American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is a well known and respected writer beloved in sci-fi / fantasy circles, and American Gods is probably his most notable and acclaimed work, having claimed the major genre awards. I therefore expected something special, so it's with some disappointment that I confess to being a little underwhelmed by it.
The story revolves around a man known simply as Shadow, who at the outset is about to be released from prison after having served his time. On the eve of his release he learns that his wife Laura has died in a car crash. Numbed, he heads home but ends up meeting a mysterious man named Wednesday on the flight, a man who knows a lot about him and who offers him a job - to be his assistant and bodyguard. After spending a strange night in a bar with Wednesday and one of his 'friends', Shadow agrees. And then, things get weird. His dead wife comes back from the grave and visits him as a rotting corpse. He meets Wednesday's strange friends and enemies, all of whom appear to have supernatural powers. And he discovers that he has become embroiled in a conflict between, quite literally, gods. To be more precise, a conflict between the old gods and the modern gods of technology.
American Gods is a relatively long book that is ironically quite slim on narrative. It is best described as an atmosphere piece that revels in examining places and people; it's a portrait of modern American culture and its relationship to its origins as a destination for migrants from all over the world who brought their cultures and their deities along with them. Gaiman presents this subject matter within the narrative device of a road journey, having Shadow travel across various towns and cities in the US and experience the unique places and encounter the idiosyncratic people that define them. He also intersperses every chapter with short side stories that show how some gods arrived in America, and where some of them have ended up. Gods in the book acquire strength from the belief and devotion of their followers, but since coming to America their followers have slowly abandoned their gods and embraced the life afforded to them by the New World. This has resulted in a new generation of gods - gods of modern technology and infrastructure - coming to power and threatening the existence of the ever weakening old order. Hence, the oncoming 'storm' of divine conflict.
Gaiman's an engaging writer and the book never feels slow or boring, but after some time the lack of incident begins to become all too apparent. He seems to be in love with the various gods he brings into the mix (all of whom, it seems, are based on deities from the real world), and obviously enjoys establishing an atmospheric milieu for his characters to inhabit, and this all comes across nicely in the book. It's clearly meticulously researched in terms of the gods, their mythologies, and the various pieces of 'Americana' that it touches upon. Trouble is, the feeling of nothing much happening, or of major things happening 'off screen', becomes a little irritating after a while. It also doesn't help that the protagonist, Shadow, while sympathetic and likable is also mostly reactive and lacks much character of his own (ironically, at one point in the book someone states that Shadow doesn't seem 'alive', though it wasn't intended in the dramatic sense); he comes across too much as a device for the book to explore the things it's really interested in.
My complaints are only minor mind you, and the book is very entertaining and its subject matter is fascinating from start to finish (my ignorance of global deities is now clear!). The exploration of culture through fantasy and religious figures is definitely an interesting approach, and the book is not lacking in imagination. It's very atypical in structure and style, skimming on plot and characterization as it does, and perhaps my disappointment is based mostly on an expectation of narrative convention and thus incommensurate to what I perceive as the book's flaws. Whatever the case may be, reflecting on it I enjoyed the book and it was worth my while, regardless of it not meeting my expectations. It's one I feel I'll revisit again in future, and one whose follow up I look forward to getting my hands on.