Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bag O' Books: "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman

Despite being very, very, very nerdy, I've never been much of a reader of fantasy books. I've got friends who are all up in Robert Jordan's house, and I feel like I should be there with them. But I'm not.

I occasionally -- thanks to the influence of my wife -- make an exception for the books of Terry Pratchett. He's an English fantasy writer, creator of the "Discworld" series of books that tell fantasy stories filtered through the lens of British humor. It works for me. And a few years ago, I greatly enjoyed "Good Omens," a novelistic collaboration about the Apocalypse from Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, who's probably better-known for his graphic novel work.

Which is why I picked up Gaiman's "American Gods" a few weeks ago. And I wish I'd enjoyed it more than I did. Which, ok, I did enjoy it a little bit. But it wasn't really absorbing. Without Pratchett's collaboration, Gaiman comes across as a very, very smart guy who's more interested in ideas than in storytelling. The end result is something cool, a bit didactic, somewhat entertaining, but never fully gripping.

Short synopsis: Our protagonist, Shadow, finishes a stint in prison only to go to work for a mysterious figure named "Wednesday." Wednesday, it turns out, is the American version of the Norse god Odin, who is rounding up all the other ancient gods brought to these shores by ancient cultures from around the world to mount a final all-consuming battle against the new gods who are displacing them in American culture -- the gods of debt, technology, credit cards and cable TV, among others.

Which gives you a taste of where "American Gods" is coming from -- a wry critique on the culture, which creates its gods in living, breathing form through the act of worship. The end battle, when it comes, doesn't really offer us insight about the critique -- it's there to round the story out. The result is a "novel of ideas" -- a term that usually describes books that are overly preachy -- that doesn't really commit to being a novel or to its own ideas.

But maybe I'm expecting too much. "American Gods" is reasonably diverting, so long as Neil Gaiman's reputation hasn't been oversold to you. And better an novel of incomplete ideas than no ideas at all.


KhabaLox said...

"I've got friends who are all up in Robert Jordan's house, and I feel like I should be there with them. "

No. You most definitely should not. Jordan himself said he was going to write until they nailed shut the coffin, and he wasn't lying. The Wheel of Time started as a good series (not great), but became an excuse to keep writing and cashing checks.

It's been a while since I read American Gods, and I remember liking it, but not being blown away, like I was with Snow Crash and others of Neal Stephenson. Of course, I lost interest in him when he started his opus trilogy (quadrilogy?) of 900+ page tomes, so maybe I just have a short attention span.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

If you want more storytelling than philosophizing, you might try a volume of Gaiman's short stories. I've read a couple of them, and I think they demonstrate an interesting range. Reminds me a little of Roald Dahl's non-juvenile stuff. Quirky, and sometimes very dark. I think of them as a modern version of Grimm's fairy tales, where anything can happen, including Very Bad Things.