So… this is different.
Not different in that it’s never been done before. Just different in that it’s something I’ve never done on the blog. A few months back, I read American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I did this partially in preparation for the t.v series that premiers tonight on Starz. I saw the cast, I read the concept and I knew a few friends who were fans of the book and it peeked my curiosity. However, when this urge to read the novel came over me, it was also around the time I decided to start this blog and to do things like Book 2 Screen Reviews on it.
So this review has been a long time coming.
However, I will have to tackle this a little differently than other Book 2 Screen Reviews as I have not yet watched the pilot and this is a t.v series, not a movie. So I will start with my analysis of the American Gods novel. What is the story, and how does Neil Gaiman go about telling his story? Why is it effective? Let’s dissect!
Now, full disclosure here. This is going to be a little different for me because I didn’t actually read American Gods. I listened to it. In my car. Over a few weeks. I initially borrowed the book from the library but struggled to find the time to read because of my hectic schedule. So I kept trying to renew it until the library forced me to return it. When I attempted to rent it again, I could only find the audio version available. Apparently quite a few people were catching up as well. But it worked out well for me. I was able to listen to it during my morning commute to work.
This has it’s own pros and cons, as I was able to hear the story, but may have missed things that I maybe wouldn’t have if I was reading it myself and not also driving around L.A at the time. When I have the chance I’d really like to borrow the book again and read it for myself. Still, it was oddly nostalgic being read to.
American Gods is the story of Shadow Moon, an ex-con who is released from prison and is ready to start life over again with his wife, Laura. He has survived three years in prison by keeping his head down and focusing on returning to Laura, however, upon his early release he learns that Laura and his friend were killed in a car crash. Devastated, widowed, and with no job to return to, Shadow heads home for the funeral when he meets a mysterious man on the plane. The man calls himself Wednesday, and offers Shadow a job as his bodyguard. Shadow has nothing better going on in his life, so he joins Wednesday. Thus begins their fantastic journey across America. Shadow learns that the world is not what he thought it was. Gods are real. All of them. And they live among people, gaining power from people’s worship of them. Wednesday, it turns out, is one of those “old” Gods and is being targeted by the “new” Gods; Technology, Internet, Media, etc. Thus, Shadow and Wednesday must rally the “old” Gods for a war against the threat of the “new” – and Shadow catches heat on all fronts.
American Gods is told in the third person and typically focuses on Shadow, however, Gaiman breaks up the story frequently with “Coming to America” stories that highlight how specific Gods found their way in to America through migration. These are often Gods that exist in America but not necessarily Gods that Shadow meets or interacts with. I am not sure how effective this was as a storytelling device, as it often pulled me as a reader (or in this case listener) out of the story. If I wasn’t paying attention, I’d easily become confused as to how I got there and why it was relevant to the story. These chapters are meant to build the world and, on their own, are actually quite entertaining but can also come across as repetitive and meandering.
I’m sure, though, it will give the t.v series a lot of extra subplots to explore. Also, perhaps a bit of meandering is not uncalled for in a “roadtrip” style story. Shadow and Wednesday hop around from place to place meeting new Gods, catching up with undead wives, and running from Mr. World’s goons – which can be fascinating but also a tad mundane. In these instances, a quick side story about Viking explorers or enslaved African siblings can be a welcome change of pace from the “classic Americana” atmosphere.
Gaiman paints the American landscape like a painting, filling the reader in with tidbits about the various towns and sights along the way. Wednesday is often utilized to explain these things, as he is a grifter who has been traveling for centuries and has learned a lot of things. And if Wednesday isn’t the one who knows it, someone does. And they will go on and on about it, leaving Shadow, and us completely speechless.
That is another thing Gaiman does in this story quite often. Shadow, is the voice of the audience. He is big, stoic, and generally unfazed despite most of the craziness that happens around him. While the other characters spin long soliloquies, Shadow watches wordlessly, often only contributing a “sure” or a “wow, that’s pretty crazy” in response. I gotta admit, I laughed quite a lot by how well Shadow seemed to take everything – from his wife coming back from the dead, to agreeing to get his head smashed in, to realizing he’d had sex with a cat. Much of the action takes place around him, not because of his direct actions. He is very much a reactionary character. Yet, it works. He is the ideal stoic hero. Shadow is awesome and because his character is so muted, it is easy to be a silent observer, through him.
Gaiman uses very vivid imagery and long, wordy pros while telling his story. He is not afraid of digging in to details about the world and the Gods who inhabit it. The only exception seems to be Shadow, who remains very quiet, reserved, and a bit mysterious throughout. Although it meandered and could be a bit confusing at points, it was definitely worth the read and some of that imagery truly sticks in your mind.
I don’t know how Starz will tackle this story, but I think it lends itself to a medium like television very well.