American Gods: Territories and Maps

Cover of American Gods

Author: Neil Gaiman

Title: American Gods

Publication Date: 2001, but for this post I read the Expanded Edition, published in 2011

LC Call Number: PR6057.A319A84

This is my second time through American Gods, and it’s just as good if not better than the first.  I somehow got the perfect timing on this; the book is about a great literal and figurative storm that’s both destructive and transformative.  As I read this, the temperature dropped, Halloween came and went, and a hurricane appeared and knocked out my power for about a week.  So when I read about Shadow “thinking snow” and dealing with the extreme cold of Lakeside, I was existing at a much higher temperature, obviously, but I was also devoting a great deal of my energy to trying to stay warm.  When I read about the new gods of electricity and television and the internet, it had a different resonance because I was hoping each day for those things.  Easter did her thing about when my power had just come back. So in a way, it was the perfect book for that, even if my copy of the book has some wax stains on it that it didn’t have before.  (This doesn’t mean the storm is my fault, right?)

What can I say about this book? There’s a hint in here that Gaiman has intentionally made it difficult to write about it; he quotes the notebooks of Mr. Ibis (a storytelling character, and also the god Thoth) who writes that describing a story is like making a map, and that “the most accurate map possible would be the territory, and that would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless” (485).  The book does give that sense of attempting to describe something—attempting, in fact, to explain what the United States means to Gaiman, an Englishman who has lived for many years in Minnesota—but of needing to find the depth rather than pointing out useful features.  It’s not a map, it’s, you know, art.  You can get into it and live there for a while, but it’s hard to come back and explain what you thought.  So the experience of the reader with the book seems in a way to mirror what the book is trying to get at about “America.”

The book has a story, and it has a twist at the end and a respectable denouement, but  that’s never really been what Neil Gaiman is all about, and the story certainly does not rush the reader toward the solution of the rather grisly puzzle. Instead, it reads more like a sequence of very closely related episodes, in which Shadow (and the reader) gradually come closer and closer to an understanding of the gods, the landscapes, and ultimately, the people.  I found myself thinking about the HBO series that is scheduled to be made of this; it’s a surprisingly good fit because each episode, each chapter, stands by itself as well as being part of this larger story.   In fact, I found that things often happened in a very different order than I  remembered  (can the secret of Lakeview really be revealed after the battle of the gods?) and although it feels like they need to be in that order, as if we are always learning something… I think they will work very well in an episodic format.  I’m kind of looking forward to the Las Vegas episode, and to the funeral in the center, and to Whiskey Jack, who I think is really my favorite.

The conceit of the book is that the all the people who have ever come to America have brought their gods with them, so that its realistic-but-weird Midwestern setting is full of gods from all over the world.  (I’m not a Midwesterner, so I cannot say how well he captures that part of the country; I’m tempted to encourage my Midwestern family members to read it and tell me how familiar it seems.) Odin and Anansi are particularly important, but there are gods from Russia and India and even the ancient Egyptian gods. Gaiman explains this last with an extraordinary passage suggesting that the Americas are somehow naturally a crossroads, that people have always been coming here, from everywhere.  In a way, I guess this is a nod to the theory that some of the indigenous people of South America are descended from Africans, but in another way it’s part of his broader idea about what America is; it’s a place that people end up, somehow.  There are several “Coming to America” segments in which he explores various ways that people have arrived in the U.S, which includes the obligatory lost Norsemen but also indentured servants, slaves, and those who came over the land bridge.  Because Gaiman is a fantasist, history is not his primary concern, but he makes a real effort to honor the pain of American history and I think he does a good job. The story of the enslaved girl who becomes a skilled practitioner of vodoun is one of the best in the book, because it is both an acknowledgement of history and at the same time very much an individualized portrait of a person and a story that cannot be generalized. There is a great deal of this in this book.  This is part of the balancing act that Gaiman needs to accomplish.  It’s risky to write a book like this for many reasons.  He needs to avoid erasing the presence of people of color and at the same time he must be careful of appropriation.  Since I am white, I don’t want to pretend that I am the right person to judge how successfully he accomplishes this, but it seems to me that he does a good job of showing that America is not a land of white people and that he deals with the gods in a respectful manner.  (And I think it’s important, too, that Shadow is not white.)

