Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

I’m running out of things to say about Neil Gaiman. Really. There’s probably not an important thing in my life, personally or professionally, that doesn’t trace back to Gaiman in one way or another. His comics and novels (and radio plays, and films) are mind-bogglingly graceful and moving and brilliant all at the same time, and the problem is, you can only throw around phrases like “mind-bogglingly graceful and moving and brilliant” so many times before it all just starts to get old.

So I really wasn’t sure going in what I was going to say about Anansi Boys, Gaiman’s new novel, until I started reading — because Anansi Boys is something very different from any of Gaiman’s previous work. That is: it’s funny. Really funny.

Anansi Boys is the story of Fat Charlie, who happens to be the son of a god. He doesn’t realize this; he remembers his father, Mr. Nancy, chiefly in terms of childhood humiliations (like going to school on Presidents’ Day as William Howard Taft, after being told by his father that all the cool kids dress up as their favorite president). Then Mr. Nancy dies onstage in a karaoke bar, and Fat Charlie returns home for the funeral, and learns that his father was really the spider god Anansi, a trickster god from West Africa (perhaps best known today in the form of Br’er Rabbit).

Fat Charlie also soon learns that he has a brother, Spider, who is as charming and fearless as Fat Charlie is shy and anxious. They meet and get along swimmingly, until Spider decides to stay, and immediately begins to ruin Fat Charlie’s life, starting with his fiancée, Rosie. And, as they say, hilarity ensues.

Mr. Nancy actually made a cameo appearance in Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods, although the character is about all the two novels share. American Gods was epic and dangerous and serious — a big story, as I like to think of it, while Anansi Boys is more of a family tale, about the things we do to the poor souls who happen, through no fault of their own, to share our DNA, that glides along through the characters’ lives, and the danger rarely moves beyond the question of whether Fat Charlie will get his life back together. (When the danger does get more serious towards the end, it is perhaps the only time the book falls a little flat.)

But as different as it is from Gaiman’s older work (or more accurately, my skewed view of Gaiman’s older work), Anansi Boys is a joy to read. I’ve always noticed this weird difference in tone between his fiction and the way he talks in interviews, or at signings, or on his blog. This is the first thing I’ve read of Neil’s where the voice of the narrator sounded just like him. It’s sharp and witty and clever and, well, British.

One particularly clever turn of phrase comes when Grahame Coats, Fat Charlie’s incredibly unscrupulous boss, works to erase the evidence of his (spectacular) theft from his celebrity clients:

He spent several minutes on the computer, running the kind of disk-cleaning program that takes your data, overwrites it with random ones and zeroes, then grinds it up extremely small before finally depositing it at the bottom of the Thames wearing concrete overshoes.

Of course, the theme of stories and storytelling doesn’t take long to show up (in this or any of Gaiman’s works). Anansi, we are told, owns all the stories. He won them from Tiger, back in days of yore, and changed them. When Tiger owned the stories, they were full of blood and death and brutality, but:

Now, Anansi stories, they have wit and trickery and wisdom. Now, all over the world, all of the people they aren’t just thinking of hunting and being hunted anymore. Now they’re starting to think their way out of problems – sometimes thinking their way into worse problems. They still need to keep their bellies full, but now they’re trying to figure out how to start doing it without working — and that’s the point where people start using their heads … Because now people are telling Anansi stories, and they’re starting to think about how to get kissed, how to get something for nothing by being smarter or funnier. That’s when they start to make the world.”

You can call it the birth of culture, or lateral thinking, or the drive to slack off. The trickster is one of those motifs that pop up again and again in mythologies across the world. Tricksters are amoral, alternately loveable or infuriating (depending whose side you’re on), and love to stir up trouble. It’s hard to read the above passage and not think about Lewis Hyde’s book Trickster Makes the World. Simply put: the world would be here without Anansi, but would we really want to live in it? He brings in the forces of chaos and anarchy and unpredictability and, well, fun.

The focus on Anansi and tricksters, I think, goes a long way towards explaining the tone of this novel. It really feels more like some of the established “funny” sci-fi/fantasy authors (like Gaiman’s Good Omens co-author Terry Pratchett) than “classic” Neil.

Which may also be the only complaint I have about the book. Gaiman’s works (especially the comic series The Sandman) are as angst-friendly as they come. There’s something about his writing, like his good friend Tori Amos’ music, that calls out to people in a lot of pain. People who are just trying to hold on, or making the first steps toward putting their lives back together. (That’s certainly what got me into it.) And even though I’m not in anything close to that kind of shape now, there’s something kind of sad about seeing an angst-free Neil Gaiman novel.

Even if it is, in all fairness, one of his best-written works so far. I think we form these images of authors in our heads, and the images often have very little to do with the actual author. (I suspect this is a part of the social contract that pertains to authors and musicians.) I spent so long with Sandman constantly going through my head. And while the image Anansi Boys isn’t the same as the late 1980s/early 1990s Neil, it’s probably much closer to the actual Neil of today.

But it still feels strange. And, in an odd way, a little like saying goodbye to something. I’m not sure what.

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Note: Stephen Rauch’s book on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman was released in 2003. Read Ryan Paul’s review of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Joseph Campbell: In Search of the Modern Myth here.