Gaiman’s American sprawl

Finally finished reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (Headline Review, 2004, the author’s preferred text version). Gaiman describes the novel in a short essay used to launch the book and reproduced in the ‘bonus material’ in slightly extended form. He says Gods is:

The story of a man called Shadow and the job he is offered when he gets out of prison. It tells the story of a small Midwestern town and the disappearances that occur there every winter. I discovered, as I wrote it, why roadside attractions are the most sacred places in America.

The character Shadow sets out on a lengthy journey across America with the man who offered him the job, a journey that becomes increasingly surreal, apocalyptic and god-filled.

For me, the one really neat idea contained in Gods is: America is a land of immigrants; the people who arrive here bring with them certain beliefs, including belief in various gods from the old country; and these old gods have a tough time sustaining the levels of belief they need to survive because the people who once believed in them have become so enthralled with ‘new gods’ such as television, technology and so on. (I’ve just realised that the ‘sustaining belief’ bit means that Gods shares, on one level at least, something with the Will Ferrell film Elf).

I purposively said ‘finally finished’ not just because I am a slow reader, which I absolutely am, but because this is, as Gaiman himself is only too happy to admit, a sprawling beast of a book. In the ‘introduction to this text’ he says, of his original manuscript:

My editor was concerned that the book was slightly too big and too meandering (she didn’t mind it being too odd), and she wanted me to trim it, and I did.

I find it hard not to share the editor in question’s concern, and struggle to imagine how I wouldn’t have enjoyed the original version a little bit more.

Gaiman writes with a refreshing pace and clarity, and when he’s in the groove Gods is a real page-turner, but it sags rather heavily in the middle, when Shadow is ensconced in a small town whilst he waits for instructions from his boss. I also felt that there were more visits to more gods (to recruit them to the principal cause) than was necessary: these passages became pretty tedious.

In fairness to the author I’m not entirely convinced that this is his ‘preferred text’, or at least I’d need some persuading that a large part of the reason for publishing it wasn’t to swell the coffers of the publishers. It’s a really ambitious book with some big and genuinely interesting ideas, and for those reasons I’m happy I read it. A small part of me just wishes I hadn’t been seduced by the latest bookseller’s marketing gimmick!


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