Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Go, gods, go

I liked Neil Gaiman's American Gods. In fact, the more I think about it, the more time passes, the more I like it.

Read an excerpt.

It didn't hit me over the head. Although I cared what happened next, I didn't stay up late reading. I didn't sneak off to bathroom, asking J-F to watch Helena "for a few minutes."

I wasn't sure what all the fuss was about — pages and pages of quotable blurbs written by reviewers I've never heard of. "An important, essential book" is a bit overblown. "Keeps the reader turning pages" is somewhat more lowkey, but a meaningless comment, really, to make about any adequate book.

There's nothing bad to say about this book. But it's lingering with me. The story's a giant metaphor, of course, which I'm still enjoying unravelling. This book is aging well.

Gaiman paints America with the reverence only an outsider could muster. 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."

Gaiman's no literary genius, but he knows his craft well enough. It's idea that drives this book, not language. (More books might be better off if they had ideas like these.) I don't really see how American Gods could win both the Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel (the only horrific element is that dead woman who keeps hanging around) and the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Novel (there's certainly no science about it, and the fantasy is the kind that pervades our daily lives) — I'd sooner file this book in the magic realism genre.

The story behind the story is the marketing of this book. Part of that plan included an online journal, which still thrives.

From one of Neil Gaiman's first journal entries:

I first suggested we do something like this to my editor, the redoubtable Jennifer Hershey, about a year ago, while the book was still being written (a process that continued until about 3 weeks ago). She preferred to wait until the book was on the conveyor belt to actual publication, thus sparing the reading world lots of entries like "Feb 13th: wrote some stuff. It was crap." and "Feb 14th: wrote some brilliant stuff. This is going to be such a good novel. Honest it is." followed by "Feb 15th. no, it's crap" and so on. It was a bit like wrestling a bear. Some days I was on top. Most days, the bear was on top. So you missed watching an author staring in bafflement as the manuscript got longer and longer, and the deadlines flew about like dry leaves in a gale, and the book remained unfinished.

I have no idea what kind of book this is. Or rather, there's nothing quite like it out there that I can point to. Sooner or later some reviewer will say something silly but quotable like "If JRR Tolkein had written The Bonfire of the Vanities..." and it'll go on the paperback cover and thus put off everyone who might have enjoyed it.

(There is a blurb that goes, "If Jack Kerouac had written Lord of the Rings...")

It's about the soul of America, really. What people brought to America; what found them when they came; and the things that lie sleeping beneath it all.

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