Review: American Gods

February 15, 2011 Comments Off on Review: American Gods

This is a strange book. It’s spiritual and important, but it refuses to burn itself into you the way you expect it to. The premise is that when immigrants arrived in America, they brought their old beliefs and their old gods with them, but America is a bad land for gods, and they stopped believing, and now all these mythologies are living among us, trying to make it. The underlying idea is that America doesn’t need gods because the land is sacred, and Americans recognize especially sacred spots by building roadside attractions. “People feel themselves being pulled,” says one of the characters, “to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.” In fact, what I think is amazing about this book is that it is the literary equivalent of a roadside attraction: the author sensed something important and sacred and was moved to build something around it. The characters conduct business at House on the Rock, in Wisconsin, and Lookout Mountain, in Georgia, because they are important places, and the narrator describes the visit, saying that “when they leave, they leave bemused, uncertain of why they came, of what they have seen, of whether they had a good time or not.” It’s not a bad description of the book. You come out of it with changed ideas, although damned if you can remember everything that happened or why it changed your mind.

There are two central ideas to this book that I think are incredibly important to come to terms with. One is that reality can be not just dual but continuous; there is nothing remarkable or unusual in the fact that something takes place in many worlds, on many levels, and is equally true in every world, on every level. It’s a peculiar (human?) mindset to assume one-dimensional reality—that a metaphor is only a metaphor, for example. To my surprise, Catholics actually have it right: I remember being taught about transubstantiation. My religion teacher told us that, yes, the bread and wine actually changed to the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and yet it was still only ever bread and wine. I was angry at her and thought she was doing a bad job of explaining it, which she was, actually, but the ideas were sound. Bill Watterson wrote a good explanation of how Hobbes was a real, talking tiger and also a stuffed animal, and both realities are true. It’s important to understand that reality can be multifaceted or layered, because you will only perceive it if you are open to it. The second idea is the idea of sacredness in the physical world. Holiness is actually a concrete characteristic: there are things and places and people who are holy, period. It has nothing necessarily to do with religion. Hopefully everyone has experienced an ecstatic moment because of where you were standing, in a beautiful or high or powerful place, but it’s amazing how easy it is to divorce the experience from the place where it happened. You do, however, sometimes feel an urge to do something. And although you might not think it at the time, that is the urge to build in praise. If nothing else, this book will change the way you see roadside attractions and the human urge to build.

In terms of the book itself: Gaiman is a great writer, and although his endings are generally pretty poor, this one works very well. It wraps up neatly but not too neatly, and it ends solidly instead of petering out like a lot of his books. The plot is sophisticated and complicated, with everything tying in eventually, although you might not see it until the end, and then only if you re-read. I guess what strikes me as odd is that the book is humble. It makes use of gods and heroes from cultures from around the world, but it recognizes its debt to them and only ever speaks of them with respect. That’s why it’s not flashily mind-blowing the way it could be, only quietly interesting and almost invisibly subversive. There are old gods, and then there are new gods, gods of technology and media, and it might seem a little forced—I mean, come on, putting TV on a level with Thor?—until you really consider it. “The TV’s the altar,” says one of the new gods. “I’m what people are sacrificing to.” “What do they sacrifice?” asks the main character. She answers, “Their time, mostly. Sometimes each other.” It makes sense that as the world evolves, the ways of sacrifice might as well. The book is so matter-of-fact about things like sacrifice and gods among us that you come away from it wondering about the people around you. And let us not forget that Rachael has met one. Oh yes. I’m totally convinced.

This book is important because it makes you think, and because it makes you ponder how America is different from other places. They keep calling it a bad place for gods. It’s an interesting idea, and, in the right mood, it can explain a lot. It is also, in the wrong mood, extremely sad, and, unfortunately, this is how it struck me this time. It’s full of lost, hurt people who are grieving and disappointed, which just kills me sometimes. Be careful.

EXCERPT:

One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless.

The tale is the map that is the territory.

You must remember this.

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