I’m one of those unfortunate souls who didn’t discover Neil Gaiman through his reputation-making comic series The Sandman. (I think I was pretty into The Babysitter’s Club at that point, so you’ll have to cut me some slack; Stacey and Claudia, retro Cool Girls avant le nom.) My fantasy journey didn’t begin until the late ‘90s, and American Gods was the first of his books that registered for me. It also came at exactly the right time in my reading life: I had already consumed all the epic fantasies and Star Wars books I could get my hands on, and I was ready for something meatier. And boy, is American Gods what I had no idea I was craving.
Forgotten deities wander a lonely, modern American landscape. In this world, the gods are man-made, entirely created and maintained, and given death or life, by the belief and worship of the faithful, and faith is generally in short supply. These are not only the lightning bolt-throwing, down-from-Mount-Olympus gods; there are also the unnamed, churchless modern gods (the Internet, the Media) who are no less powerful for it. Into this landscape of immortals stumbles an apparently ordinary human, hired to serve as a bodyguard to the mysterious Mr. Wednesday. As he discovers this hidden world, he gradually realizes that there is a game afoot, one in which his apparently serendipitous involvement might not be so random after all.
The battle between the old and the new, the debate over whether “progress” is always all it’s cracked up to be, what we leave behind as we grow and whether it’s worth losing…these are fundamental questions of fantasy-as-genre. That’s what it’s always all about, underneath. But the absolutely genius twist here is to make these themes serve a specifically American story. The old gods (Odin, Baron Samedi, the Morrigan warrior goddesses) battle with the new gods (the Internet, Computers, the Media, Mr. Town, Mr. World) for what little belief is left in a society that, “has no time for gods.” What happens to gods who have lost their worshippers? To gods whose original purpose no longer applies? (Witness the fascinating case of the god of Easter.) What happens to discarded ideas, with just scraps of belief to hang on to? What are they willing to do to survive? These are fascinating questions made more so when directed toward 21st century America. Interesting that it took a British guy to be the one to pose them.
Gaiman deftly creates real stakes in the adventures of these immortals, weaving them skillfully into the fabric of American life. He makes them immigrants to our shores. They’re millennia-old tricksters and warriors, backed into a corner and forced to survive like anyone else just stepping off the boat (and baby, do I not suggest that you ever put the Queen of Sheba in a corner.) Their methods in response are ugly, desperate, morally grey, and, perhaps, justifiable. They are also surprising, even when they are exactly what you would expect; after all, the gods have been shaped by thousands of years of humanity’s beliefs. There’s no chance Loki’s gonna give up the ghost, learn the error of his ways, and go work in a soup kitchen.
Gaiman’s mischievous prose creates a trick-of-the-light environment and outsized characters that nevertheless feel utterly real. It’s writing that can sear you right between the ribs, in the place where you don’t tell anyone that it tickles anymore, because it seems to innocent a thing to admit. But Gaiman has a way of writing that puts you back in touch with that innocence in the cleverest way: it acknowledges that we are savvy readers who had seen it all, then, with a twist of phrase, makes us realize we haven’t.
This book was a milestone for me. It helped me realize that fantasy could do more than take me on an adventure. It could also use those powerful, ancient structures to build new ideas. It made me demand more from my books: ask them to experiment, depart from formula, invert it, turn its skin inside out, hold up a mirror to my experience, and make me consider the world anew. It is modern myth-making, unforgettable.
What’s your favorite Gaiman?