Book #46: American Gods (2001)

american-godsauthor: Neil Gaiman
language: English and a couple of sentences of Icelandic
length: 19 hours 39 minutes
finished listening on: 4 January 2014

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this audiobook had a full cast of characters. Neil Gaiman even reads some of the sections himself, such as the introductions and some interlude sections, although the bulk of it is read by an American narrator. I chose “American Gods” because it’s supposed to be one of Gaiman’s most famous books, and as I’ve been discovering more of his works recently it seemed like a good way to continue.

The book is basically an epic set in small-town America. Just as Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” was a love letter to London, so is this a love letter to an America that Gaiman is apparently still discovering. It follows for the most part a road movie storyline, and in most places it is evident that a lot of research has gone into the depictions of gods and folklore. The main character is Shadow, who at the beginning is released from prison to find that his wife has been killed in a car crash. He is then enlisted by a Mr Wednesday, who turns out to be a pseudonym of Odin, the head of the Norse pantheon – because when Vikings came to America thousands of years ago, they brought their gods with them.

I don’t know how long the book is in page terms, but the audiobook clocked in at about 18 hours, over 1000 minutes, by far the longest that I’ve listened to and split into three six hour segments. Although overall I’d say it was good, I suffered a bit because several times I lost track of what was happening or where the story was, particularly when I left it for a couple of days before coming back to it. Part of this was the sheer number of characters. The different voices made it fairly easy for me to tell the difference between two characters, but I think my visual memory is better than my aural memory, and if I’m actually reading it’s less effort to remember. Conversely, the different voices spoiled a few of the reveals, as it would be blisteringly obvious to me when a new, shady character in a cloak comes on with the voice of another character. It took me about two months to listen to it in total, most of that being an accompaniment to a new drive by myself to go cycling and get more exercise.

In some ways, the title is perhaps misleading, although Gaiman documents its origins as not entirely intentional. While the book dives deep into American culture, the folklore and the gods themselves are mostly from other cultures, and all pre-Christian. Other “gods” are things like TV or internet, newly worshipped by Americans over anything else and threatening to push out the old world gods. Gaiman inserts what he calls an “apocryphal tale” at the end, where Shadow meets an unnamed Jesus, perhaps to make up for not actually mentioning the one god that Americans actually do worship. I’m not sure why he did take it out in the end from the final version (a misleading term again because like “Neverwhere”, this version is a kind of director’s cut version, an amalgamation of two or three other versions), but I agree that it was a good idea, because I think in the narrative of the story (spoiler alert), Shadow is Jesus, in just about every significant way, but perhaps most especially that he is the saviour of all the gods. Having Jesus join him would have been almost counterintuitive.

The plot is a little bit confusing, and not a lot is revealed to the reader – we are as clueless as Shadow for most of the book. A battle is mentioned between two opposing sides – the new gods of TV and so on against the old world gods, but it’s not made explicit what this is for until right at the end. In many ways this is good, because it allows Gaiman to employ subtly-foreshadowed twists, but in some ways it is bad, because it left me at several points wondering why something was happening or why I was meant to care about it – and that’s without all the extra-narrative parts (which, to be fair, were interesting and helped to paint a picture of Gaiman’s America).

I think it was good overall, despite the fact that there were too many characters. With the length, Gaiman is able to explore a variety of subjects in depth, and the book covers a range of genres, including epic, road trip and occasionally comedy, while still maintaining a level of human drama. It’s an impressive book, and I now very much want to continue reading his work. But for now I have other books to read (the stack is piling up, since it seems I buy books faster than I read them!).

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One Response to Book #46: American Gods (2001)

  1. Laura O says:

    I read American Gods a few years ago but Neverwhere is still my favourite Gaiman book. You should try Anansi Boys and The Graveyard Book.

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