American Gods is a big novel. It’s a big novel with big ideas and a little bit of everything in it. The genres within its pages range from romance, murder mystery, horror, fantasy, thriller, road trip, and at times, travel writing. What is so impressive about this book, is that despite having all of this crammed within its (rather hefty) frame, it never once feels overcrowded, never feels convoluted or confused, and that is a huge testament to the author.
The author being Neil Gaiman, a man who I have often considered to be one of my favourite authors, despite the fact that I have only read two things that he has written. The reason why I hold him in such high regard, despite having barely dipped my toe into his literary offerings, is because the two things of his I have read are Good Omens (which he wrote with Terry Pratchett) and Marvel 1602, two novels (1602 being a graphic novel, but still a novel) that I consider to be amongst some of the finest things I have ever read. I eventually realised that, if I wanted to continue calling Gaiman one of my favourite authors, then I should probably read a bit more of his stuff first. So that’s what I decided to do, and started with a novel that many consider to be his magnum opus: the mighty American Gods.
American Gods is a book about a man named Shadow trying to come to terms with his wife’s sudden and tragic death. It’s about a god named Wednesday trying to unite an army for a war he knows he cannot win. It’s about a man named Mike Ainsel trying to find his place in the world. It’s about a man named Shadow trying to understand who he really is. And it’s about a great many other things as well, but overall, it’s a book about the heart and soul of America.
The plot of American Gods is at times both tight-knit and frenetic, then thoughtful and meandering (in a good way). Shadow makes for a very compelling protagonist, the strong, silent type who questions everything he knows and believes everything he sees, and over the course of the novel changes into a different, stronger person. The dialogue crackles with believability, the descriptions amaze, and Gaiman’s imagination is blisteringly realised and truly beautiful. He even makes the macabre sound enchanting.
Like the numerous genres it contains, American Gods also deals with a great number of themes: love, loss, belief, faith, acceptance, loyalty, and betrayal, just to name a few. But Gaiman balances these multiple themes perfectly, never glossing over any of them and making sure each one is explored equally and in-depth. He deals with big themes and asks big questions, and he does so in an incredibly mature way, writing about them in an incredibly fresh and frank way.
All this talk of ‘multiple themes’ and ‘big questions’ makes American Gods sound almost like a literary novel, and the interesting thing is that American Gods actually is almost a literary novel. What stops it from becoming one and keeps it firmly routed in the fantastical is Neil Gaiman immense imagination and the way he is able to keep the story and the characters at the forefront of the novel. It is clear from the book that Gaiman wanted to ask and explore some pretty big literary questions, but he manages to do it in such an engaging and enjoyable way, that you don’t even notice. It isn’t until you finish that you realise just how poignant and relevant the book actually was.
The only complaint that I can think to level at the book is that whenever Shadow does a coin trick (which is quite often), Gaiman uses the correct terminology, such as ‘a Downs palm’ and ‘a classic-palm’. As I am untrained in coin tricks, this terminology meant nothing to me, and as a result, I found these moments very hard to visualise and found it interrupted the flow of the story. This is hardly Gaiman’s fault though. If anything, it’s my fault for not knowing anything about coin tricks, and in the grand scale of things, it is a very minor quibble in a very big book.
I have already said that American Gods is a big novel with big ideas and a little bit of everything in it. It’s also incredibly enjoyable, moving, and significant.