Thursday, October 29, 2015
A Modern Sir Gawain
by Neil Gaiman
“People believe, thought Shadow. It's what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.” ― Neil Gaiman, American Gods
This book almost defies description among those that I have read. It certainly does not fit in any of the standard categories for novels. While it won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards in 2002 for best novel, edging out more traditional science fiction contenders, it is not a traditional fantasy novel either. Having read Neil Gaiman's more recent fantasy novel, Neverwhere, recently I am beginning to realize that one of the prime characteristics of his novels is defiance of traditional categories and escape from easy descriptions.
With American Gods Neil Gaiman has raised the specter of the Norse gods (primarily) and imagined that they came to America along with the immigrants from the countries of Northern Europe. Add to this an ex-convict as a wandering knight-errant who traverses the wasteland of Middle America all the while assisting his boss, Mr. Wednesday, who is otherwise known by many names including Wotan or Odin (King of the Norse Gods, God of poetry, battle and death. Chief god of the Aesir. Also known as the “all-father”, the “terrible one”, “one-eyed” and “father of battle”). This aspect alone interested me as I enjoy the Norse mythology from my love of Wagner's operas.
The knight-errant, named Shadow, has been recently released from prison after serving a three-year term. He is immediately faced with the news that his beloved wife Laura has been killed in an automobile accident. While en route to Indiana for her funeral, Shadow meets an eccentric businessman who calls himself Mr. Wednesday (see the mythological reference above), and passively accepts the latter’s offer of an imprecisely defined job as his assistant. Gaiman skillfully interleaves brief vignettes of various ancient gods and their myths with action in what seems to be real places like Lakeside, Wisconsin and other sites. The novel is effective in describing episodes on and off the plane of reality, as a series of mysterious encounters suggest to Shadow that he may not be in Indiana or Wisconsin anymore—or indeed anywhere on Earth he recognizes. In dreams, he’s visited by a grotesque figure with the head of a buffalo and the voice of a prophet—as well as by Laura’s rather alarmingly corporeal ghost. Shadow undergoes a succession of tests that echo those of Arthurian hero Sir Gawain bound by honor to surrender his life to the malevolent Green Knight, Orpheus braving the terrors of Hades to find and rescue the woman he loves, and numerous other archetypal figures out of folklore and legend. The plot of the novel, while becoming more intricate as it proceeds also becomes more enjoyable. This is the book that answers the question: When people emigrate to America, what happens to the gods they leave behind?
Gaiman succeeds through his ability to provide fantastic details that are visually exciting to the reader. The dream sequences, even though bizarre and irrational, are beautiful and sometimes horrific in their detail. His prose flows with an ease that belies the complexity of the story and the surprises, of which there are plenty, come with every turn of the chapter. One realizes well before the end of this novel why the voters and writers of fantasy fiction gave it their highest awards. This is a book that reminds you why you love bookstores, which leads me to one more quote from the book:
“What I say is, a town isn't a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it's got a bookstore it knows it's not fooling a soul.”
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