04 June 2009

Book Review: American Gods

Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Published: 2001 Pages: 461
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 4.5/5

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American Gods is an oddly non-philosophical story regarding a paradigm shift. What I mean is that the plot is a plot, not a theoretical monologue about the significance or the importance of the action, but a story that readers can philosophize about or not as they see fit. There is deep meaning and an almost but not quite subtle reflection on contemporary theology, but at its foundation, American Gods is a good story.

Shadow, the protagonist, is a vehicle through which the reader is introduced to the gods of other cultures brought to America by immigrants who, through their progeny, disremembered their original gods and acclimated to a land that is fertile ground for the immediate and temporary, not for the timelessness of gods. In the story, the ancient gods are set to fight the new gods. Norse gods, Albanian gods, Egyptian gods, and many others are gathering for the last battle against modern belief systems, gods of internet and television and media.

This story is myth, not in the Snow White mode, but in Gilgamesh. Gods walk amongst men and share some of their characteristics. They rely on the belief of men; they are born of the belief of men and fade in disbelief. The gods of old behave as the gods of old behaved: not in the absent, all-loving, but removed way of the monotheistic tradition; they feel fear, jealousy, hate; they manipulate, create, and destroy. They are tricksters and deceivers. I believe this familiarity - I teach Ancient and Medieval Literature - is one of the reasons I enjoyed the novel so much.

But also, the story itself is good. The characters are unique, the conflicts are interesting, and the setting is fascinating in its familiarity and its otherness. America is America in the story, but it is infused with a believable nonreality. Roadside attractions are holy places; regular towns prosper from child sacrifices.

American Gods is not an easy read; it is long, weighty, and non-entirely satisfying in its wrap-up, but it is worth the trouble.

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