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Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and the Deconstruction of Global Mythologies

A bestseller and something of a modern classic, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is in most ways a representative work for the prolific cross-format writer. The novel focuses, as much of his work does, on the reluctant and taciturn loner, summoned to abstruse duty by fantastic forces he or she does not understand and whose power and true nature is half-glimpsed only through frosted glass. Gaiman’s heightened reality always conceals the true depths of the supernatural, the magical, elements which regularly trespass into the “real world”, often with dire consequences.

The approach angle on these tropes offered in American Gods is a simple one with almost infinite possibilities: gods exist in our everyday world as long as they are believed in, and if their share of belief dwindles or vanishes entirely, they go on living, striving to survive whatever way they can just like the mortals they hide amongst. In America, repeatedly dubbed a poor land for gods, they subsist as labourers, prostitutes, hermits, local elders, and, most commonly, as grifters, snatching what little they can away from the harried humans who will not willingly give them the regard they require. This regard is increasingly snatched up by new gods of technology and media, and an apocalyptic conflict looms between the two factions.

Standing between them is Gaiman’s requisite thoughtful outsider anti-hero, a hulking, gentle-spirited ex-con with the heavy-handedly symbolic name of Shadow. Out of prison early to bury his wife Laura, who died (or did she?) while cheating on her locked-up hubby with his best friend, Shadow is waylaid on the way home by a mysterious, slick man in a suit who calls himself Wednesday and knows far more about Shadow than he ought to. Wednesday (soon enough revealed as a manifestation of Odin, the All-Father god in the Norse pantheon, if you were wondering) offers the now-aimless Shadow his choice of payment to complete a series of enigmatic missions for him, and Shadow rambles across Middle America from Indiana to Wisconsin to Florida, from sunny San Francisco to industrial Chicago to sparkling Vegas, facing situations that range from confusing to beguiling to dangerous.

What Shadow, with his calm acceptance of the mystical and low-key cleverness, never manages to find is a strong personality, and American Gods suffers as a result. He’s obviously meant to be a cipher (a shadow, of course), but in his experiences of the strange, the fantastic and the painful, Shadow never coheres into more than a carrier pigeon for Gaiman’s exploration of the uses of belief in America and deconstruction of global mythologies.

Really, though, this is a book more concerned with the latter than the very real corporatized Christian splinter faiths of America, and it seems like an odd if progressively pagan trajectory for Gaiman to take. If America is not a fertile land for gods, then it is very fertile for God. Evidently, organized religion has no role in Gaiman’s world, with its thin membrane to the supernatural.

Ultimately, though, the grand myths that sustain America’s self-conceived grandeur are the important targets here. Even while imagining that leprechauns and Egyptian deities and golems walk the earth, Gaiman aims to refute the noble lie of the essential decency and righteous liberty of the United States that neoconservatives have sold for decades as a fundamental truth of democratic capitalism. Shadow’s sojourn in the supposedly idyllic Wisconsin town of Lakeside has a sinister resolution straight out of a Southern gothic novel, and Gaiman refuses to suggest that it could be otherwise.

With this in mind, Shadow’s coin tricks hobby is a microcosm for Gaiman’s entire perspective on the world in that it constitutes a series of sleight-of-hand misdirections that masquerade as irruptions of wonder into the rational everyday. This hobby connects Shadow to Wednesday, with his ingratiating persuasion and deceptive long cons, but it also detaches him from the world of people (ie. those of us who don’t live for hundreds or even thousands of years, like the gods).

Much more successful at exemplifying the attachment between people and the otherworldly beings they believe in are Gaiman’s “Coming to America” sections, dramatizing the arrival on the shores of the New World of Vikings, crafty women, and downtrodden slaves (the latter section is a doozy, maybe the best bit of writing from Gaiman in a book definitely not lacking in stylistic flourishes). But these chapters represent a contrast to more than a reaffirmation of the qualities of the rest of American Gods, with its lackadaisical promenade of a plot and maddeningly enigmatic dialogue. This is far from a great book, though it can be an engaging and fascinating one, nonetheless.

Categories: Culture, Literature, Religion
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