Author: Neil Gaiman
Series: American Gods #1
Days before his release from prison, Shadow's wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America.
Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.
The reason why I read this book, American Gods is because George R.R. Martin made such a very sensible and carefully thought blurb in Gaiman's latest book, The Ocean at the end of the Lane about this one. I mean hellooo, this is Martin we're talking here! Not only is Martin a great author, he's also one helluva editor. And Martin pays attention to details. Well, of course Martin could say a lot about an author and he could easily appreciate one since he's fond of making an anthology of short stories by different authors from an assortment of genres to a particular one and makes sure for it to be published. But I just love how Martin could say a lot about this book. His blurb was simply arresting that I was convinced to give American Gods a go and I never expected that it would be very long, contrary to how Neil Gaiman's other books run.
With Neverwhere, I surmised that Neil Gaiman is the kind of author whom you could just throw anything and he could create a story about it. It's as if you could give him a motley of ideas and he could smoothly wrap them in a single story. You could give him an existing thing or system or concept and he could give an alternate coherent story about it. And that's basically what he did in this book.
American Gods is a book about mythology in the modern age. If you have watched the animated film Rise of the Guardians, then you would understand what I mean about people believing in something and in return, creating that something, worshipping it until it becomes a god. Basically, this book is about the struggle of this man-made gods from ancient places (like Scandinavia, Egypt and some parts of Africa) brought by gods-worshipping people to a foreign land that is America that in these people's acclimation to an ever-changing society (brought about by the influence of other people's cultures) and their death, left the gods be forgotten. As these gods are being forgotten, inadvertently they become weak and they fight for survival by toiling in the foreign land as normal people. Some gods could move on, others cease to exist and eventually fall to oblivion. This book has mythical, spiritual and nationalistic aspects.
What's more? If there are the old gods, so are there new gods. There's the railroad god from 19th century and the iron god who are as equally forgotten as the Pharaoh-era gods. And as for those of us who can relate more being in the 21st century, there's the god of computers, the god of telephone, the god of CDs (could be blu-rays now; the book was published in 2001), and the most alluring of all, a god called Media. Furthermore, when you meet with the old gods, they look like normal people. But if you see them in a different light, their visage would change and their normal human looks are nothing but a facade of their gruesome looks—faces of dragonfly, snake, spider, ape with body parts that of other animals and all sorts of monstrosities you could imagine.
I have to say that just like in Neverwhere, somewhere within a fifth of the book, I was getting bored. The first chapter was catchy enough but going along the book, I felt that reading is such a drag. Usually for good books, almost everything is very engaging that it will hook you up in reading the book in one sitting. I could forgive the building of conflict part in some good books where things just plummet suddenly before gaining momentum again and the book would run smoothly then.
After finishing the book, I understand what's taking so long. Putting the intro aside, in the shoes of the protagonist (a big man that goes by the name Shadow), we get to know all the characters involve, written in a way that you could assess each one's personality, and intrapersonal feelings for them must be developed. We get to travel places, from one state to the next (for which you get to ride the Largest Carousel in the world, tho' forbidden in real life). We get to know gods especially the Norse ones. Good thing, Marvel's Thor was quite in at one point in our time that I'm sure we're all familiar with Odin and Loki.
The things that got me bored are the ones that give relevant background to the story. They give justification on the characters' intention, a glimpse of the future and fairly an understanding of some concepts and disciplines in life (think of our obssession with new gadgets in the market, our obsession with The i-products, our obssession with fashion, of specific brand names, our obession with beauty and all sorts of ways to get thin and forever younger-looking and to be beautiful as to whatever our concept of beauty is—in the Philippines for example, having a long straight hair is beautiful). Whatever influences us, they serve as backbone to the story.
With so many things going on, the coming in and about of some characters, I get to understand the characters more. And then I feel for them. This is one very poignant book that when one dies, I pause for grief and get lost with my musings about that character and issues that it brings up.
The way Gaiman writes his book reflects the personality of the protagonist. For example in Neverwhere, the character is a very ordinary person that when you read the book, you are as equally as innocent and as confused as the character (and it's as if the book is written in an equally boring way because the protagonist is a boring person). I couldn't really generalize the way it's written as it was written in the third person perspective; it could have been easier when it's written in first person. Wait, how to tell... It's like Thomas Sniegoski's Fallen Angels series. The series is one great story but the way it was written is really boring (I only read the series because I'm interested in the story but going through the narration was such a pain in the as-butt). As for the reflection of the protagonist's personality through the writing of the book, the same goes for this book; only Shadow is quite different from that of Neverwhere. But you get the idea. He's like an impassive person but receptive, stupid but perceptive.
As to why I keep comparing the two books and not to other books by the same author, it's because the two are written adjacently—American Gods came right after Neverwhere, and both stories are written after an existing thing or concept—Neverwhere with real-life specific stretch of subway in London and American Gods with old gods then worshipped by real people.
Yes, I did tell about how I easily had gotten bored. But there are nice transitions that have me back on track. I could not express my awe with such a great story buildup. It's like riding a bus that runs at a steady speed and you spot a complex highway system ahead and you know then that the ride's going to be interesting. Or having that usual 3-hour drive in a plain road but along the way, you must pass by mountain ranges and cliffs.
Neil Gaiman has a style of writing where there's a chapter for the present (Shadow's journey), proceeded by a chapter about the past (not of Shadow's but of other people involving gods) and some chapters written by a certain Mr. Ibis (by that I mean Mr. Ibis telling a story while he writes his story in what I guess is his journal).
He has a way of putting things together. He has a smorgasbord of people here, each with his own background. You need to put one and two together, see how the past would play in the story, and how everything interacts— from Shadow's immediate freedom from prison, his then cellmate's teachings (a prison cellmate that goes by the name Low Key Lyesmith), his dead wife's travelings, why his boss hired him for a job, why he was kept at Lakeside, to the mystery of a missing child every winter.
So much is in the story. There's a classic horror feel in a contemporary digital age. There's like a psychopath thing, a murder mystery. In the end, there's an underlying father issue. And like some Gaiman books, an ending with a love story that could be or could have been. Gaiman's books are always about the journey and never about romance. But it's there, just untouched or could be touched. Well, it's up to the readers since romance is just hovering at the end of the book. Like always.
Ever since Mr. Wednesday (Shadow's boss) talked about Thor, I thought about reincarnation. I thought that maybe Shadow was a resurrection of Thor—there's those things about being similar to him—stupid and big, then there's that dream about a mountain of skulls (which are supposedly Shadow's according to a Buffalo—that I thought Shadow could have been reborn so many times) and thunderbirds (presumably could bring the dead back to life, something that could help his dead wife Laura), his joy with rain and lightning in the midst of his Vigil where he could possibly die. There's also the parallelism between Atsula and Wututu with their withered left arm and Agasu and that one-armed god (whose name I forgot) with only one arm. I was so misled by those. There's resurrection but not of them. You cannot just give high hopes for Thor. He'll never be there because he's forever dead. *Sigh*
When I thought that this is just another fantasy book, I discovered that the story goes deeper than I thought. There are also parallelism with events in the Holy Bible which will raise some points. And some dialogues with arousing remark:
Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, “casualties may rise to a million.” With individual stories, the statistics become people—but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless. Look, see the child’s swollen, swollen belly, and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, his skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears? To see him from the inside? And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted, distended caricature of a human child? And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies’ own myriad squirming children?