The Myth of Now
America: a land composed of other peoples, other beliefs, other civilizations. Nothing here, except for the land itself, is truly native. Something essentially American, however, can be heard in the sometimes united, sometimes conflicting voices of the countless cultures that inhabit this diverse nation. Thousands of high school teachers have wracked many a student’s brain asking the question “What does it mean to be American?” Of course, it’s a trick question. America is the place where every sort of theory, every guess at meaning, every interpretation of life can meet. It’s defined by multiple, contradictory definitions.
It’s a confusing place, but an interesting one.
British writer Neil Gaiman may at first seem an unlikely candidate as one who would attempt a novel that seeks out the heart of America—after all, he’s not from here. Nevertheless, he tries and succeeds in abundance with American Gods, his most epic prose work to date. In it, he introduces us to the personified representations of Americans’ dreams, the old gods our ancestors and current immigrants carry into this land and the new ones created in the fast-paced technological world of modern life. He has woven a contemporary myth, as relevant a commentary on society as those of old.
Gaiman is no stranger to mythmaking. He first won popularity in the late ‘80s with the success of The Sandman, a comic-book series that set a new standard for excellence within the medium. It was thoughtful, relevant, entertaining, and haunting, and much of the world of graphic novels has been changed for the better because of it. He has also written a farcical novel, Good Omens, with Terry Pratchett; the dark fantasy Neverwhere, which became a cult BBC series; the collection of short stories and poems Smoke and Mirrors; and Stardust, a seemingly incongruous fairy tale; but Sandman by far remains his most acclaimed work. Truly, the series has become a myth unto itself, still regarded by many as the best comic in decades. Humans, gods, angels, and even personified abstractions such as Dream, the title character, all interacted in much the same way as they do in American Gods, the best work by Gaiman since Dream’s passing.
American Gods follows Shadow, a recently released ex-con with a knack for coin tricks, on an expansive adventure across America’s heartland. Shadow’s name best describes his character: while he’s likable, kind, and motivated by compassion, he’s also troubled and not quite whole. In effect he’s a living ghost, wandering the world without purpose. After serving three years for aggravated assault, Shadow is released two days early to mourn his wife Laura’s death. It turns out Laura had died in the same car accident as his best friend—the two were having an affair during Shadow’s sentence. Without a home, a wife, a friend, or a job, Shadow finds his life rendered more or less nonexistent. When a strange old man calling himself Wednesday offers Shadow a job as an errand boy, he has no reason not to accept.
It’s soon revealed that Wednesday is not your run-of-the-mill lecherous old man. He’s a lecherous old god by the name of Odin. Wednesday/Odin came to American shores in the ninth century, hitching a ride in the Norse fantasies of early Viking explorers. He is but one of countless many, as Shadow quickly discovers as he travels middle America with his enigmatic employer. He runs into the Egyptian cat goddess Bast, the Irish Mad Sweeney, and the Slavic god of darkness and death, Czernobog, just to name a few of the eclectic gathering of deities in the book. Because true faith and sacrifice to them have long since ceased in this country, however, they’ve all weakened considerably and make do by leading humble lives no different from any other mortal. Standing in opposition are the new American gods, sprung from the modern day rituals and reliance we have on everyday commodities. There are gods of television, credit cards, and the Internet, and their agents are bland but vicious drones with such names Mr. Town and Mr. Stone. Wednesday wants a showdown, the winner supposedly taking on new vitality and power over opposing cultural paradigms.
Shadow spends much of his time wondering about his role in all this. Laura’s ghost repeatedly finds him and helps him out of jams. Her presence is a continual reminder, along with Shadow’s dreams of burial and death, that he is not living a full life; truly, in the face of unimaginable situations, Shadow rarely bats an eye. He is as much a product of this culture as the gods he falls in with—there is scant to believe in, few real mysteries, and an impending sense of being washed over by time with little to hold on to but shadows of the past. Gaiman has fashioned a new myth about modern Americans, a plot constructed of fragments of ancient tales woven into an original and vital drama.
Like any good myth, American Gods features a boatload of mysteries and plot twists. While knowledge of other religions is not at all required to enjoy the book, many will have plenty of fun trying to figure out which oddball character is what ancient god. Gaiman never tells it to us flat-out, and if it seems like he does, there’s a catch somewhere. Mysteries and open-endedness are Gaiman’s specialties, and American Gods is both complex enough to warrant serious critical analysis, yet with a stylistic simplicity and lightning-fast pace that will engross any reader.
Now a resident of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Gaiman began writing American Gods as a means to understanding Americans’ beliefs and ideologies. As he’s expressed on many occasions, America turned out to be a much more complex, beautiful, and strange a land than he had imagined while still in England. His attempt to grasp the peculiarities of American life resulted in a story that presented its own journey for meaning. Shadow’s discoveries about the nature of gods and mortal life are thoughtful lessons Gaiman presents without obtrusiveness. His primary business here is to tell a story, and does so with nary a glitch or stutter.
Gaiman’s greatest achievement in American Gods is the manner in which he is able to express and comment upon his experience with America through wildly fantastical elements. One realizes how magical even the plainest portions of the country are, as Wednesday and Shadow trek across the country looking for supernatural recruits. No imagination can escape the boundaries of America’s wide and varied landscapes, and even gods are humbled by it. These modern times are often defined in terms of conflicting values and eras, as well as ethnicities and languages, and somewhere, standing undefined, is that elusive figure suggested by the term “American.” With brilliance, Gaiman has painted a portrait of the American, as well as of America itself, and, in so doing, created a tale worthy to be placed alongside the finest of American literature. He has presented a mirror whereby, perhaps, Americans can better understand themselves.