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Book Review: Anansi Boys

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While I’ve never been a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series (my tastes tend to run to Miller and Moore, but I do still like Gaiman as well – the last is said lest I be branded a comic book heretic), I have truly enjoyed his novels. Both Neverwhere and Stardust are among my favorite novels of the past few years, and Gaiman is truly talented at evoking meaning from the juxtaposition of his contemporary settings and the eternal nature of myth. Personally, I was less enthusiastic about American Gods, although I still found it very well written.

His latest novel, Anansi Boys, returns to the same fertile ground: the combustible combination of humanity’s contemporary cocoon of steel and glass and the flaming spark of the magic of ancient legend. While Neverwhere played with the theme of a fey underworld hiding just beneath our noses, and Stardust recast the questing nature of fairy tales, and American Gods presupposed (much like Harlan Ellison before him) that mankind hauled their “gods” with them across the Atlantic to the new world, in Anansi Boys Gaiman updates the classic tales of Anansi, the African trickster god who may have once been a spider, and was perhaps a man, and may yet be a spider still.

The original tales of the spider’s cleverness flowed from West Africa across the Atlantic to North America, where he metamorphosed into the character often known as Aunt Nancy, or Bre’r Ananse, something of a counterpoint to Bre’r Rabbit, another manifestation of the triumphant trickster. In American Gods, Anansi made a cameo appearance as Mr. Nancy; in Anansi Boys, the mantle falls to his sons, Fat Charlie and Spider.

“Fat Charlie” Nancy leads a relatively comfortable life in London. He’s not particularly fat, and he doesn’t particularly enjoy his nickname, but his father gave it to him and well, whatever name his father gave something tended to stick. Charlie’s got a somewhat mundane job with a talent agency that he doesn’t really enjoy, and which generally involves placating irate clients who want to know where their money is. The best thing in his life, actually, would appear to be his very pleasant fiancée, Rosie (although Rosie comes packaged with a mother who doesn’t like Fat Charlie much at all).

When Charlie learns of his father’s death back home in Florida, he can’t exactly say he’s surprised – which isn’t to he’s not embarrassed by the manner of the old man’s passing (it involves falling off a stage while singing karaoke and accidentally grabbing a young woman’s halter top on the way down). He travels home to attend the funeral (managing, accidentally, to crash a stranger’s) and spends a bit of time with Mrs. Higgler, one of the old neighbors from his youth. It is Mrs. Higgler who tells Charlie, quite matter-of-factly, that his father was a god – and not just any god, but Anansi, the trickster god. And she lets him know that he has a brother he didn’t realize existed; if he ever wants to meet his brother, she says, just tell a spider.

With a deft touch and humorous prose, Gaiman transcends the pitfalls that occasionally accompany contemporary fantasy; he is always in control, guiding the story exactly where it needs to go and offering readers a wonderful glimpse of the contrast between life and death, humor and pathos, and the idea that its less whether life is one big accidental joke than that whatever it is, it ought to be enjoyed. Borrowing from both the African legends of Anansi as well as from the trickster motif found in the myths of many cultures, Gaiman offers us the playful, often self-absorbed Spider who irritated, annoyed, and offended the other animals at the dawn of creation, while simultaneously preventing the full imposition of the cruelty of Tiger’s vision upon the world. “In the old stories, Anansi lives just like you do or I do, in his house. He is greedy, of course, and lustful, and tricky, and full of lies. And he is good-hearted, and lucky, and sometimes even honest. Sometimes he is good, sometimes he is bad. He is never evil. Mostly, you are on Anansi’s side. This is because Anansi owns all the stories.” Except that Tiger thinks Anansi stole the stories, and he wants them back.

When Fat Charlie does, in fact, take Mrs. Higgler up on her suggestion, it’s mostly done on a whim. Nonetheless, his brother – named Spider – soon shows up on his doorstep, leaking a cockeyed form of magic into Charlie’s mundane, humdrum world. Spider is something akin to the Pied Piper; when he tells Charlie they need to mourn their father with song, wine, and women, well, that’s what they do – even if it is against Charlie’s better judgment. When Spider decides he rather likes Charlie’s fiancée, all of a sudden Charlie’s feet can’t find his home – and neither can a poor taxi driver caught in Spider’s web. Yes, that’s right: less than a week after he learns he has a brother, that brother has managed to get Charlie fired from his job (not to mention framed for a crime he didn’t commit), steals his fiancée, and generally made a mess of his life (not to mention moving a palace into the spare bedroom in Charlie’s apartment).

But the real fun starts when Charlie goes back to Florida and Mrs. Higgler for some more advice – this time on how to get rid of Spider. And that’s when Charlie learns that there’s a reason for the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” And that bargains made with gods sometimes have unforeseen consequences.

I would say that Anansi Boys represents Gaiman at his most assured: it’s a confident, rollicking ride through all the multifaceted aspects of existence. The characters are subtly shaded, the plot is an unpredictable kaleidoscope of modern and myth. As with the legends of Anansi, little here is meant for harm; instead, it is designed to be enjoyed. Highly recommended.

Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.

Wallo World

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About Bill Wallo

  • http://www.fotolog.com/butki13 Scott Butki

    Good review. I just finished this book and loved it.

  • zhuxiaodi

    Hi,

    So glad to find a fan of Judge De books. I am writing to inform you about my new book, Tales of Judge Dee. I will be speaking at Harvard University Fairbank Center for East Asian Research on May 18th, and the Harvard Coop bookstore will host a book reading/discussion on June 15th.

    This historical figure in 7th century China became known in the West about half a century ago because a Dutch writer, Robert van Gulik, published successful detective stories with him as the main character. His reputation came back to China in early 1980s through Chinese translations of van Gulik’s books. Now I have published a new book of Judge Dee stories in English language again, making a return of this legendary figure to English audience. So he has made a double comeback!

    Trust you will enjoy reading my book. Please help spread the word so that more readers will read it.

    Sincerely yours,

    Zhu Xiao Di
    Author of Tales of Judge Dee
    and Thirty Years in a Red House