The other half of this conceit is that even though the landscape is full of gods, they are not doing well. They are largely abandoned and forgotten, and they live on recognition.  Gaiman invites us to feel sympathy for them; we get to know them and they are—well, they’re Neil Gaiman characters, so they are fun to hang out with and interesting in their very disreputableness.  Shadow puts his finger on it when he chooses their side because they don’t talk in clichés.  But Gaiman also reminds us repeatedly that the gods are not nice, that in fact they live on sacrifices. Some of these sacrifices are relatively harmless. The bit about sacrificing time to the god of television certainly lends itself to further reflection—is that what I do?  But there are also more costly sacrifices, and Gaiman insists, for instance, on the status of Odin as the god of the gallows. It is impossible for a reader to want these gods to be worshiped in the way that they formerly were, and in the end, the book strictly avoids nostalgia for the days when these gods had more power. At the same time it insists upon the gods as indicative of what the humans around them. Hinzelmann is a very important figure in this respect, because he reminds us that nothing has really changed.   The exception to this rather grim view is Whiskey Jack, who belonged to the Algonquins and who resists the label of “god,” preferring to call himself a culture hero and explaining,

“[W]e just screw up more and nobody worships us.  They tell stories about us, but they tell the ones which make us look bad along with the ones where we came out fairly okay” (456).

Coming where it does, near the end of the novel, this seems so much healthier and more sustainable and humane, and this, I think, is where Gaiman comes down, recognizing the need for Story and also the need to humanize.

American Gods is probably Gaiman’s best work (though I remain very fond of his short stories), at least partly because of its scope and the extent to which it is rooted in his need to understand his subject matter—there are certainly places in which The Graveyard Book feels more polished, but well, American Gods  is special. But it’s very, very Gaiman, from the sideways world conceit to the rhythm of the sentences. Anyway, there is a lot to like here, so I’m going to point out just a few things:

–Shadow.  Shadow is fantastic.  Given everything that I said above, one might expect him to be a cipher, just a vehicle through which the reader experiences these larger ideas. Nope. Not at all. In fact, he’s a complex and often surprising person. The improbable excellence of his vocabulary, his quietness, and his stubbornness, which allows him to get through the book without full allegiance to anyone , and this is really important by the end.

–Although I could wish that female characters played a greater role in the story, I always liked Samantha Black Crow—well, she’s almost impossible not to like. But this time around, I really found myself liking Laura as well.  It’s strange because she is kind of monstrous and there’s her betrayal near the beginning of the book. But I enjoy the fact that, although we start out with her as the dead wife, the tragic loss, by the end of the book, it turns out that she is the muscle.  I enjoyed that, and I enjoyed her cleverness and how, perhaps even more than Shadow, she is on her own side. I like how she ends the book wiser than she began, as well. And although I seldom really buy into love stories in books, the relationship between her and Shadow was actually convincing.

–As I was reading the book, I kept thinking of how nice it would be to read it aloud, or have it read to me.  It has the cadences of a book intended to be read aloud.  Try this passage:

They came to Lookout Mountain from all across the United States. They were not tourists. They came by car and they came by plane and by bus and by railroad and on foot.  Some of them flew—they flew low, and they flew only in the dark of night, but still, they flew.  Several of them traveled their own ways beneath the earth. Many of them hitchhiked, cadging rides from nervous motorists or from truck drivers. … (434)

Nice, isn’t it?  And I think it’s pretty fitting for a book that is so interested in what is ultimately an oral tradition.

–Oh and also. The book is funny.  I enjoy Gaiman’s sense of humor quite a bit.  My favorite:

“I think,” said Mr. Nancy, “that wherever two men are gathered together to sell a third man a twenty-dollar violin for ten thousand dollars, he will be there in spirit.” (489)

An allusion to something rather serious, a call back to the way that the characters are written, and a wry tone—well, I like it.

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1 Comment

Filed under Literary thoughts

One response to “American Gods: Territories and Maps

  1. Thanks. I haven’t read anything by Gaiman, and have added to my reason to read one. American Gods sounds like a good place to start.
    I loved your account of reading it in the storm.

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