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A book review by Steven Wu
August 20, 2002
|Rating: 4 (of 10)|
This is a shame, because American Gods has a fascinating premise that Gaiman milks for all its worth. The novel begins with an epigraph that asks "what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands." Gaiman's answer: the beings move here, to America, and exist as nearly flesh-and-blood creatures so long as there are people to believe in them and sacrifice to them. But as time moves on, people forget their old gods and adopt new ones, and soon the old gods begin to fade away. But not all gods will disappear without a fight, and so in American Gods we witness the formation of the old gods, from every country, in a battle against the new gods of the media, shopping centers, and technology.
Shadow happens to encounter one of these old gods as he flies home from prison for his wife's funeral. At first Shadow knows nothing more about his plane companion other than that he wishes to be known by the curious name of Mr. Wednesday--but any reader with even a vague recollection of the etymology of Wednesday should be able to decipher who Mr. Wednesday really is. (The book is filled with such clever names, from Mr. Nancy--from Anansi, a spider god in certain African religions--to a gigantic dwarf whom Shadow keeps thinking is called "Elvis.") Mr. Wednesday quickly recruits Shadow into the upcoming war between the gods in a last-ditch effort to save the old gods against the new gods who command America's worship.
The biggest problem with American Gods is how little we know about Shadow. Shadow really is a non-character throughout the book, jerked hither and thither by events outside his control, seldom revealing his emotions--even to us--and remaining a stranger until the end. It's hard to care about him, and even harder to care about the real and unreal people whom Shadow meets.
The central conflict of the book is also a bit cheesy. While Gaiman's incarnations of old gods are clever, even with their cutsey names, the new gods are a little silly. While I would be the last to deny that the media represent an unstoppable force, having a flirtatious, television-perfect bimbo as the avatar of the media is hard to take seriously, especially as a supposedly life-threatening force.
Finally, the plot itself is just not too exciting, dragging on for considerably longer than strictly necessary. Part of the problem is that Gaiman seems to have partially intended American Gods to be a travelogue of the weird parts of America--and while Gaiman's observations are often dead-on (I happened to be in Las Vegas while reading it, and I greatly enjoyed his riffs on that city of sin), they seem out of place and are frankly dull within the scope of the larger narrative.
American Gods is easy to read and has one of the more creative premises I have ever encountered. But in the end it is a dissatisfying read.
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