By Neil Gaiman
All Posts Contain Spoilers
It’s so sad to see a good premise wasted.
‘Wasted’ is perhaps too strong a word. It’s sad to see an execution which fails to live up to its premise.
In fairness to Neil Gaiman, this doesn’t always happen because the execution is terrible; sometimes it happens because the premise is so good that almost no execution could justify it. Sometimes, a premise is so excellent that even a good execution is disappointing. That’s probably the case with ‘American Gods‘: the execution of this novel is decent, totally solid. But the premise is awesome, and so decent just won’t do.
When the protagonist of ‘American Gods‘, Shadow Moon (this terrible cliche of a protagonist is one the things dragging down the execution of this novel) is released from prison, he is offered a job by a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. Moon’s beloved wife has just been killed, and, having nothing else to live for, he accepts the strange offer. As it turns out, Mr. Wednesday is none other than the Norse god Odin, and Shadow is now his body man. Shadow learns that the gods of the Old World have been carried with each wave of American immigrants to the New. These transplant gods have been slowly forgotten as their worshippers have Americanized or died and so they are left to wander, shrinking and predatory, in the modern American landscape. Every manner of mythical or supernatural creature is here: gods, fairies, furies, djinn, leprechauns. If someone once believed in them, they are among us, scraping to get by. And they are about to go to war with the new gods, the gods of modernity and technology, to fight one last battle, to see who shall rule America once and for all.
It’s a magnificent premise, and credit should be given to Gaiman for coming up with it at all. I mean that honestly and without the slightest sarcasm: most writers will go their whole lives without coming up with one story idea that has this much juice. And ‘American Gods‘ is…readable. I don’t mean to damn with faint praise – it is a difficult book to put down; the pages seem to turn themselves.
And maybe I should leave it there, declare that ‘American Gods‘ is a great beach read and call it a day, but I’m not going to. Because I have the sneaking suspicion that Gaiman would be offended to hear ‘American Gods’ called ‘beach reading’, or ‘genre fiction’. I might be wrong, but that’s my hunch. Perhaps it is the long dream sequences*; perhaps it is the easy metaphor of the old gods battling the new; perhaps it is the pedantic obviousness of the character names (Mr. Wednesday, Shadow Moon), but something tells me that Gaiman has aimed higher than he ought. I don’t think he meant to write a great yarn; I think he meant to write a Great Novel. And not just any Great Novel – I think he meant to write a Great American Novel.
Now, it’s not really fair game to blame novelists for what you think they’re going for. You don’t really know – it’s usually better to take the novel as you found it, not judging it against the novel you imagine the novelist intended. However, a novelist will occasionally communicate ambition. They do this any number of ways: explicitly, in interviews, or implicitly, through heavy-handed metaphor or prose, elaborate and abstruse plot. And when that happens, when you can see the self-satisfaction of the narrator peeking through the finished work, it’s difficult not to hold the it against them.
I think that Gaiman wants to have his cake and eat it. He’s tried to write a novel that is both cool and deals in Big Important Themes. It’s really difficult to do (I’ve never done it, for sure), and he hasn’t pulled it off. Or, rather, he has technically pulled it off, but not well. His novel is cool, and it does touch on Big Important Themes, but it hits you over the head with them. You’d be happy riding along on a road trip with some fun old gods, but you will never be allowed to forget that America Is An Immigrant Nation. You might have enjoyed a neat fight scene among mythical creatures, but, no, this is a battle between The Culturally Rich Past and The Bleak, Impersonal Techno-Modernity.
But, so what? A lack of subtly isn’t the end of the world. But really great novels don’t teach you your lesson; they tell you the story which will allow you to learn it. There’s a big difference between those two things. And ‘American Gods’ doesn’t really give you the room to discover anything for yourself; the take-home messages are there waiting for you, gift-wrapped, at the door as you enter.
Which, at the end of the day, does not stop ‘American Gods‘ from being enjoyable reading. It’s a little furry around the edges, a little obvious; there are, honestly, too many dream sequences. But it’s a fun read, and because reading is ultimately about having fun, ‘American Gods’ is worth reading. Maybe I’m wrong about Gaiman’s intentions – maybe he wasn’t shooting for Greatness. Maybe he just wanted to entertain me, and, if that’s the case, he knocked it out of the park. I was entertained; I was absorbed. So, don’t punish Gaiman for failing to live up to the goals I imagine he had; read a book that I enjoyed despite that (imagined) failure. It’s a good read.
And it’s a great premise.
*An aside: it is my personal belief that dream sequences are a sign of weakness in writing; they are self-indulgent and lazy, and their presence in a plot almost always suggests that someone is taking a short cut. Another plot event like this: secret brother-sister incest. When two characters who are sleeping together discover that they are secretly related, I know someone in the Writers Room was phoning it in.