Neil Gaiman: American Gods (review)

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‘Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.’ (p. 433)

Ramona Ausubel wrote a book about the attempt to put so much faith into something that you actually make it real. In American Gods, Neil Gaiman looks at the other side of this issue – what happens when you stop believe in something? America is a country full of immigrants and all these immigrants brought their gods with them when they arrived. But slowly, the faith has disappeared – and what happens to a god whom nobody – or just a few – believes in? And equally important – what happens when faith in put into new things, into progress. What is religion? That is in part what Neil Gaiman sets out to investigate in this novel.

Shadow is just about to be released from prison when his wife dies in a car crash. Shadow has waited desperately to get home to her and now, all of a sudden, she’s dead. Shadow gets released a few days early and starts to journey home. On the way, he meets Mr Wednesday and agrees to work for him. Together they drive back to take care of Shadow’s wife’s burial and then, it’s time for Shadow to start the real work. However, things are not what they seem. Mr Wednesday is not just an ordinary guy, the people he takes Shadow to meet are not ordinary either – and Shadow’s wife has not exactly found her final resting place.

Along the way, Shadow visits The House of Rock, the geographic center of the United States as well as solving the mystery of the children who disappears every winter in a small town – and deals with his wife as well.

But the really interesting part of this book, is the people Shadow meets along his way. Not only Wednesday but all kinds of other gods from around the globe – including new ones, who are not interested in letting the old guys reclaim their territory. This is one book where your enjoyment will be enhanced by knowledge of myths from around the world but lack of this knowledge will not ruin your reading experience in any way.

I’ve recently read another Gaiman novel, NeverwhereNeverwhere is among people living in a city beneath London, London Below. These people can’t be seen by regular Londoners and it’s sort of the same idea. When you don’t believe in something, it looses it’s realness and you don’t see it. Both novels have Gaiman playing with language and names. I think a good advice when you read Gaiman is to think about the names he uses, maybe even say them out loud…

Along the way, Gaiman also sends out various shout-outs to other authors and books – Edgar Allan Poe The Raven and Stephen King’s Carrie were two of the ones I caught but there’s probably countless others.

There’s no doubt that American Gods is the more complex and developed novel but I think I liked Neverwhere better. That said, I think American Gods will be the one I will read more and think more about. It’s slightly odd in the best possible way and the more, I think about it, the more I like it.

And then, of course, there’s this quote (yes, I know it’s insanely long but it’s wonderful!):

‘I can believe things that are true and things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not.

I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen – I believe that people are perfectable, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkled lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women.

I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state.

I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. 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 antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like martians in War of the Worlds.

I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman.

I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumble bee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself.

I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.

I believe that anyone who says sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too.

I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system.

I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.’ (p. 334-335)

  • Title: American Gods
  • Author: Neil Gaiman
  • Publisher: Headline Feature
  • Year: 2001
  • Pages: 504 pages
  • Source: Borrowed from a friend
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

If you liked this novel, you might also like Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, anything by Terry Pratchett or The City & The City and Un Lun Dun by China Miéville – or other books by Neil Gaiman.

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5 thoughts on “Neil Gaiman: American Gods (review)

  1. I’ve read Neverwhere and I liked it a lot as well and every time someone reviews American Gods they add they liked it less. I think that’s what mademe hesitate to pick it. Reading your review I think I might like it better because I think the idea is brilliant. I alos like the way he references other’s work.
    Love the quote!

  2. Interesting–we’ve both read the same two Gaiman novels, but we each liked a different one better. Although I liked Neverwhere, I enjoyed American Gods more.

    Great review!

  3. I loved Neverwhere and I cannot wait to read this. I think I’ll be able to get to it in February, I’ve been looking forward to it for months (I don’t know why I overlooked it initially). I quite like the quote.

  4. I first read this in high school & copied that quote out in every journal I ever kept! I even had it on my wall at one point. :DDD I think this was the first Gaiman I ever read, and it inspired me to read even more of him & discover a favourite author. Lots of good memories!

    That being said, I didn’t truly fall in love with this until my second time w it. Now I’m planning another reread of the newly released 10th anniversary edition which has some extra material. But I want the ebook, so I have to wait longer on my library’s hold list!

  5. Pingback: I Read « A Striped Armchair

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