Humble Executive. Literary Artist. Altruistic Libertarian.
I finished Gaiman’s American Gods, and wanted to tell you what I think about it. To frame the discussion I will use Henry James’ summary of what a novel intends to achieve:
…the main object of the novel is to represent life. I cannot understand any other motive for interweaving imaginary incidents, and I do not perceive any other measure of the value of such combinations. The effect of a novel—the effect of any work of art—is to entertain; but that is a very different thing. The success of a work of art, to my mind, may be measured by the degree to which it produces a certain illusion; that illusion makes it appear to us for the time that we have lived another life—that we have had a miraculous enlargement of experience. The greater the art the greater the miracle, and the more certain also the fact that we have been entertained—in the best meaning of that word, at least, which signifies that we have been living at the expense of some one else.
Henry James, European Criticism
This seems more or less valid to me, and brings to mind the epitome of the European novel — Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Submitting oneself to Proust is no different than living the narrator’s existence — every profound thought, every touched sensitivity, all the social significance captured within his enchanting prose. The illusion remarkably held, one’s experience vastly expanded. More than anyone, Proust expended his own sickly and pathetic existence for the benefit of future readers like me. Nothing else I have read approaches the literary magnitude of Proust’s achievement, nor has anything provided such sustained entertainment. My life is deeply enriched by the intimate encounter.Proust is an excessively high bar in which to measure any other novelist, and I won’t submit Gaiman to such a comparison. But I will expect from American Gods some minimal achievement of verisimilitude, plausibility (within it’s own defined boundaries), style, creativity, and literary effectiveness, and attempt to understand what minimized the novel’s overall impact. In a word, why didn’t I enjoy reading it?
The first possibility is that I have simply outgrown such fiction. Had I read it decades ago, perhaps I would have been more impressed. For instance, I found myself comparing Gods with one of my favorites — Stephen King’s The Stand. The writing style is similar, the conflict comparable, the climax alike. The last time I read The Stand was in 1993, at 36. Perhaps my tastes have changed — and yet I still recall King’s book with pleasure. For one thing, I better understood the nature of the conflict in The Stand, and maintained a good sense of what was possible, and the danger faced by the characters. Not so in Gods, where the conflict was ambiguous and the supernatural unpredictable. For instance, what did death mean? So many different versions of it, beginning with Shadow’s wife (my favorite character, by the way). And what did all the dream sequences mean?
It seemed like Gaiman could simply make up what he wanted to happen, with no sense of drama or suspense. Like so much fantasy, simply arbitrary, or so it seemed. And unlike Sea Change, where I understood the magic, and the nature of the creatures within it. Perhaps this is because I was familiar with the development of Sea Change when I read it, and more sympathetic. But more likely it’s because the author did a far better job framing an unfamiliar world, with unusual characteristics, so that the reader wasn’t lost or confused about what could happen, and what was genuinely problematic for the characters.
In Gods, nothing kicked me in the nuts like when Trashcan Man showed up with a nuclear weapon in The Stand. What an awesome moment. In contrast, Shadow making a speech between the battling forces that ended the war seemed weakly anti-climatic. I thought the basic premise of the novel particularly weak (the gods existing on the derived power from the belief of mortal humans). Nor did their existence mesh at all with the world as we know it, or the world that Gaiman created. Nothing and nobody was very intelligent, or clever, or powerful within the novel. Rarely was my interest piqued by a character or a story in the text. Shadow Wednesday’s son? Really? Perhaps I am jaded, but that wasn’t a surprise (echoes of “Luke, I am your father”). The only reason I finished Gods was to make sure I didn’t miss something. I didn’t.
The popularity of the novel, and the awards it won, prompted me to write this review, given how disappointed I was reading it. I expected something more sophisticated, to be surprised on occasion, and to be (at least modestly) impressed. I was none of these things. Ren’s novel had so much more heart, genuine drama, and aesthetic heat than Gaiman’s. Some day I will re-read Arks be Damned. American Gods, no — I won’t be traveling Shadow’s path again.
After finishing Gods I picked up a novel by Philip Roth and immediately felt more at home. And I don’t even like Philip Roth (I found his Portnoy’s Complaint unexceptional) but I immediately appreciated the literary tone and substance in his Dying Animal. It is a short novel that I will criticize unfavorably when I finish, but even so, it provides far more satisfaction than I experienced reading Gods.
My overly critical review of Gods could be taken as a sign of pure literary snobbery. It’s true I rarely read popular fiction. But as recently as 2017 I re-read Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds (I originally read the novels in 2005). Exceptional science fiction (or more precisely, space opera). I am also re-watching The Expanse on Amazon Prime. Also exceptional science fiction. In a different realm, I love the series Firefly and the movie Serenity (I have pretty much worn out my DVDs). But they are far more charming and outrageous than The Expanse, less serious and less dramatic, but arguably more fun. Does that qualify me as an appreciater of popular fiction?
Obviously tastes differ, and that could be the end of it. Nobody can assert anything more than preference, and perhaps some justification. But such judgments are not final, nor appealable to some ultimate authority. I am simply surprised that American Gods was so highly regarded, but that could just be me. What do you think?
Review of Gaiman's American Gods