American Gods

Neil Gaiman, 2002

“Power came from the rituals, not from the gods” (338)

I never had much interest in Gaiman, he was one of those subversive-but-mainstream authors that is insanely popular amongst the angst-ridden goth-types. I recognize that the Sandman series was immensely influential towards popularizing the graphic novel genre away from the super-hero lore and towards more mature themes and characters. However, despite his influence and popularity my interests never gravitated towards him. Lately a couple friends have been lauding Gaiman over me, proclaiming his narrative powers with proselytistic enthusiasm and so I thought that I’d give him a try, to see what the buzz is about.

I’m sorry Gaiman fans, but I just don’t get it, this book didn’t work for me.

American Gods isn’t a horrible piece of work, but it isn’t written very well and the writing style kept distracting me from the narrative. And what did I think about the narrative? The best word to describe it would be boring.

Formidably, the main character, Shadow, is a passive pointless protagonist willing to go along with just about anything that is placed in front of him . In the words of his dead wife, he is “like this big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world,” (370), which from this reader’s perspective is very true and not very interesting. Why Gaiman felt that this character was necessary is beyond me. Throughout the story it isn’t really clear why any of the “gods” have any vested interest in Shadow because he isn’t very interesting, or powerful, or intelligent, or helpful, or have any likable quality that you would expect to be at the center of a war for the survival of gods and belief and power and all things holy and good. Furthermore, the conclusive realization of Shadow’s relationship to his proprietor, the Norse God of sacrifice characterized in the swindling character, Mr. Wednesday, was entirely anticlimactic. However, despite the anticlimactic end I found myself accepting that it was entirely believable how this meandering book would end with a short, four page synopsis that culminated in Shadow giving an unconvincing speech that convinced every mythical being that fighting for survival was a fruitless and pointless effort, kind of like reading this book.

My criticism isn’t entirely focused on the weak characters. I have plenty of criticism for the sophomoric writing style presented by Mr. Gaiman. Often in my reading I found myself wanting Gaiman to just to cut to the chase and get on with his point. Why should I care about long descriptions of coin tricks, a visual and not verbal act? Why should I care about ancient and irrelevant deities that pass themselves off as sorry excuses for men? And I can’t tell you how many times my eyes rolled every time I read the never-ending repetition of the phrase “there is a storm coming”, a sorry excuse for a cliche meant to promote suspense that never really happened. If only that storm really did come, but as I indicated above, it was only a drizzle that washed away after Shadow gave a lame speech that convinced everyone that everything was pointless. It is obvious that Gaiman invested a lot of research in this book, but in addition to his research of mythology and Midwestern Americana, he should have spent some time researching how to write a compelling novel of worth with a solid plot or at least an artistic flare for narrative style. I could tell from Gaiman’s extensive research he was having a lot of fun as a writer, but as a reader I was not sharing his enjoyment.

To elaborate on my criticism of the writing style, you only need read a few pages to be exposed to the the run on sentences sprinkled throughout the book. The following sentence is but an example of the poor writing in this novel that distracted me and caused me to cringe:

“The pie – it was an apple pie – had been bought in a store oven-warmed, and was very, very good.” (86)

Why does the above sentence bother me? It is the start, then clarify, then continue style that is prevalent throughout this novel. It is a juvenile and passive writing style that slows down the narration, clarifying everything with an anchoring weight upon the narrative progression. We need only reference the very first page of the novel for another example.

“It did not matter, Shadow decided, if you had done what you had been convicted of or not.” (3)

I would rather read the same passage above, as follows:

“Shadow decided that it didn’t matter whether or not you had done what you had been convicted of.”

In addition to the passive writing style, Gaiman has a juvenile need to excessively overstate the obvious. Rather than suspend belief or develop some sense of suspense, Gaiman as an author is compelled to end every narrative sequence with cliches that leave nothing for the imagination to ponder. For example, after a long interaction with a drunk leprechaun, Gaiman felt it necessary to inset an unnecessary phrase such as “It was the last time Shadow saw Mad Sweeney alive” (221).

I could go on and on about such examples, but it isn’t necessary. I think I’ve made myself clear. Through my reading I constantly found myself reediting the writing of American Gods, wanting it to be something better than what I held in my hands, wanting to see the excitement that my friends promoted, but unfortunately I could not.

Perhaps the only compelling section of the novel that I enjoyed was the interlude that takes place some 14,000 years B.C., characterizing the migration of a tribe of Siberian people across the Behring strait to the Americas. In this sequence the mammoth God advises the people, they doubt their God, and eventually face his wrath as their generational offspring are subjected to enslavement and war with other tribal peoples. The fall of the people eventually leads to the fall and extinction of the mammoth God through the collective cultural forgetting as the people’s ways of worship are lost with their lives. This narrative sequence is the pinnacle of novel’s theme: practices and beliefs are only valuable to those who value them. Gaiman did a good job with this narrative interlude, but it would have been better left off as a short story with rich meaning rather than an interlude in a diluted and boring book.

“this isn’t about what is, it’s about what people think is. It is imaginary anyway. That is why it is important. People only fight over imaginary things.” (427)

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About hardlyregistered

The meandering observations of a 30 something guy.
This entry was posted in Books I hated, Fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to American Gods

  1. Ouch, that’s a tough review.
    I’ll admit, American Gods isn’t the most compelling of his novels. I still stand by Neverwhere as my favorite Gaiman novel for adults. Although, Anansi Boys (a sort of sequel to American Gods) is less passive, with more entertaining plotlines. I hope you don’t give up on Neil Gaiman completely.

  2. hardlyregistered says:

    When I last talked to you, I’ll admit that you sold Neverwhere more than American Gods, but I read this one first because Mai lent me her copy. Knowing your love for Gaiman, I was a little nervous about this post, but it is the honest truth about how I felt during my reading. It’ll be a while before I read another of his books.

    • Nari says:

      Just because I love Neil Gaiman’s work doesn’t mean I expect you to. Its no secret we have vastly different tastes when it comes to books. You gave it a shot at least. Its tough to recommend a Gaiman book because each of his books is very different in style and substance from the others. Its kind of a shot-in-dark when you first start out with his work. I can’t get into the Sandman comics, which most of Gaiman’s fans hold in highest regard.

  3. hardlyregistered says:

    Well, I’m glad you’re not offended!

  4. miconian says:

    I’m on page 360 and I found your post after googling “American Gods Boring.” I like his graphic novels… he knows a lot about mythology and history, and has a lot of interesting ideas, but he needs to need someone else to give his stories substance.

    • hardlyregistered says:

      I’d be interested, if you finish, what you think. The Simpsons last had Neil Gaiman on as a guest. He was quite amusing, pointing fun at the formulaic narrative devices that are used in a lot of mainstream literature.

  5. I totally agree with your review. An ex had highly recommended the book, so I felt obligated to read it. It was incredibly dull and Shadow was not the most interesting of protagonists. Gaiman’s voice wasn’t very compelling either. Simply put – the book simply did not click with me. This shocked me after hearing so many positive things about it, as well as the fact that it’s won a least one highly esteemed award.

    Basically it taught me that not every book is for every one. I’m glad others find such great enjoyment in it.

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