Tuesday, January 01, 2008

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Well, I haven't managed to keep up with the one post a week, but I've still been more prolific in posting than I was before I set that challenge. Hope you all are enjoying what I've put up.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

(Acquired: bookshelf)

I read American Gods not because I ran across it and thought it might be interesting, but because a handful of folks told me to...and another handful told me not to waste my time.

Interestingly enough, having reached the end of the novel, I have to say I fall right smack dab in the middle of the two. I do not regret reading the book and Gaiman is beyond question a talented author. I think my reaction had more to do with where I am as a reader than the book itself, though that doesn't make the reaction false.

I found most of the individual scenes appealing. At the same time, nothing drove me to keep going except my innate need to finish what I start. I don't have great stretches of time to read, nor can I muster up the focus to do so when I do have that long a period. This very fact worked against American Gods. With reading times short and stolen from other tasks or using energy I don't have to spare, a book needs to compel me to get back to it. As it was, I read two other books while making my way through American Gods. I didn't want to toss it aside, but at the same time, I needed something more juiced. Though it's not reflected in the back cover blurb, or even in the novel's beginning, this book reminds me more of The Drifters or other such novels where the point is that people wander about experiencing things. That's not a horrible fact at all, it's just a different type of novel than I was expecting.

From the start, the characters in American Gods warn the reader that a storm is coming. But we're held bound within the one character who has no idea what is going on, who is literally adrift, having lost his sense of self to prison, and his wife and job to a car accident. Then even worse discoveries undermine his sense of his past as well. He takes a new job from a stranger to do whatever he's asked up to but not including hurting people--unless it's an emergency. This job he carries out faithfully as he goes along, sometimes offered a glimmering of the truth, but most times kept on the sidelines. This is what both gave me the sense of drift and removed all urgency. If the storm wasn't important to the character whose head I shared then it wasn't important to me.

There was a time in my life where such a story would have been a mystery and a lovely thing to dwell on. I'm not in that space right now. I want my reading to build to something powerful, to accumulate pieces until the tension is unbearable and something has to break. It doesn't have to be world shattering. It can be something as simple as a personal realization. Ultimately I didn't feel that though I did put the pieces together before they were revealed in the story. I'm stuck with Mr. Nancy at the very end who doesn't understand why Shadow feels the way he does (yep, as obscure as possible to avoid spoilage).

For me, despite everything, Shadow doesn't change. At one point, he talks about how all that he learned has seeped away from him and I couldn't help but recoil from the possibility that this would end in the classic, "and then he woke up" space. It didn't, and couldn't, but in some ways it did. For all that we went through on this journey, for all that he experienced and learned, I think his choice at a crucial point to embrace nothingness is the most telling. His wife said he wasn't living. With the exception of two flashes in the dark, I agree with her all the way through the book.

Sigh. And now it sounds like I hated it, which isn't true. The individual writing is often fabulous; the scenes when read as a series of short stories are compelling, interesting vignettes. I think there's lots to enjoy in this book if you know what you're getting into. Don't expect a strong, driving plot. Don't expect an active protagonist who pulls you through so you don't want to put the book down. But if you're looking for a meander through a world that co-exists with ours, populated by people who echo back into the many traditions that have immigrated to America at some point or another, American Gods will fill that need in spades.


Ruv Draba said...

I'm with you, Margaret. My take is that it's a well-written read, but there's not really a lot of impact or significance to the themes. That wouldn't matter so much, except that Gaiman is so well regarded and so heavily awarded.

The imagery is vivid, the characters are interesting, but the plotting felt like recycled PET bottles - I'd seen it all before.

I couldn't find a new or insightful theme, or a sharp perspective, and that unfortunately takes it well outside the Nebula/Hugo range for me.

Jean said...

I've been told Gaiman is a god and I must read him. I've picked up a couple of his works that sounded interesting, but I haven't made it past the first few pages yet.

I have a huge TBR pile, and a growing pile of books I've started but not found the interest to finish yet. I'm not saying I won't finish them -- the time just hasn't been right yet. Gaiman fits that category for now for me.

Margaret said...

I was talking to my older sister about this book before I'd reached the end and she pointed out that my comments tied closely into his graphic novel work. Would I have accepted the same pacing and patterns better in a graphic novel? Maybe.

Yes, like both of you, I've been told he's a must read...and I liked his writing enough to try some more. Still maybe I should read a graphic novel instead :). I'm too slow a reader to commit to another long novel that doesn't have that driving punch.

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