with the action primarily (and refreshingly) confined to the Mid-West. That’s about as far as one can safely summarize the plot without transgressing the Law of Divulging Spoilers.
To provide a sense of Mr. Gaiman’s irreverence, an excerpt from one of the book’s most memorable scenes, a conversation between Shadow and Lucille Ball, who addresses Shadow from the screen of a television set:
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Good question. I’m the idiot box. I’m the TV. I’m the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I’m the boob tube. I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.’
‘You’re the television? Or someone in the television?’
‘The TV’s the altar. I’m what people are sacrificing to.’
‘What do they sacrifice?’ asked Shadow.
‘Their time, mostly,’ said Lucy. ‘Sometimes each other.’ She raised two fingers, blew imaginary gun smoke from the tips. Then she winked, a big old I Love Lucy wink.
‘You’re a god?’ said Shadow.
Lucy smirked, and took a lady-like puff of her cigarette. ‘You could say that,’ she said.
If it is not already on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, American Gods may well make it there someday, although Mr. Gaiman commendably pulled his punches when it comes to living religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It would have been quite easy to work the revered figures of these faiths into the novel’s framework, but to do so would have detracted from the book’s playfulness and perhaps subjected Mr. Gaiman to the unpleasantness of a fatwa. Nevertheless, those who find themselves easily offended by blasphemy and Man’s baser nature should avoid this book, as there is a fair bit of off-putting foul language and other R-rated dialogue and action.
Mr. Gaiman perhaps allows the book to meander for too long, particularly in the revised and expanded tenth anniversary edition currently available in e-book format, but American Gods is certainly worth the investment.