American Gods

Book cover for American GodsAmerican Gods
Neil Gaiman

For a nearly 500 page book, this is a pretty quick read. There’s near constant action, which barely let me pause to take a metaphorical breath.

Maybe that’s why this book is so loved? It’s one of those books where there’s so much STUFF going on, and there are references to places that you’ve either seen on a cross-country road trip or imagine you’ve seen. There are all these myths and tricks that if you “get” you can congratulate yourself on your cleverness. There’s not much time to think that there are a few things that Do Not Make Sense.

Briefly, this book is about a coming battle between the Old Gods that were brought to the American land generations ago, like Odin and Anansi and Thoth, and the New Gods of Media and Computers and modern crap. And also it’s about this guy Shadow, plucked from obscurity by Odin (Mr. Wednesday in this manifestation) who clearly has bigger things in his future.

The Old Gods aren’t doing so well, since not too many people remember who the heck they are, and certainly aren’t worshiping them how they like to be worshiped. So they scrape by, occasionally visiting sites where people once spilled blood in their honor, hoping to gather a few remaining drops of nourishment.

The New Gods are all like We rock! You’re obsolete! We are the winners! Go away forever, Old Gods! You get it.

Okay, here’s the Big Thing that annoys me. There are little things, but whatever.

The basic idea behind the gods in this world  is that there is some kind of origin story, some creation of the god rooted in imagination or history. Some kind of sacrifice was dreamt up to call the god into being, and the people performed rites and sacrificed to keep that god satisfied. It’s clear that the sacrifice works when the people know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and who it honors. So, the goddess Easter can trick herself into thinking that kids decorating eggs is in her name – after all, they are performing the rites and even using her name – but they don’t know that “Easter” comes from Ēostre, and isn’t just a Christian holiday. So the goddess admits that really, she isn’t drawing power from this.

Which leads me to the New Gods. They don’t follow this pattern. Yes, Americans are obsessed with their tvs and their internets and their smartphones and their ipods and and and. But how does that spawn gods? Where is the purposeful worship of an acknowledged deity? That’s what I thought.

Now, maybe there’s some alternate explanation, but I don’t think it’s my job as a reader to invent resolutions to plot holes in someone else’s created landscape. So, while this was fun to read as I was absorbed in it, it doesn’t stand up so well to thoughtful reflection.

Want more like this? Try:

  • The North of God, Steve Stern. Novella exploring the powers and limitations of stories and myths.
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving. Irving’s looping, seemingly tangential style reminded me of some of the “side stories” that I liked in American Gods.
  • The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. A straightforward adventure story with an improbable cast of characters.

2 thoughts on “American Gods

  1. This sounds like a fascinating premise! And I love when books reference places I’ve been, I think because, like getting the myths and tricks in a book, it makes me feel like I’m in the know 🙂

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