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.
Gaiman’s protagonist, a shadowy character named Shadow, is caught in the middle of the warring deities. He is a former prisoner with a taste for coin tricks, who finds himself engaged as bodyguard for Mr. Wednesday (aka Odin, top dog among pagan Nordic deities), who has sadly been reduced in his golden years to perpetrating small-fry scams and swindles. The new gods try to get Shadow on their side—one of the most amusing scenes in the book finds the “boob tube . . . the shrine the family gathers to adore” propositioning Shadow via a renegade Lucille Ball in an old TV rerun. But Shadow sticks with his eccentric pagan pals, for better or worse.
And what do the old gods have to say for themselves? Well, here is a typical Odin rant, when Shadow asks him how he can justify stealing ten dollars from an innocent woman: “They don’t sacrifice rams or bulls to me. They don’t send me the souls of killers and slaves, gallows-hung and raven-picked. They made me. They forgot me. Now I take a little back from them. Isn’t that fair?”
Gaiman delivers a distinctly American take on magical realism. If Gabriel García Márquez can offer padres who levitate off the ground, if Haruki Murakami can present talking cats, why can’t Gaiman attach his fantasy to modern American pop culture? The odd angle here is that Gaiman isn’t American—at least not by birth. He was born in Portchester, England in 1960. But you would never guess it from American Gods, which is every bit as American as Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Almost anything can happen in Gaiman’s fanciful universe, and invariably does if you wait long enough. As a result, there is a charming, if occasionally frustrating, looseness to the storyline. Unlike, say, the world of Harry Potter, where the reader has at least a rough-and-ready notion of the magical powers various characters possess, American Gods always leaves this ambiguous. Dead people can apparently come back to life. The pagan deities at some points seem powerful and scary, at other points enervated and pathetic. This unpredictability creates a number of surprises in the storyline. On the other hand, it prevents Gaiman from creating the type of suspense that would result from a more tightly controlled premise. After all, why should the reader worry about a character dying, if the deceased might reappear in the next chapter?
But Gaiman compensates for the loose ends by adding lots of local color to his narrative. He incorporates bits of low-end Americana into the story—for example, setting a memorable gathering of the pagan deities at The House on the Rock, a real life tourist attraction in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Later he shifts the action to Lebanon, Kansas, which is (in case you didn’t know) the geographical center of the United States. Gaiman doesn’t need magic castles or pagan temples to work his wonders. For him, the fantastic is very much at home in a family diner or all-night gas station. This familiar veneer of the fanciful is one of the most endearing qualities of Gaiman’s stories, and imparts a piquant flavor to his imaginative works that one won't find in Narnia or Middle-earth.
Along the way, readers of American Gods get a double dose of mythology. But don’t throw out your Joseph Campbell books quite yet. Neil Gaiman isn’t interested in telling you the old myths and folk tales. He wants to create some new ones of his own. And I can’t think of a contemporary writer better suited for the job.