Tag: Neil Gaiman

Review: American Gods

American Gods is a classic. When you tell people you don’t much like Neil Gaiman’s work, they say, “Have you read American Gods?”

Well, now I have.

It’s not that bad, actually. I liked it more than I liked Neverwhere or Anansi Boys or Stardust – it’s bigger and baggier and more ambitious than those novels, and bigness and bagginess and ambition are all things I respond well to in my reading.

It’s a road-trip novel, basically: a man named Shadow, fresh out of prison, mourning a wife who died before he could see her again, is hired by a mysterious old guy calling himself Wednesday to do various bodyguard-type duties. Wednesday’s work consists of travelling the length and breadth of America to rally its gods – gods from every continent, brought to America by immigrants and blow-ins, from the Vikings to the Ancient Egyptians; gods grown old and dying as people stop believing in them and put their faith instead in the new gods of electricity, the media and the stock market.

The thing is, though…American Gods doesn’t read like a lament. It’s not like The Lord of the Rings, where magic is dying and the gods are passing and remote and the age of machines is coming with slow inevitability. Nor is the dichotomy between old and new so clear-cut as it is in Tolkien’s novel. Gaiman’s gods are old, but they’re also sly. No, this novel isn’t so much a lament for ancient days as it is a work that complicates our understanding of modernity and rationality. Wednesday and Shadow’s travels take in sacred places – which aren’t monuments like Mount Rushmore, or grand places of worship, or natural formations like the Grand Canyon, but roadside curiosities with names like the House on the Rock or Rock City. The House on the Rock boasts the oldest working carousel in America. Rock City boasts a cave full of dolls. They’re places so kitschy and so random that they almost can’t be anything other than sacred: they seemingly have no place in modernity, and yet tourists flock to them. And that’s what American Gods is about: the places where the new gods of modernity cannot go. The places rationality – or the cult of rationality – cannot reach.

That’s what I liked about it, really: its celebration of the glorious, baggy diversity of human experience. In some ways it’s a kind of tour of America’s history: there’s the Vikings, yes, but the Egyptian gods Ibis and Thoth also remember people from the Nile reaching America’s shores (and trading there, I think?) thousands of years ago, and there’s an Algonquian trickster figure (Wisakedjak, Anglicised here as Whiskey Jack) living on a Lakota reservation and bemoaning the fate of the Native American tribes. There’s a gay Omani businessman, new to New York and not liking it much, who swaps lives with a taxi driver ifrit, in one of the tenderest scenes in the novel. Then there’s the fact that Shadow, the novel’s protagonist (and, it turns out, the scion of a major European pantheon), is Black, which shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it is.

Unfortunately, this generosity doesn’t extend to the novel’s female characters. This is a perennial problem with Gaiman’s work: his women have little agency and less characterisation. Take Bilquis, for example, the Queen of Sheba, a sex goddess who – wait for it – eats men with her vagina. Which could go either way, honestly: Gaiman’s portrayal of the scene tips it towards the titillating-horror end of the spectrum, but I’d be happy to go with the reparative feminine-empowerment reading if it weren’t for the fact that he kills her off before she has a chance to do anything very much apart from look sexy for the readers? Like. If you’re going to have a vagina dentata, I feel you should at least do something interesting with it.

Then there’s Shadow’s wife, Laura. There’s something vaguely interesting going on with Laura, in that it slowly becomes apparent that she isn’t as innocent and lovely as Shadow thinks she is. But, again, this doesn’t particularly go anywhere, and in the end her arc is still only all about who she is in relation to her husband, and what she does for him. We don’t really get a sense of her as a person with her own purpose and agency.

Much like its sort-of sequel Anansi Boys, then, American Gods is specifically a male novel: its bagginess conceals a story that at its heart is invested in male lines of succession and inheritance. I guess that fits with Gaiman’s aesthetic – he writes old stories, revivifies ancient narratives, and patriarchy is one of the oldest stories there is – but what irks me is that it’s so at odds with his progressive social media persona. The objectification of female bodies is there in pretty much all his work, over a period of decades: that’s the hallmark of someone who hasn’t done the work to take it out. American Gods is a story of America; it retells the American myth of the melting pot, the meeting of people from all walks of life, all over the world. But Gaiman’s America is not a place for women; or, more precisely, it’s not a place that women contribute to in the same way that men do. It’s a place created by, and for, men. Which is as untrue a myth, in its own way, as the Trumpian one in which America is a place created by, and for, white people. Sure, I want to read novels that capture the wide strangenesses of the world, but also…I want to read novels that don’t specifically exclude me? I enjoyed American Gods, but it feels incomplete to me, as all of Gaiman’s work does. Alas; I don’t think I’ll ever be a fan.

