A good friend of mine, and somebody who’s eye for good stories is as sharp as a kittens tooth, has been recommending Neil Gaiman to me for awhile. I’d been putting him off for the longest time, not because I didn’t think I would like him, oh but on the contrary, I was afraid I would love him.
From the quick eye fondling I gave his blurbs I could tell there was something about this guy that I was gonna like. And so I stayed away. Cause I knew once I was hooked, my reading schedule,for however long it would take me to read through his entire library, would be relegated to the back burner where I keep all my very important thoughts on pop music and laundry day.
A few weeks back I finally bit the bullet. I picked up a copy of Ocean at the End of the Lane and Sandman. After blitzing through those in a combined five days I turned my attention to American Gods. Now here’s the thing that’s thrown me about Gaiman. I came into his works thinking I would love them, and for the most part I absolutely do, but there is a worm niggling in the back of my brain cause something doesn’t feel quite right.
It was hard for the longest time to identify what the problem was but after getting through American Gods I think I finally have it pegged.
The dude is a top-tier storyteller. You can’t take that away from him. Regardless of what generation he’d been born into, he would be that guy sitting around the fire at night, or roaming from town to town, telling stories, passing on oral traditions, and embellishing the hell out of them in the progress.
I love that, because above all else I don’t simply want to be a writer. I want to be a storyteller. It just so happens that at this point in my life, the written word is the way I do that. Gaiman has branched out in a wide variety of media opportunities and I respect the hell out of that.
It’s hard to step outside your comfort zone, outside that niche for which you’re known, to try something new. Something that very well might blow up in your face and leave you with gutter shrapnel forever embedded in your cheeks.
Okay, so storyteller…check.
Originally I had this niggling feeling that Gaiman wasn’t a particularly good writer, however. In Ocean At The End Of the Lane there were more than a few sentences that left me frustrated, not because they were bad sentences, but because they didn’t do anything for the story.
But the thing I’ve come to learn about Gaiman is that he can sun blind you at any moment with the brilliance of his words, most of the time I think he just chooses not too.
Take this passage for instance. This might be the best cluster of words I’ve read this year:
“There are stories that are true, in which each individual’s tale is unique and tragic, and the worst of the tragedy is that we have heard it before, and we cannot alow ourselves to feel it too deeply. We build a shell around it like an oyster dealing with a painful particle of grit, coating it with smooth pearl layers in order to cope. This is how we walk and talk and function, day in, day out, immune to others’ pain and loss. If it were to touch us it would cripple us or make saints of us; but, for the most part, it does not touch us. We cannot allow it.”
Damn. The rest of the American Gods could be pure jibberish and it would still be worth the read for the simple way Gaiman sums up the human disposition. Or shit, how about this.
“He hoped he would live through this, but he was willing to die, if that was what it took to be alive.”
From beginning to end this review hasn’t gone anywhere so lets get on track.
American Gods follows Shadow, a resent release from the shallow pond of prison back into the oceanic depths of societal indifference. He gets sprung a few days early on account of his wife getting smooshed in a car accident. Like a compass that refuses to point north, Shadow gets mixed up with some old gods and they bring him on a merry cross country jaunt in an attempt to round up a bunch of other old gods cause as they say thirty eight billion time through the book, a storm is coming. (If the book hadn’t come out back in the nineties I’d say Gaiman was a Game of Thrones fan).
Anyways, the idea is that we the people make gods real or not real based on our belief in them. They get morphed from their original visage to become something new. In the case of Odin, for example, he’s a grifter. The problem is that new gods, like internet, tv, roads, cars, media, are rising and the old gods are losing their power, fading from existence.
So of course there has to be a big bloody battle. Shadow is recruited by a fella running the name of Wednesday and everybody wants Shadow for reasons unbeknownst to Shadow himself.
Here’s my biggest complaint about the book. Shadow gets talked up by everyone as being a very important character, he’s gonna do something, it’s not clear what, but it’s huge. It’s gonna change the game. And you know what? He did and it does. Everything is honkey dorey on that account, but there is a 200 page middle section in the book where Shadow is off in the fields of Wisconsin living the merry life and the action just stops.
Hits a wall.
Runs out of gas.
Whatever you want to call it, the story ceases to progress. We follow Shadow on a subplot that we feel will link in with the main story line at some point, but spoiler alert, it never really does. You could cut that entire section out, almost half the book, and the main story line would remain unaffected.
This bothers me cause I’m not a huge fan of massive books. Coming in at five hundred pages and change, American Gods is certainly no Game of Thrones, but it isn’t a light afternoon read, either. When I invest my time into a book like that, I want the story to be gripping and compelling, otherwise my mind starts wandering to all the other stories I could be reading.
American Gods suffers in that way. Once the main storyline stops progressing, the middle becomes a real slog. There are these mysteries hanging in the air, you know you wont get answers until the end, but there is half-a-book worth of road block standing between you and the answers you seek.
In my opinion that’s one of the shittiest ways to build tension. Hey, wanna know who killed Jasmine and why Beneficent has three arms? Well let me tell you…. Riiiight after I tell you this story about a pug I once knew who had a funny face.
Truthfully I think American Gods would have been a better story had it come in around a 300 page count. That other stuff could have been removed and repackaged as its own little novella and nobody would have been the wiser.
Except for me, that is. I’m always getting wiser. I’m like a black hole of wisdom. Um… I’m not sure what that means.
Interestingly, American Gods came out along time ago, in the early days of Gaiman’s writing career. I’m not sure if he’s intentionally done so, but many of his newer works don’t suffer from the same side-plot hangnail problem. Books like The Ocean at the End of the Lane really don’t have much for a side plot whatsoever. It’s all, bam, here’s your story, open your ear holes so I can cram it in there.
When it’s all said and done the Ocean is a quick, succinct story set within an enormous world that Gaiman easily could have stretched for six more seasons and a movie. But he didn’t and I think that shows a lot of restraint, and confidence in his writing, that he didn’t do that.
Okay, end verdict on American Gods: it is very good. I’d recommend it in a heart beat if for no other reason than you have gods gallivanting across the United States. What could be more fun than that?
So, what did you think? What’s your favorite Neil Gaiman story? Did you love American Gods? Hate it? Leave a comment down below. Fill my earholes with your words, go!