American Gods: review
(Note, this is a review of the “Authors Preferred Text” edition)
I enjoyed reading the Sandman comics in the 1990′s. So when I picked up American Gods, and found it started like an extension of the Sandman universe through its use of mythical themes, I was happy.
The first few pages were delivered with panache, and I figured I would look forward to this.
By page 300 I was utterly bored, and had to force myself to read it to the end.
American Gods isn’t really a novel. It’s a series of short-stories. Which is fine in that Neil Gaiman really is a very good short story writer.
But as a novel it is a complete failure.
The protagonist, Shadow – isn’t really a protagonist. He’s just an empty Everyman.
He has no real background, no personality, no emotional conflict, no substance of any kind.
We have a big quiet brute who loves reading – he knows Beatles lyrics, he’s read Herodotus, and he knows about Dadaism. Yet at no point in the story does Shadow demonstrate any real ability to think. In fact, most of the time he positively avoids trying to think.
We’re led to belief that this is due to grief for his wife, who died cheating on him.
Yet in 600+ pages we get just four sentences where we find that Shadow is upset by this, and even then, Neil Gaiman doesn’t show us this, he just tells us.
Shadow does not think because he is not supposed to. It soon becomes apparent he is simply a vehicle for the story to happen at, rather than push directly.
He passively plods from one group of characters to another, doing nothing, except being a sounding board for other people’s stories.
Even Gaiman seems to notice this at some level. Some of the other characters refer to him as “dumb”. His dead wife points out that he’s not acting as if he’s “alive”. Gaiman doesn’t seem to notice the hint his subconscious is providing him.
Somehow we’re supposed to be awed by the use of the mythological, dazzled by his short story skills.
But we’ve seen all this before in Sandman. Oh, look – it’s Odin. And Thor. And Bast. Again. All we’re missing is Lucifer and Titania.
Neil Gaiman is obviously a very talented short-story writer. He’s probably also a very good screenplay writer. But this is supposed to be a novel.
Ideally we’re supposed to be introduced to a sympathetic character, who has to test their limits of being over-coming obstacles, achieving an emotional development arc, to a satisfying conclusion.
Instead we get a character devoid of all believability, conflict, or motive, who is thrown into peril and rescued through alternating deus ex machinas to a pointless ending.
Someone may perhaps argue that this is not the point of American Gods – that it is in fact a travelogue, not of physical America, but instead of the psyche of America.
In which case, no doubt they will finish the book with the vague sense that they may have learned something (other than a few mythical and pseudo-mythical names), though not entirely sure what that thing was.
No doubt if American Gods was a comic or a film, we’d be entranced by that same sense of indefinable quality entreated to us visually.
As a novel, it just lacks depth at every level, thus feeling that we haven’t actually read a novel, just a dislocated series of juxtapositions that lack the profundity it supposedly aims to deliver.
Additionally, the Authors Preferred Text could really do with an editor.
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