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Review: Trigger Warning

If there is one thing I would like to happen in 2019, it is for us all to agree that Neil Gaiman’s work is nowhere near as edgy, dark or interesting as his public persona is.

(Actually, there are a lot of other things I would rather happen in 2019 – sustained action on climate change, the impeachment of Donald Trump, a second Brexit referendum – but, you know. Neil Gaiman’s also quite annoying.)

How did I end up reading Trigger Warning? The marketing for his work promises twisty, thorny fairy tales, urban fantasy from the underbelly of modern life, stories that are fun and yet meaty, and that was what I was hoping for from this collection of “Short Fictions and Disturbances”.

And once again, I found it lacking that indefinable something. Depth. Nuance. Resonance.

To me, the most satisfying fantasy, the best fairy tales, are built on a paradox: they describe something that is indescribable. Through omission or metaphor, they talk about the numinous, the earth-shattering intrusion of the Real into our lives that lie under layers of story and symbol; they are about things that cannot be narrated. They resonate because they contain lacunae.

Perhaps this is why Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels works so much better for me than his novels and short stories do: the images supply that resonance; wordless, they speak the unspeakable. There is nothing in Trigger Warning that does the same.

If you’re looking for an example of the collection’s lack of depth and nuance, look no further than its red-flag-to-a-bull title, based on a deliberate misunderstanding of how the phrase “trigger warning” is actually used. In his introduction to the book, Gaiman muses, with reference to his title:

Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?

And then, later on, he talks about stories he read as a child:

they…taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.

This romanticising of story and having grown up through fiction, as so many of us readers did, is of a piece with Gaiman’s authorial persona: the mysterious storyteller/bard warning us that fiction is never just fiction, that it can lead us into the mire and through the dark forests of the night, and that this is, mystically, a good thing. But, you’ll notice, it’s not actually very well-argued. For a start, note how paying heed to a trigger warning becomes conflated with not leaving your “comfort zone”. No. Staying in your comfort zone is, like, never watching anything apart from Doctor Who on TV, or having the same sandwich every day for lunch. Whereas, as I suspect Gaiman very well knows, encountering a trigger unannounced can be for a PTSD sufferer a matter of life and death. Comfort zones are formed by habit, and, mostly, there’s nothing actually unsafe about leaving them. (Although, as a sidenote, what’s wrong with staying in your comfort zone at least some of the time?) Trigger warnings are about not destabilising someone’s entire mental health. Fiction doesn’t need to be a safe place, but neither should it be radically unsafe. There’s a world of difference between the two, and it says nothing for Gaiman’s power as a writer that he misses, skips over, that nuance.

As for the stories themselves: they are mostly quite ordinary. There are sub-Twilight Zone-ish stories with trick endings and nothing much else, like “The Thing about Cassandra” and “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”; very inferior verse offerings like “My Last Landlady”; riffs on other people’s work like “The Case of Death and Honey” (Sherlock Holmes) and “Nothing O’Clock” (Doctor Who). There’s an entire “Calendar of Tales”, all of them very short and very minor.

I’ve written about Gaiman’s squicky fetishisation/aesthetisisation of dead or unconscious female bodies before, and sure enough, it turns out here in force, marring particularly the better stories in the collection. Take “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”, which Gaiman originally wrote to accompany a photograph of a dead woman. (Actually it was his wife pretending to be dead for an art project, which actually makes the whole thing more troubling.) And the dramatic reveal at the end of the otherwise standout “Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is founded on the remembered image of a red-haired female skeleton.

I enjoyed “The Return of the Thin White Duke”, which feels like something that’s wandered out of a Mechanisms fanfic, but, once again, its sole female character is aesthetisised for the male gaze (although not dead, so that’s some improvement).

We can probably tie this aesthetisisation of women to Gaiman’s deliberate misuse of the phrase “trigger warning”, which originated in feminist spaces. In too much of his writing, women don’t get to have voices, and they don’t get to have agency: they exist to be looked at, to bear children, to inspire men to revenge or fulfilment. Their images and their words get co-opted by a highly influential white male author – an author whose public persona and reputation in the press exudes progressiveness.

