You can conjure anything based on belief, especially gods and monsters. The central conceit of American Gods by Neil Gaiman is that because humans believe in the gods, the gods exist. Fairies, kobolds, immortal queens and kings, and so forth are real simply because humans sought explanations for their world. It is an excellent idea to base a novel around and Gaiman takes readers on a tour of the spiritual landscape of the world and the backroads and quiet centers of the American continent.
Setting the story in America is an excellent storytelling move on the part of Gaiman because America is a pluralistic society. Many cultures and religious ideas have either been brought to this country by immigrants or were grown here by its residents. This allows Gaiman dramatic license to reconfigure some deities and characters from mythology to fit American norms, for example turning the avatar of Odin into Mr. Wednesday, a con artist, or the Queen of Sheba as a prostitute who literally devours men with her genitalia. I found myself having to refer to online reference guides due to the sheer volume of deities and mythic figures that Gaiman managed to throw into the story. America as a melting pot country allows the author to bring in characters that would not normally be found on the American landscape, such as versions of Anubis and Bast.
Dramatic situations are one thing but if there are no characters to root for or against the story becomes a pointless exercise. The main character of the story, Shadow (who may or may not be more than human), is a difficult character to truly get behind because he is rather lifeless in the beginning. Much of his actions seem to stem from a complete lack of direction, which can be explained away as having his perception of how the world works thrown off-center. Shadow is a forthright, just character but he’s also extremely taciturn, making him a sometimes frustrating protagonist. Thankfully, Gaiman fills this world with colorful gods and mythical beings. From Czernobog and his obsession with death by sledgehammer to Mr. Nancy, an incarnation of Anansi (the trickster spider of African lore), who has tales that are quite humorous, the gods and mythic figures really add color and flavor to the setting. All of the gods have their idiosyncrasies that make them stand out as individuals, rather than simply background materials that are hardly noticeable.
I find it very difficult to categorize this novel, though. The closest label I can come up with modern fantasy but the book in and of itself seems to sidestep any particular genre classification. As much as I enjoyed the central conceit, I felt there were times where the book dragged, particularly with the subplot involving the town of Lakeside. I’m not saying the excursion was a waste of time but it did deviate significantly enough from the main story that it felt like a distraction. There’s also the question of the language choices used. There are times when Gaiman uses words in the thoughts of the main character that I don’t think Shadow would have learned or used. As one reads the novel, one will see what I mean when Gaiman uses his rather extensive vocabulary. This is not a major gripe on my part but it was something that did distract me from the story. Word choice is important especially when telling a story from such a limited perspective such as what the author employs in the story. If one writes a character about a convict with very little charisma, one would not expect him to elucidate using high-minded speech. I did find the small interludes to other mythical or god-like characters throughout the book a nice break from the main story due to these snippets reinforcing the concept that the gods of antiquity were everywhere in America.
I find it interesting that a British man would so capture American culture as well as he does. The idea that the new gods are those of Media, Internet, Railroads, Cars is ingenious. But there is the oft-repeated line in the novel that “America is bad for gods” and that is partially true. Because there is no monolithic single religion that is enforced, American culture is able to create and dispose of their supernatural ideas rather easily, creating new ones in the process. Notable by its absence is Jesus or the Christian God as characters, which Gaiman addresses in another section of the 10th anniversary edition I read.
The notion of belief as a powerful force, capable of lending credibility to any idea, is not a new one. In American Gods, Neil Gaiman uses this idea to explore the death of old religious ideas and the emergence of new faiths that offer better products and experiences. The novel is also a meditation that all ideas have their time and place and then are left behind to die. For those who enjoy fantasy novels with an off-center feel to them, I strongly suggest picking up American Gods.