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American Gods (Neil Gaiman)

August 2, 2010

This was my third time reading American Gods, but my first time reading it academically. I’m thinking of including it in my dissertation, mostly as part of a discussion of magical realism written by US authors who are not part of the Big 4 (African American, Asian American, Latino/a, and Native American). See, the magical realism in Gaiman’s novel functions in a very different manner than the magic in many novels by American authors of color.

That being said, Shadow is a more interesting character than I remember him being. I’m still not sure what to make of his abnormally large size, and at times I have trouble getting a Vin Diesel figure out of my mind when I read about him, but nonetheless he’s quite intriguing. I never realized how bothersome it is that you never really get his real name, but there were other things about him that were interesting. For instance, his not-quite-aliveness and his odd determination to do his job. He’s an unusually driven character for one who is also completely unambitious. I finally get what my brother-in-law was saying about Gaiman’s somewhat flat characters. While I don’t think Shadow was fully flat, he also wasn’t fully round. The relatively external nature of the narrative left me wondering about a lot of things with regard to him — most significantly, what his motivation was and exactly what his real personality was — that I think was beyond the obvious hollowness Gaiman was going for.

While I deeply enjoy this story and the turn of events as the plot unfolds, I will admit that I found the gods somewhat … lacking. The novel seems typical of the multicultural movement of the 1990s in that Gaiman provides a kind of survey of cultural beliefs while simultaneously not providing any in-depth background or context. I found this to be the most problematic aspect of the novel. I mean, if America is a place where gods are brought into being by short-lived belief and then cast aside in favor of new “gods” then where was Jesus? Why were there figures like Odin and Ganesh (and a myriad sampling of Native American figures), who are all apparently outmoded and discarded, but figures like Jesus and Abraham were nowhere to be seen? And how is it that figures like those named are cast aside in favor of figures like Media, Fast Food, and other representations of consumerism while figures like Jesus are never brought into the mix. Are we to understand that people “worshiped” these other figures in the same way contemporary Americans “worship” things like fast food? Is there no difference between religious or mythological figures and creature comforts or consumer culture?

All that stuff aside, I love this story. It’s interesting and weird and reminds me of Gaiman’s unique brand of writing — a style that rarely falls into any sort of easy classification system. Is it fantasy? I wouldn’t say so — it’s too solidly grounded in our world for that. Is it science fiction? Definitely not. Magical realism? Perhaps. And that’s part of what I love about Neil Gaiman, and more specifically about American Gods. Also, if I still ate meat, I’d be tempted to track down a place like Mabel’s and try myself one of these stick-to-your-sides pasty things Shadow keeps eating. 🙂

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