American Gods

Last semester, I restarted reading fiction after a gap of two years. I managed to finish George R R Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” (the five books in the series that have been published so far) in a span of two months and thoroughly enjoyed it. I wanted to write a post on the series as soon as I finished it, but couldn’t get to doing that. Now, I think I’ll have to re-read some portions if I have to write about the series it, since apart from Tyrion’s brilliances and Arya’s adventures, I am unable to recollect the other finer aspects that I remember discussing with some of the readers of the series from my college. I don’t want “American Gods” to suffer the same fate. Hence this post!

American Gods, my first Neil Gaiman novel, is based on an interesting premise; that the Gods, or the manifestations of Gods exist because we believe in them. As opposed to the Biblical theme of “God made man in his own image”, in Gaiman’s book, it’s the men who make the gods (in their own image or otherwise) and they feed the gods through their faith, beliefs, offerings and sacrifices. Thus, some gods thrive while the others are forgotten and cast into the oblivion. When various settlers travelled to the new world, they brought along with them their beliefs and kept these beliefs alive by continuing the religious practices in the new land. Thus were born the american manifestations of the gods from all over the world. We meet an American Odin who likes to wear suits and swigs Jack Daniels (he might have as well called it John Daniels since he knows it quite well!) and doesn’t miss a chance to pull a con. We also encounter an Irish leprechaun named Mad Sweeney who (surprise!) can pull out gold coins from “the sun’s treasure hoard which is there in the moments when the world makes rainbow”, a trickster and a story teller named Mr Nancy, who likes his cigarillos as well as his stories, Kali who is called “mama-ji” by everyone (the “mama” part refers to mother here, and not uncle!), an American Loki, and several others. While these Gods do share the characteristics of the manifestations that were originally imagined by the people in their homelands, they have also developed distinct features that differentiate them from their original counterparts. In some sense, these features make them American. Similarly, in the older world there were places which were  “somehow special. [In these places] there was some focussing point, some channel, some window to Immanent. So they would build temples, or cathedrals, or erect stone circles.” However, in America even though every town and sometimes every block might have a church, they were as significant in this context as dentists offices. For in America,  such a special thing was felt in places where there were roadside attractions and amusement parks. And people felt pulled towards such places. And these are the places where American Gods hang out!

The audience is introduced to the story through a character who’s called Shadow (who was quite puny as a kid, but latter grew on to become a big man!) who has been released from prison after he served his term. When comes out of the jail, he realizes that he has lost everything that he once had. His wife was killed in a car accident the day before his release. She was in the car with his best friend (who was also his employer) who was also killed. Thus, with no family or job, when he sets off to go home to say his goodbyes, he meets Mr Wednesday who makes him an interesting  offer: an employment opportunity to serve him as his personal bodyguard for the mission that he is about to undertake. Wednesday seems to know everything about Shadow and also manages to turn up in places where Shadow wouldn’t expect him to. Shadow finally gives in and accepts Wednesday’s offer. In the course of time, he meets interesting characters including Mr Czernbog, the Zorya sisters, Mr Nancy, Mr Ibis, Mr Jacquel, Mr Hinzelmann among others. He realizes that all these are older gods who have now grown weaker since the people who imagined them, who brought them over to America, who believe in them and their stories have gradually decreased in numbers. And he also meets newer Gods such as the techno-kid, the media, the black-hats which have gotten empowered in very little time. While the old-gods, led by Mr Wednesday are worried for their survival, the newer gods have their own insecurities in the rapidly changing American landscape. And they all are fighting for a place in the minds and the hearts of the American people. Thus the stage is set for a epic showdown between the old and the new, the spiritual and the material, the good and the evil, or so it seems. Both sides are busy inducting new members into their camps in the view of of the imminent fight.  From time to time, Wednesday enlists Shadow’s help when he goes on these recruitment trips.

When he’s not on duty, Shadow is busy dealing with the ghosts from his past.  He has these weird visions and dreams that he keeps getting from time to time, but unfortunately make very little sense to him (or to us!). His employer Mr Wednesday plays his cards close to his chest and hence it’s not quite clear to him how he fit in the bigger picture. All these things are clarified towards the end when it become known why Shadow was chosen for the job in the first place.

Apart from these two story arcs, there are independent chapters which talk about how the gods might have arrived in America in the first place.
These include the stories about the arrival of the Gods from the Norse pantheon, the Pixies and the Leprechauns, Elegba and Mawu.

The “recruitment drive for the impending war” is an interesting framing device that gives the author ample scope to introduce us to the american manifestations of various Gods. I really enjoyed the portions where Gaiman introduces us to these american manifestations. However, I found Shadow’s portions to be a bit too slow since they were not really contributing much to the main arc nor to the final portion when the story arcs meet.  That said, I found Shadow’s dreams to be interesting and frightening at the same time. Some of them were so vivid that in fact I had nightmares involving some of those elements the night I read those portions. I liked the final portions of the book where we understand what triggered the showdown, the significance of the coin-tricks that Shadow keeps practicing throughout the book, and the thing that gives some gods their powers. We also get a hint about who Shadow might really be (since we are never told his “real” name anywhere in the book).

Regarding the Gods of Indian xorigin,  Kali (aka mama-ji) is the only deity who appears more than once in the story. I suspect that the only Indians whom Gaiman must have encountered in America must have been the bongs!!  We also get to see an elephant-headed pot-bellied God who rides on a mouse removes the obstacles, in one of Shadow’s hallucinations. There’s a passing reference to Kubera, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in some place. Some speculate that the forgotten god that Wednesday and Shadow meet in Vegas is Budha or Mercury but Gaiman hasn’t commented on that one.

Final word: Interesting book which I would recommend if you like this kind of stuff. I would rate it at 3 on a scale of 5.

 

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About gautshen

A jack of many trades of which , Linux Kernel Programming puts food on the table. Also pursuing his PhD in the area Theoretical Computer Science at the Chennai Mathematical Institute. Is an avid reader interested in the Hindu traditions and philosophy. Loves Bicycling and Good Music. Name is Ranjal Gautham Shenoy.
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2 Responses to American Gods

  1. S says:

    I loved this book. Mainly for its description of America, driving through those long stretches of nothing, flatter-than-a-pancake Kansas, corn fields, etc — it was a fascinated description of America the way only British writers can write (well, counting Bill Bryson as British too), or the “Stephen Fry in America” TV series. The part set in the village by the lake was just perfect, slow and beautiful — a mini-novel in itself. The climactic twist at the end was icing on the cake. (But yeah, there were a few very disturbing bits.)

    Everything else I’ve seen of Neil Gaiman has been great: the short story We Can Get Them for You Wholesale, the movies Stardust and Coraline, the Doctor Who episode, and even his graduation speech.

    BTW, “Jack” is the dimunitive/affectionate form of “John”, not the other way around. 🙂

    • gautshen says:

      Ah, looks like you enjoyed those portions in which I found the going to be really slow! I am yet to enjoy novels where the author goes on and on about the landscape. May be I ought to travel more 🙂

      I have seen Gaiman’s graduation speech. Zen pencils had a nice strip based on “Make good art”. “Stardust” is in my queue and I plan to read it before the end of this month.

      BTW, the Jack/John Daniels comment was a reference to Lt.Col.Frank Slade’s dialogue from the movie “Scent of a Woman”: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105323/quotes?qt0272329

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