The first time I read Neil Gaiman I was not impressed. The book was Stardust, and while it was a decent read, I did not understand the hype over Gaiman. Years later, I read his version of the Sandman graphic novel series, and was utterly blown away by the way he managed to tie so many references and so many plot lines into a single series that meandered through ideas seemingly unconnected to the main plot but the sum of which served to flesh out the world that Gaiman’s creations inhabited.
With this in mind, I decided to attempt reading his novels again. American Gods was the only one left on the shelf when I looked, and the title seemed familiar – it was one of those books recommended as a “must read” but which always seemed too forbidding due to its heft; reading thick books is not something I usually do as they are heavy and tend to be plodding, and if I’m not sufficiently hooked, I lose interest fairly quickly. But I decided to try it anyway, trusting in Gaiman’s ability to tell a good story.
A quick summary: a man named Shadow is released from prison early, only to find out his wife is dead, the job waiting for him is gone, and his life is in shambles. An old man hires Shadow as a bodyguard, and claims to be an Old God. Before long, Shadow gets caught up in a war between the Old Gods and the New Gods, and…well, I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, so you’d really have to read the book yourself to find out more.
Some of the Old Gods might be familiar to you – Odin, the Queen of Sheba, Kali – and others less so. Have you celebrated Easter, and recognised the syncretism that links Christian and pagan rituals? Read folk tales of the cunning spider Anansi, or of Irish leprechauns with their green outfits and pots of gold? And what about the things we put our faith in today? Some view technology as the panacea to the world’s problems. Others believe shadowy government agents keep us on secret surveillance round the clock. Karl Marx said that religion is the opium of the masses, but what about the inverse form of that statement?
What I like about American Gods was how it offers so much room for further exploration. Gaiman writes with authority on well-researched lore, and I foresee many happy days ahead spent reading Wikipedia entries on some of the things he describes. I confess the plot is America-centric (although Gaiman is himself British), and I do not fancy the way the plot moved from perspective to perspective, but Gaiman’s narratives typically only make sense at the end (there is a very nice twist toward the end of this novel). Even if you don’t “get” when you’re done reading, you cannot escape the feeling that there is a purpose to everything in the book that helps create a particular atmosphere that is conducive to the telling of the story.
American Gods was selected for the “One Book, One Twitter” initiative to get everybody in the Twitterverse to read a single book, so why not join in? You can certainly do worse than to read the book that won numerous awards (Hugo, Nebula, Locus, SFX Magazine, and Bram Stoker Awards). Who knows, you might just end up becoming a Gaiman fan.
Contributed by Heng Liang