My favourite story in the collection was “Black Dog”, a companion story to Gaiman’s novel American Gods. I’ll probably end up reading that too at some point. And I’ll probably finish it feeling disappointed and a bit angry.

Top Ten Fairy Tale Retellings

  1. Six-Gun Snow White – Catherynne M. Valente. Of course a Valente novel would have to be top of this list. Her Wild West retelling of Snow White is dark and hard as the Grimm original, but sparser, unrelieved by fairytale’s usual descriptive excesses; it’s a story about how trauma perpetuates itself in systems of oppression. (It’s less dour than that makes it sound.)
  2. Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi. I really like the lyrical magical realism of Oyeyemi’s Snow White retelling, a subtle, nuanced look at race and gender and how the kyriarchy twists all our relationships with each other. It’s lovely work; unfortunately, it’s tainted by a transphobic ending that comes virtually out of nowhere.
  3. Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik. Novik pulls off the tricky feat of expanding and enriching her source material (Rumpelstiltskin) to speak about female agency while retaining its essential fairytale quality – its emphasis on words and promises and names and deep elemental magic.
  4. The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents – Terry Pratchett. This is actually a very dark novel considering it’s one of Pratchett’s ventures into YA; it channels the Germanic Gothickry of the Grimm fairy tale it’s based on (The Pied Piper of Hamelin). It’s also a lot of fun, though, the horror carried along by Pratchett’s wit and humanity.
  5. Witches Abroad – Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett’s witches are always great fun, and their practicality makes for a funny, incisive critique of the unrealistic perfection of fairy tales and the danger of making simple stories out of messy lives.
  6. Mr Fox – Helen Oyeyemi. This is an interesting book, a novel in short stories about a writer whose character comes to life. It’s a take on the Bluebeard myth, that favourite of feminist writers everywhere; expect stories that are fierce and witty and uncompromising.
  7. The Sandman – Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s graphic novel series is really based on a jumble of sources that owes only a little to the original stories of the Sandman. But it is interested in traditional fairy tale structures, and it has the darkness of fairy tale, and I like it so I’m counting it.
  8. The New Moon’s Arms – Nalo Hopkinson. This is another recent read, and it’s here because I read it as a selkie story; it’s open-ended enough that there are other possible readings. I enjoyed it mainly because of the way its fantastic elements are allowed to coexist with complex characterisation – our heroine is unlikable in many ways (including her rooted homophobia and biphobia, which the narrative is careful to condemn) without being irredeemable.
  9. Deathless – Catherynne M. Valente. Deathless isn’t my favourite of Valente’s novels: her retelling of the Russian fairy tale Koschei the Deathless is too loose and unfocused, even slightly affectless, for me. Still, it’s Valente, which makes it worth one read at least.
  10. Cinder – Marissa Meyer. I found this cyberpunk YA retelling of Cinderella really fascinating when I read it a few years ago: its futuristic New Beijing setting felt lived-in, convincing, busy with all the messinesses of ordinary life under capitalism (although I have no idea how superficial or not its Asian elements are). As an update of Cinderella, it’s also smart and feminist – or, at least, that was the impression I got four years ago.

(The prompt for this post came from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki is Joanne M. Harris’ first foray into adult epic fantasy; you’ll probably know her better as the author of Chocolat. It’s a retelling of the Norse myths, all the way through from creation to Ragnarok, from the point of view of Loki, trickster-god, god of stories and fire and generally pissing off The Man.

It should by rights be brilliant fun. It should be witty and irreverent and rich with meaning. I’m thinking Neil Gaiman at his darkest, most fairytale, least sexist best.

It is…not.

A disclaimer before I dive in: my knowledge of Norse mythology is limited to the brilliant Ragnarok/Cthulu mashup that is steampunk band The Mechanisms’ The Bifrost Incident, and a vague osmotic awareness that there are characters called Thor and Loki inhabiting the Marvel universe. Oh, and a sense of the uniquely Scandinavian grandeur of Norse mythology: mountains that hold the sky on their shoulders, relentless days and weeks and months of snow and ice, and gods to match – menacing, inscrutable, cold and above all huge. If there’s one thing Norse mythology should be, it’s awesome. It should inspire awe. That’s my feeling, anyway.

