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.