It's been a year since I read Anansi Boys. I can still remember the anticipation of it. I waited two weeks to buy it, two whole weeks after its release date. In those two weeks I would go into bookstores, pick up a copy, fan the pages, sigh heavily and put it back in the stack. On the 8th, I would say to myself, because that was the night when I would wait in a line with 649 other people, the night when I would buy this book about gods in the hallway of a church, when I would get the book, meet the man himself, and even, though I didn't know it yet, touch his fancy fountain pen.
Neil Gaiman is one of those people you either love or hate (and, odds are, if you've heard of him, you love him). In principle, I adore him and think he can do no wrong. He wrote some Books of Magic that I read at an impressionable age, things that I have grown around, the way bonsai trees will grow around the things you use to bend them. He also wrote what I think is the best sentence ever, in the Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. Even when I don't love a story (I didn't love Neverwhere as much as I had wanted to, for example), I still love the platonic ideal of Neil Gaiman. I will still eventually buy his every word, or at least read them.
As I finally left the event, signed book in my hand, my heart filled with delight that Gaiman was just as charming and amusing as I had imagined he would be, I cracked open my book, confident that it, too, would live up to the lofty expectations I had of it. And there are no mixed feelings about Anansi Boys.
The book starts with a death. When Fat Charlie's father dies, it leads to the discovery that a) his father was the trickster god Anansi and b) he has a brother, named Spider. The ensuing novel has Charlie coming to terms with both ideas.
On one level, it is a book about how our family expectations can suffocate us. Fat Charlie picked up his nickname as a boy, and he can't escape it, even though he isn't even fat anymore. Once someone hears the nickname, he is forever "Fat Charlie" to them. And so, Charlie Nancy still sees himself as a fat, shy little boy, tormented and a little jealous of people who seem capable of living bigger, less ordinary, fearless lives. His rediscovered brother is just such a person, and the first impression he leaves on Charlie is a whirlwind of wine, women and song. It's nothing less than embarassing for Charlie.
For Fat Charlie, the story is about creating and recreating one's self. With the arrival of his brother and the revelations about his father, Charlie's assumptions about himself are challenged. Then circumstances intervene, and Charlie is confronted with the need to take actions that would once have been inconceivable. Mortifying. But urgently necessary. Having talent isn't everthing, having gifts isn't everything – one needs the courage to use them. And, perhaps, one is obliged to use whatever gifts he or she has.
The book is very funny, in a punny, pop-culture-y, slightly British way. I got some funny looks reading the bit where Fat Charlie eats his fiancee's mother's wax fruit. A few times, I was very strongly reminded of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Most of all, in this exchange, I felt like Spider was channelling Zaphod Beeblebrox:
"The ties of blood," said Spider, "are stronger than water."
"Water's not strong," objected Fat Charlie.
"Stronger than vodka, then. Or volcanoes. Or, or amonia"
I fell head-over heels for Charlie and Spider, as well as for Daisy. In fact, if I had one very minor complaint with the book, it is that the latter part of it is much more plot-driven than the opening portion. I understand how it comes to be that way, but I would have been perfectly happy to spend more time watching Fat Charlie's internal life, without the external excitement. That being said, that would be a different book, and I quite liked this one.
As is often the case with Gaiman, this is a story about stories. Anansi, the mythical figure, would tell the stories that made the world. He would trick people with his stories, goad people with his stories and entertain people with his stories. What writer could resist a god that says the stories make the world? Stories create our destinies, and they make us human. Writers, in creating their worlds, help to create the world, as any reader knows.
Gaiman has a loyal fanbase among goths and geeks, the disenchanted and the disenfranchised. Rebels. While reading Anansi Boys, I was thinking about how interesting an audience it is, as this book is about the "ordinary one", not the rebel. Spider is the cool one; Fat Charlie is the other one. Perhaps some of that popularity is the fact that behind every rebel is the fear of being ordinary? Hell, who hasn't had that feeling? And if you've felt that way, how could you not be comforted by this:
Each person who ever was or is or will be has a song. It isn't a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words. Very few people get to sing their own song. Most of us fear we cannot do it justice with our voices, or that our words are too foolish or too honest, or too odd. So people live their songs instead.
Is there a better kind of book — or author— than one that makes you want to sing?