With that in mind: my overwhelming sense about The Gospel of Loki is that Harris isn’t clear on what she’s trying to do. As far as I can tell, she’s stuck pretty closely to her source material – apart from Loki’s voice. And therein lies the rub. Loki inhabits a world in which women – even goddesses – are things, domesticity is oppressive, femininity is insulting, and gay sex is banned. I think this is Harris’ idea of pre-modern Scandinavia. I don’t know whether it’s accurate (although given the 1950s-style prudishness of it all I suspect it isn’t really); it’s certainly plausible that all of this is in the original texts. But I don’t understand what the point is of repeating it all when Harris has already gone to the trouble of updating Loki’s voice. Why not use anarchic, disruptive Loki to interrogate the sexism and racism and homophobia on which the Norse myths are based (if indeed they are so based)?

That’s the thing, though: Harris’ Loki has no sting for all his talk. In a word, he’s boring. His wit and sarcasm is mainly limited to rote phrases like “so shoot me” and “it wasn’t an easy sell” and metaphors involving cookie jars and terribly misjudged jokes about women and mixing bowls. His cynicism doesn’t revitalise the Norse myths for a modern audience, which I think is what Harris is going for here; instead, it flattens them, makes their great dramas into dull soap operas. Even Ragnarok is boring when it’s narrated by this Loki, and if your apocalypse is boring then, I submit, you’re doing something wrong.

The Gospel of Loki isn’t a rewriting, a deconstruction or an interrogation of Norse mythology. Nor is it a direct translation that’s faithful to the spirit of the original. It’s a weird and pointless halfway house that doesn’t, despite its title, have anything useful or interesting to say about modernity or myth. It repeats harmful stereotypes which the author presumably doesn’t share. And the writing itself is flat, empty and superficial.

In short: I didn’t like it. Your mileage may vary. But probably not.

Review: Imaginary Cities

Publisher Influx Press describes Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities as “a work of creative non-fiction”.

“What does that mean?” asked the Bandersnatch.

“Poorly footnoted?” I hazarded.

I was being flippant, of course, but even so I think that’s a good way into what Imaginary Cities is doing, and what it’s not doing.

It’s not an academic study. It doesn’t proceed by evidence-based argument or by logical progression. Or, for that matter, by rigorous citing of sources. Where an academic work is univocal, advancing one opinion in the context of a wider cultural conversation, Imaginary Cities is polyvocal, and contains multitudes.

It is, as its title suggests, a look at the city: that is, the city as it has been imagined and constructed in fiction and art and theory and criticism, from the oldest symbol ever found by archaeologists, a 50,000-year-old red disc painted on a cave wall (perhaps “the singularity that is the pupil of a human eye,” “the fulcrum on which the entire visible universe pivots”, and thus our starting point, chronologically and philosophically, for thinking about space and ultimately architecture) to the apocalypse-emptied cities imagined during and after the Second World War. It spans a vast body of thinking about cities and architecture, from the writings of le Corbusier to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. It works in a sort of stream-of-consciousness fashion, moving from text to text in a way that resembles the mental “hyperlinking” of early medieval Biblical scholars: Anderson creates loose chains of linked ideas, and leaves it up to the reader to make the links explicit.

So: polyvocal. It’s a book that admits many different views of the city, and many different constructions of what a city is and what it’s for. Some broad themes emerge: in particular, the idea that all architecture is rooted in a desire to build utopia (“Anyone who build anything, be it a shed or the Shard, is utopian-minded”, as Anderson writes in Strange Horizons). Anderson’s writing leans liberal progressive, and he pays close attention to the ways in which this utopia-drive can be tyrannical and/or colonialist, authoritarian visions handed down by a self-selected elite to the hoi polloi who don’t get a say.

He also constructs the city as hodge-podge, as bricolage, a patchwork of different utopias – a construction that nicely mirrors the polyvocal construction of the book itself, a patchwork of utopian visions and dystopian nightmares. Both the book and the city, therefore, are imperfect, defined by their gaps and crevices and imperfections as much as they are by their triumphs and their grand ideological edifices.

So: Imaginary Cities may be poorly footnoted (a shame, since I’m sure it deserves a more rigorous response than I have time to give it). It may feel rushed towards the end: more a list of sources and quotations than a productive series of linkages. There may be places where entire chapters seem to have been switched around late in the game (the Situationist term “spectacle” is first used about twenty pages before Anderson defines it in a subsequent chapter). But, as the dead spaces and discontinuities and construction zones of any real city are indispensable parts of its whole, so these imperfections are part of the book’s energy. Imperfection gives both book and city vitality: the sense of a movement, however illusory, towards perfection, towards utopia. Word and space are collapsed in Imaginary Cities into one; we read the city, we traverse the book.

