Novel * Neil Gaiman * Godpocalypse * 2001
America is a vast and strange place, and that’s coming from an American who has lived here his entire life. It’s the early 21st century, and there is still a sense of desolate wildness available for those willing to look for it. I’m not even referring to the expansive forests and deserts, either (although where I live those are nearby and pretty much the reason I live where I do). Our cities tend to grow outward, consuming the wild lands and filling them with asphalt and strip malls and franchises. We specialize in homogony, forcing over 300 million people to accept a sense of community despite the sheer geological size of the country. It would be easy to look around and see the fast food joints, the sub-divisions crammed with identical tract homes, the massive, crumbling highway systems, the banality of most television programming, and everything else that screams ‘Merica to the rest of the world, and dismiss the very idea that this country could be anything except sterile, dull, and devoid of mystery. That would be missing the point, though. All those criticisms are totally valid. But there’s a reason I don’t eat McDonald’s and have no interest in living in a cookie-cutter house and going to work in an office park. The point is, this country is big enough, and has so many people in it from so many places, that weirdness is there to be found.
American Gods is a novel about that weirdness. It’s a novel about the in-between places, a novel about American strangeness, and about where Americans came from and where we’re going. Then there’s the extra added wrinkle concerning the author, who is British. Of course, here in the 21st century, it’s easy for the rest of the world to get a general and accurate sense of what being in this country is like. We’ve kind of left them no choice in the matter, culturally speaking. We’re not some mysterious, mythical land known only by rumor and legend – those days are long gone. That said, there is a subtle vibe here that is difficult to explain if you’ve never been. I’m sure this is consistent with any kind of travel – that’s been my experience travelling. New York, Paris, London, and Rome are all big fat cities crammed with all kinds of people, but they all have a distinct feel to them beyond aesthetics and language that can only be felt if you’re there. The United States is no exception, despite our unique position as world superpower with unprecedented cultural reach. This novel is also about Neil Gaiman’s experience with this weird country of ours.
The story is about a man with, and I’m sorry but even after enjoying the novel tremendously I still feel this way, the incredibly dumb name of Shadow. Look, there’s only one dude out there who should have that name and it’s Shadoe Stevens. Anyway, Shadow is a jailbird, doing a bid in prison because he was involved in a robbery. He’s large and quiet and kind of spooky because his name is fuckin’ Shadow. Sorry. So the story begins when Shadow is being released from jail. Turns out his beloved wife was involved in a car wreck and died, so he gets out a few days early. Shadow is shell-shocked by the news and by further details of the accident, so he’s not exactly in a clear frame of mind when the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday approaches him with a job. It becomes readily apparent that Mr. Wednesday is not your average job-creator. Yo, I’m just going to tell you, I mean it’s in the title and everything. He’s a god. American Gods supposes that when people emigrated to America, they brought their weird beliefs and gods with them. Then, once here and subsumed in the American experience, they eventually discarded said beliefs from the old country. The gods, however, remained manifest. Weaker now, since they kind of require human belief for strength, but they persist nonetheless. Mr. Wednesday, as a kind of speaker for these abandoned gods, hires Shadow to assist him in a fight against America’s new beliefs: technology, television, and things like that. It’s Ancients versus Moderns all over again, and it’s a pretty entertaining battle.
I began to feel a lot better about American Gods as soon as I realized that the real protagonist of the story was America itself. At first, I was mostly just annoyed with Shadow. Not only does he have a stupid name, he is barely a character. He gets a little better as the story moves along, but even by the end there’s not a ton of depth to the dude. To be fair, quite a few terrible things happen to him right away which quite believably leave him numb to the world. I mean, the dude goes to jail to protect his beloved wife. While he’s doing his time, said beloved wife totally cheats on him with his best friend who then wrecks his car because he’s all distracted by the road head he’s receiving on their way to pick Shadow up from jail. It’s fucked up. I mean, that alone is enough to emotionally traumatize someone, but oh wait, this sordid tale is then confirmed to him by his dead, beloved wife because she’s a sentient zombie now. As weird as that is, Shadow’s relationship with his reanimated corpse of a wife is like the least interesting thing to me about this novel. Also, even in these scenes, there is a remoteness to Shadow’s emotions that just makes everything he says and does seem flat. He never seems particularly involved with the nutty nonsense going down all around him. He barely has a personality.
It’s a good thing the gods show up, because at least they have a sense of humor, or menace, or an air of defeated ambivalence. That is to say, the gods are actual characters and spend a good deal of time playing off of Shadow’s neutral blankness. Of the pantheon, I probably enjoy Anansi the most. He seems like he’s having a good time. Mr. Wednesday, which is to say Odin, is fun to read even if he does suck more often than not. Gods are capricious, after all, and not to be trusted. It’s that very unpredictability which breathes life into a narrative that might otherwise get away from Gaiman. Obviously the man has some experience in writing for larger-than-life supernatural beings, and to be fair most of the ancillary human characters are pretty well drawn as well. Shadow’s blankness also allows the reader to enter this strange parallel world as a cipher, experiencing this strangeness at face value. That’s a benefit to a novel which packages the impossible in the mundane.
The idea that America is a poor place for gods comes up repeatedly throughout the story, which is commentary enough about what kind of country the United States is. We’re shallow and materialistic, obviously, and all too ready to believe in our own mythology. We’re energetic and practical, hardworking and tenacious. When we dream, we’re not worried about gods and monsters, we’re worrying about clearing out the best path to material success. And, mmm, sure. There’s also like 300 some-odd million people living here so any kind of declarative statement about what Americans are or aren’t needs to be taken with about 300 million grains of salt. Yet American Gods still hearkens back to that national vibe I was talking about way up at the top. By and large we are motivated by material success, and when that’s not happening we tend to feel weird about it. As someone who dropped a career in his mid-30s for a seasonal forest ranger job, I have personally disregarded this aspect of American social standards. And it often feels weird and wrong. Despite how much more livable my life feels now, despite the fact that I’m objectively happier, there’s still the sense that I’m letting down the team. Team America, I guess. There’s a certain sterility about that kind of thinking which informs the statement that America is a bad place for gods. I could have kept that career that made me miserable in order to own a nice house and feel more like an American. I didn’t, and people like me add to the weirdness of this country.
Look, I’m not that weird. In the summer I explain how volcanos work to the curious summer tourist and otherwise keep myself occupied by maintaining this blog which is ostensibly about the apocalypse. I’m not a conspiracy gonzo making creepy YouTube videos about how round-earthers are keeping us down. But that guy exists too, and all kinds of other weirdos all across the insanity spectrum because America is a breeding ground for strangeness. It’s the cult of freedom expressing itself in strange ways. In my time visiting the UK, I got the sense that British citizens are pretty free, actually, they just don’t crow about it constantly like we do. They have their whole own brand of strangeness, after all. Our own American mythology has gone to our heads, which makes for a society of conformist weirdos. The political consequences of this willingness to embrace the different has obviously led to a nightmare scenario regarding the executive branch, but the reason that kind of thing happens here is because of our own self-mythologizing. We don’t need additional gods because America worships itself.