Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.
The idea of pagan deities getting old and crotchety is not a new one. The first Gilbert & Sullivan collaboration Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old built on this conceit. Thornton Wilder’s debut novel The Cabala also found inspiration in this same concept of grumpy old gods. But Neil Gaiman adds a new twist by setting his story in the New World. Yes, these are American Gods, in his novel of the same name.
And the United States, as we all know, is a bad place to pursue a career as a divine being. The Yankees just worship fame and money. What’s a poor Odin or Anubis to do? The core idea in Gaiman’s tale is that the Old World gods were brought to America with the great tides of immigration, only to find themselves gradually forgotten as the new arrivals became assimilated into the melting pot culture. These neglected plenipotentiaries are jealous of the new gods . . . those are the things Americans worship now, like their platinum cards, their home entertainment centers, the Internet and bling.
These two camps engage in skirmishes, and all-out warfare seems inevitable. The new gods on the block seem better equipped for battle. It helps that they control all the cool consumer products. When the almighty God of Television wants to send you a message, he has 500 cable channels, more or less, to choose from. Poor Zeus only had Hermes and his winged sandals—heck, you might as well send your divine directives by snail mail.
The premise behind American Gods is perfectly suited for satire, and Gaiman dishes out a little—although not as much as I would have liked. This author, who developed his craft in the world of comic books, still maintains allegiance to an aesthetic vision that comes straight out of the pages of DC and Marvel. He knows how to bring to life the fanciful and magical elements of his story; he understands how to push the plot forward through a series of crisis points and resolutions; and he is especially good at adding wry comic elements that lighten an otherwise dark story. So there isn’t much room left for social commentary, even if the story ostensibly plays off the fickle tastes of modern Americans and their inability to distinguish between gods and goods.