Jeez, this is like catnip to me. I want more creative non-fiction like this, please and thank you.

Top Ten Bookish Characters I’d Like to Cosplay

So, spoiler, it turns out I like steampunk, um, quite a lot.

  1. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. November’s probably my favourite Valente character, and she’d be reasonably straightforward to cosplay. You’d have to get the birthmark exactly right, though.
  2. Alexia Tarabotti – Soulless, Gail Carriger. Admittedly I have no idea what would distinguish this from a Generic Steampunk cosplay (maybe a sharpened parasol?), but Generic Steampunk is in itself awesome, so.
  3. Roland Deschain – the Dark Tower series, Stephen King. I mean, Roland would be problematic in that probably no-one would recognise him. And, you know, also the revolvers. But he’s such a charismatic character, and it would be…interesting to be him for a day.
  4. Adora Belle Dearheart – Going Postal, Terry Pratchett. You would not believe how long I just spend looking at Discworld cosplays to determine exactly which female character would go on this list, but look at this dress. It is the most awesomest dress in the world. Also, attitude. (It’s all in how you hold the cigarette, I reckon.)
  5. Susan Sto Helit – the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett. Turns out one Discworld character WAS NOT ENOUGH. Susan is intelligent and takes no shit from anyone and has cool hair.
  6. Death – The Sandman, Neil Gaiman. Can we all agree that Death is far, far more interesting than the Sandman? And also incredibly attractive? Yes? Thank you. And her costume looks easy to replicate, too.
  7. Kell – A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab. Once again I am seduced by a swirly coat. One which is actually three coats in one. Why wouldn’t you?
  8. Door – Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman. I don’t like the book, particularly, but I think the mismatched layers Door wears could be fun to try and recreate.
  9. Catherine Harcourt – Temeraire, Naomi Novik. YES LADY AVIATOR YES
  10. Steerpike – Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake. Nobody does “tortured villainy” quite so well as Steerpike. Plus, he wears a swordcane.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books People Have Been Telling Me to Read

  1. The Vorkosigan saga – Lois McMaster Bujold. I’m convinced that the Vorkosigan saga is actually an elaborate hoax along the lines of Mornington Crescent. Everyone says they have read it, but I can never find it in libraries or in bookshops. Or if I can it’s some obscure volume from the middle of the series. How has everyone read it? How?
  2. Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula le Guin. I have read shamefully little vintage SF, and Left Hand of Darkness is by all accounts a classic. And I shall read it as soon as it turns up in my local library.
  3. Everfair – Nisi Shawl. This seems to be cropping up in a lot of places, and it does sound right up my street: steampunk alternate history with an examination of colonialism? Yes please!
  4. Rosemary and Rue – Seanan McGuire. McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway has been vaguely floating at the back of my consciousness for a while, but then her October Daye series came up in conversation at a recent TolkSoc event, and they actually sound quite good.
  5. American Gods – Neil Gaiman. I mean, American Gods is one of those books that you read if you are a proper fantasy reader. It’s a bit like Good Omens in that respect, I think: more niche than Harry Potter but orders of magnitude more famous than most other fantasy writers ever. But I dislike the way Gaiman’s cod-liberalism is inevitably accompanied by a generous side helping of sexism.
  6. Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer. This is one of those books that are generally well thought-of by the genre community and which I’d quite like to read but which keeps getting shunted down my priority list for books that maybe aren’t written by white men. I will read it. I will.
  7. Fool’s Assassin – Robin Hobb. I’ve deliberately steered clear of Robin Hobb since I heard about her negativity towards fan-fiction, but she keeps coming up in conversations and she’s one of the more widely available fantasy authors, so maybe I’ll get round to this one day.
  8. All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders. This was in the Tournament of Books this year and it actually sounded like a lot of fun, and other people have mentioned it as worth reading too, so on the list it goes.
  9. The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy. My manager keeps telling me to read this. I am not convinced: I read Tess of the D’Urbevilles at school, and it’s just incredibly hard going and incredibly depressing and reading is, after all, supposed to be fun.
  10. Finnegans Wake – James Joyce. Look. “More accessible than Ulysses” is literally a terrible way of selling a book to me. Everything is more accessible than Ulysses. It doesn’t mean I’m going to like it.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)