Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Gaiman's tricks

A couple weeks ago I read Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

However, the book also has a lot of problems that I'm unable to let go of. So.

First, the title. I hate the title. If it weren't for that I'd received it as a gift, I may not have gotten 'round to reading it. I knew Gaiman had a new book out in the vein of American Gods, which I'd liked well enough, but the title was enough to turn me away from reading any reviews of it fully.

Sounds like "nancy boys." Even once I understood the title, whenever I picked up the book to continue reading I'd find myself thinking, "He's not really a nancy boy. Well, maybe kinda. At least the other one isn't, is he?" This is distracting — really, there should be no nancy-boy thoughts crossing my mind whatsoever.

The other immediate association I made (and here I admit that my thought processes are by no means representative of the neural networks of the population at large) concerning the title was that it is a cross between Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and though the novel's allegedly for adults, I suspected that at its heart might be a juvenile mystery better suited for 7-year-olds, which I'd have little interest in reading, particularly if it insisted on mocking or demeaning its protagonists as nancy boys.

I know better now, but I think Gaiman and his marketing people might've anticipated such blocks in the reading public and come up with something a little more something and a little less something else, like, I dunno, Sons of American Gods.

Second, it's pretty funny. Yes, that's mostly a good thing. But sometimes it sounds forced, like Gaimam's trying too hard to sound like Douglas Adams. I'd mentally earmarked a couple examples. Of course, I'm unable to retrieve them now, and my point is pretty much lost in paraphrasing. One of these examples had something hanging in the air in exactly the way that bricks, or something similarly heavy and brick-like, don't. Which sounded awfully familiar.

Maybe he's not trying to sound like anyone at all, maybe these mechanisms of language to convey humour are more common among the British than I know. It just didn't always sound . . . natural, or easy.

Third, things wind up a little too conveniently. Gaiman circumvents the implausibility argument by incorporating a philosophy of coincidence into the narration's worldview, about three-quarters of the way through the novel:
It is a small world. You do not have to live in it particularly long to learn that for yourself. There is a theory that, in the whole world, there are only five hundred real people (the cast, as it were; all the rest of the people in the world, the theory suggests, are extras) and what is more, they all know each other. And it's true, or true as far as it goes. In reality the world is made of thousands upon thousands of groups of about five hundred people, all of whom will spend their lives bumping into each other, trying to avoid each other, and discovering each other in the same unlikely teashop in Vancouver. There is an unavoidability to this process. It's not even coincidence. It's just the way the world works, with no regard for individuals or for propriety.

Well, that makes all the coincidence to follow OK then? Too obvious. Not the seamless work of a craftsman. Trying to mitigate the shortcomings by fessing up to them, or to score extra points by showing your work.

Fourth. Gaiman talks a little about Anansi Boys in a recent interview:
I could do stuff that isn't mythic, but I love mythic stuff. I love playing with gods, I love playing with myths. A lot of it has to do with that they're the basic places stories come from. They're the clay that you make the bricks out of. I just like digging around in the clay. I think the thing I was happiest about with Anansi Boys was, I got to do a story that was about stories, about storytelling, about the power of myths, and about how we create our own stories. I felt like I'd managed to do it in such a way where someone could read the entire book and never notice what it had been about — just enjoyed spending time with Fat Charlie and all these characters.

Insofar as I never noticed what it'd been about and just enjoyed spending time with the characters, Gaiman has succeeded. Gaiman did not manage to do it through literary craftsmanship, however. One barely notices these protomythic metastory moments only because they are spectacularly weak, and I rather skimmed over them to hurry past.

Simply, Gaiman doesn't have the voice, the tone, at least in this medium, to tell myths. He tells a good story, but of the kind that's a long, rambling joke, or a really neat anecdote regarding the events of last weekend, but he doesn't muster the sense of import or wisdom or gravity most myths, or gods, merit. This may be his appeal to many people, a breath of fresh air in the retelling, the popularizing of myths. But it doesn't entirely wash with me. He gets away with it here because his subject is a trickster god (previously, cuz the gods were "American," modern, laidback), one big cosmic joke.

I was a little surprised to see this book on one of the year-end best fiction lists. I'm surprised also that I actually liked the book, given how much of the experience of reading it was given over to noting its problems. (Diana recently similarly discussed how distracting it is to "notice" the writing. The worth of the book then must be in something other than the writing.)

Despite my greviances, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a light diversion. I imagine it will someday be a paperback very successful in airports. It has cross-genre appeal (fantasy, mystery, a little romance and travel adventure), a unique premise, and most of the stabs at humour strike their mark.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. I may pick it up, I may not. I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Gaiman, dating back to his Sandman days. Sandman was, mostly, super, but every now and then I wanted to smack him with a copy of Bullfinch and say, "Yeah, I've read a lot too. It doesn't make me DEEP."

M. Spider said...

I've always found Gaiman to be an intuitive writer of character, rather than an expansive orator of myth; or even an coherent craftsman of detail. His plot consistency is sometimes weak, and his patchwork philosophies don't always meet at the corners. What I find he excels at is playing with the idea of practical myth, blood and guts theology, where gods and people still go at it tooth and nail. It doesn't always work, but it does hearken to a time when spirituality was not considered ethereal, which seems to be one of his obsessions; but it is true that he appropriates very old stories and then renders them colloquial.

I often find myself empathizing with his characters despite myself.