Monday, June 21, 2010

Fiction Mondays: American Gods

I recently finished the first book on my summer reading list, Neil Gaiman's epic American Gods.  And when I say "epic," I mean it: the story involves a man tangling with gods, going to the afterlife, and making a long journey to several "sacred" places in America.  I loved this book for its story, its characters and the weird sense of humor Gaiman brings to creating characters out of larger-than-life beings.   He's an author who really creates a universe with his writing, and it's a universe I like to visit.

The novel revolves around Shadow, who is recruited by a man named Wednesday to protect him while he's on a mysterious mission.  That mission turns out to be recruiting other gods, from every imaginable pantheon, to take a stand against the "new gods" who are taking root in America.  There's a war coming, Wednesday tells Shadow, between the gods the immigrants brought over and the new gods, like the Internet and Media.  They travel to recruit Easter, Anansi, Czernobog and a large contingent of obscure and half-forgotten gods and legends.  There's a brief meeting with Wisakedjac, the Algonquin trickster-god, and Johnny Appleseed.  With every god introduced, I was more and more impressed with the breadth of research that must have gone into this novel, the amount of knowledge just barely hinted at throughout the story.

One of my favorite moments in the book seems like something of an easter egg, there specifically for readers of Gaiman's Sandman series.  Shadow walks by a seemingly-homeless woman with multi-colored hair and a dog, and he gives her a dollar.  She looks confused by the money.  She's Delirium, one of Gaiman's "Endless," and the dog is the guardian she inherited from her brother, Destruction.  I love a book where an author's other stories can wander in without fanfare or distraction from the plot, and Delirium's presence almost seemed like a reminder that the story of the Endless went on, even if the comics ended.

Gaiman also handles his plots really well in this novel: there's an extended subplot involving an idyllic town and disappearing children, and it reminded me very much of Stephen King.  I won't spoil anything by talking about it, but the way it wraps up was one of my favorite twists in this very twisty book.  And it of course has everything to do with the story of the gods that makes up the main story.

There is a theme, repeated through the book, that "this is a bad land for gods," and I think one of the ideas behind this book is that it's not necessarily true.  For the gods that populate the novel, the greatest fear is being forgotten, and I think this book is an exercise in reminding readers that they still exist somewhere, and there is a wealth of information out there keeping them alive.  Maybe they're not actively worshiped anymore, but they are not forgotten.  America might be fickle, and might not know where to put our faith at times, but there is a curiosity and an imagination that might mean these gods can continue to live among us. 

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