Saturday, April 10, 2010

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I don't think that I've ever stopped and tried to imagine America through an immigrant's eyes. To me, America has always been here. I know intellectually that America as I know it didn't exist until the 18th century, but when you've lived here forever, it's hard to imagine that the skyscrapers, freeways, and roadside monuments didn't just spring out from the ground thousands of years ago. They seem a permanent, indelible part of the landscape.

And yet, that can't be how someone just landing on these shores views America. After all, they came from lands steeped in history, where the land is the only constant. Their ancestors have seen governments fall, villages and cities disappear from the face of the Earth, once inhabitable climates turned poisonous. It is this resignation these people bring to America, a land blissfully ignorant of upheaval. Today's America is no place for history.

It is this concept that Neil Gaiman explores in American Gods, a masterpiece of a novel that sweeps the whole of the United States. Ancient and foreign gods, having ridden over in the minds and hearts of their worshippers, are woefully out of place in 21st century America. Reduced to grifting, prostitution, and, in two cases, running funeral homes, the gods drift through time with no followers to speak of. On the horizon, the new gods-- lords of technology, media, and freeways-- approach, determined to wipe the old superstitions off of the planet entirely. In the middle, is Shadow, an ex-con who has little to live for and less to fight for.

I don't think an American could have written a book like this. Granted, Gaiman's native United Kingdom does have the same worship of technology and celebrity (magazine shelves are drowning in £1 rags over there), but not to the extent that only the breadth of the American continent can provide. It takes a foreigner to accurately see our obsessions and our affections. Not only that, it takes someone with a sense of history behind them to understand how the ancient can drown in our modern society.

Gaiman tells a wonderful story and I had a hell of a time trying to identify all of the gods he referenced based only on oblique physical traits. Next time, I hope to sit down with my world mythology book and cross reference. I'm sure that such a thing will make a second read even more enjoyable than the first.

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