She smiled at him, looking suddenly, and for the first time, vulnerable. She patted him on the arm. “You’re fucked up, Mister. But you’re cool.”
“I believe that’s what they call the human condition,” said Shadow. “Thanks for the company.”
Author Lev Grossman (The Magicians) also serves as arts critic for TIME magazine, helping assemble their list of the top 100 novels from 1923 with Richard Lacayo. In early 2011, Grossman also put together a list of the ten best novels from the first ten years of the century, of which I hadn’t read two, Lush Life (which I read in 2012 and loved) and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. This was my first encounter with Gaiman, whose reputation as a fantasy writer seriously undersells both his erudition and his ability as a crafter of plots.
Shadow is just about to get out of jail after serving three years of a sentence for nearly beating two men, who cheated him out of his share of a robbery, to death. He finds out that his wife has been killed in a car crash, and on a much-delayed flight home for the funeral, encounters a strange man who calls himself Wednesday (a nod to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday) and knows more about Shadow than any stranger should.
Wednesday is no ordinary stranger, though; he’s a small-g god, a modern incarnation of Odin, the Norse god and “all-father” who ruled Asgard. It turns out that immigrants who came to the United States and brought their pagan beliefs and superstitions with them brought their gods with them as well – and those gods are about to go to war with the new gods of America, gods of television and computers and other things we worship today. And Wednesday wants Shadow’s help in preparing for the battle, a story that turns out to be as tangled and complex as any culture’s mythology and that involves gods from numerous pantheons, a dead woman who can’t quite stay dead, a lakeside town in Wisconsin, a tree in Virginia, and Rock City in Tennessee.
Gaiman’s assembly of all of these gods and myths into one coherent story by distilling them each into single human characters is brilliant and imaginative, to the point where the novel felt like nothing I’d read before. It’s not magical realism because it’s almost too realistic for it, aside from the whole gods walking around thing; Gaiman plays it all so straight that it’s easy to accept them as regular people, even when they shapeshift or defy the laws of physics. It’s an ensemble cast, with Shadow at its center but not the central character, as his personality matches his name; the plot revolves around him, but he’s never the most interesting man in the room.
As the plot develops, both sides are fighting for Shadow’s allegiance, which allows Gaiman to move Shadow into various orbits and introduce a widening array of his god-characters without creating multiple plot strands. American Gods is mostly linear, which helped make it a quick read, as did Gaiman’s fluid prose and frequent use of dark humor (especially from the mouth of Wednesday, who turns out to be a bit of a cad).
The denouement is just as imaginative as the rest of the book, defying convention and expectations while deftly tying up the various threads of the novel, without short-changing the novel’s themes of mortality, clashes of culture, and the importance of myth. Gaiman’s prose, imagination, and embrace of these big ideas reminded me in parts of Fforde, Vonnegut, Dick, and García Márquez. Grossman’s list turned out to be a tremendous collection of modern fiction; even the titles I didn’t love were worthwhile reads, and the best books on the list rank among my all-time favorites.