Neil Gaiman – American Gods
[Available free online at HarperCollins.com through the month of March]
So richly imagined, so moving, so awesome in conception yet so intimate: Neil Gaiman's American Gods confirms the man in his brilliance, and the 'New Weird' tag - China Mieville? Jeff Vandermeer? - as something to prize and take very seriously, indeed.
Anticipated, perhaps, by Hermes in Paris by Peter Vansittart, and, earlier still, Heine's 'Gods in Exile', American Gods is a tale of deities hors de combat. This, from Heine:
They found themselves in the alarming and dire need which they had suffered in the primevally early time, at that revolutionary epoch when the Titans, bursting the bounds of Orcus and piling Pelion on Ossa, stormed Olympus. The unfortunate gods were compelled to take to ignominous fight, and hid themselves in all disguises among us here on earth... Yes, under that shabby overcoat, and in that sober shopman's form, the most brilliant and youthful of the heathen deities, the craft son of Maia, is disguised. On that three-cornered hat there is not the least sign of a feather which could recall the wings of his divine head-covering, and the heavy shoes with steel buckles do not at all suggest pinioned sandals' this heavy Dutch lead is different from the mobile quicksilver to which the god gave a name, but the very contrast betrays the identity, and the god chose this disguise to be the more securely concealed.
The novel's hero – Shadow, whose real name, though significant, is never explicitly given in the book – finds himself propelled from the get-go into a miasma of mysteries. An ex-con and cuckold, adrift in the rootlessness of modern American life, Shadow falls under the spell of Mr Wednesday, a grifter and flim-flam man – grinning “like a fox eating shit from a barbed wire fence” - with great things on his mind. He retains Shadow as a fixer and scout, dispatching him across America on obscure errands. A storm is coming, Wednesday finally confides. A battle between the Old Gods and the New. Shadow must assist him in rounding up the refugees of the divine diaspora: emigrants in the minds of those who travelled to America from the old world, now lost in the vastness of the land, ignored and diminished. Shadow discovers he is more deeply implicated in all this than he could ever have known. Myth and magic are threatened with extinction by the vanguards of modernity – technology, the media. A 21st century Ragnarok is in the offing.
Mythology and memetics: in Gaiman's 'meta-mythos', the Gods' existence is contingent on humanity's willingness to entertain them, and to worship them. In transit from the old world they lurked in the deep memories of men, as small prayers and nursery rhymes. Most of those who crossed the ocean are hidden, like Heine's Mercury, among an indifferent populace. They make their way as panhandlers and prostitutes. In such reduced circumstances, they're humiliated and sapped of their power. (Gaiman, in a series of inset pieces throughout the book, marvellously tells of their former potency.) The sequence toward the end of the novel, where the gods assemble at the designated 'place of power' – Rock City, Georgia – an ill-assorted bunch of vagrants, is especially impressive.
Gaiman's work is marked generally by its charm and ingenuity: he is a storyteller of almost boundless imaginative resourcefulness. (His short story collection Fragile Things is a handy primer, opening with a wonderful synthesis – a mash-up, if you will - of Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft; and concluding with a novella sequel to American Gods.)
Finally, Gaiman understands the luminous provisionality of myth and religion, its close binding kinship with the subjunctive mood:
None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you – even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers and triumphs over all opposition.