American Gods by Neil Gaiman (2002) (read in 2018)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is a fantasy novel about gods. It is less about the nature of faith and more about the gods themselves: on how they are called into being by the myriad flickers of belief of humans, gaining power as this belief hardens to nigh-fanaticism. All gods have power, but many have faded as their believers have faded.
There are the old gods of early man, the gods of the Native Americans, the all-but-forgotten gods of even their precursors, the Egyptian pantheon, more recent African gods, the Norse pantheon, the plethora of spirits and pixies (piskies) and kobolds and gremlins and leprechauns of Europe. Gaiman doesn’t once mention any Greek or Roman gods, oddly enough.
When people came over from Europe to America, they brought their gods with them. They nurtured the flame of belief in their minds, carrying a simulacrum from one shore to another. The original god remained in Europe or Africa or Asia and was aware of its copy in the new world. The copy flourished after a fashion, but soon discovered that America was poor soil for gods. Faith and belief guttered and the gods were forgotten in favor of new gods, like Mammon. The copies become shadows, imbued with power, but left to fend for themselves in whatever way they could, going along to get along.
The Gods of Egypt run a funeral home, ferrying the dead to their final destination, as they always have. Odin, the all-father, is a grifter, running one scheme/scam after another. Bathsheba is a prostitute, consuming her faithful to stay alive.
The story centers on Shadow. He is serving time in prison for a crime of violence. He is due to be out soon. He has improved himself. He is a giant of a man, a former physical trainer. He has learned the ancient philosophers. He has learned coin tricks. His mind is clean and his soul is more-or-less pure. He is a stoic. He yearns to return to his wife and start a fresh life.
He is allowed to leave a few days early for a horrible reason: his wife is dead. She was killed in a car accident with his best friend, who was also to be his future employer. Shadow’s dreams are truncated neatly. He has nowhere to go; nothing to do. He has only a funeral to attend and then nothing.
This is where Mr. Wednesday (named after his own day, HINT) swoops in to draw Shadow into his own plans. Shadow learns many things and meets many people (mostly gods) and learns that there is a war coming: between the old gods and the new.
The new gods are television, media, the Internet and so on. The new gods have the arrogance of youth, brash and powerful, feeling the power of the faith of millions coursing through their veins. They don’t see the undercurrents of rot in America; they don’t see that faith cannot take root in fallow soil. They don’t know, as many of the old gods do, that they are doomed. Perhaps some do and they fear their demise and, American to the core, they ignore what they know and plow ahead, heedless of the damage and harm they cause for a few more moments of fleeting power.
The land is represented by a buffalo and is the most powerful, but least felt or seen. He/she appears only in Shadow’s dreams. Whiskey Jack is also of the land, an odd bystander who exists outside of belief. The native gods are the ones most comfortable in this landscape, as is to be expected.
Wednesday schemes with ‘Low Key’ Lyesmith (guess who?) to bring the “war” to a head, a bloodbath of heretofore unheard-of proportions, all to fuel their power: Odin/Wotan’s because the battle would be dedicated to him and Loki’s because chaos is his milieu. Shadow foils this plan with his stoic self-sacrifice that ends up not killing him, but making him stronger. He tells the gods that they have been fooled into hating each other, into killing each other. They disperse, most going back to their meager existence on the edges of humanity. The status quo continues.
Gaiman weaves this tale around many side-narratives and fables of how various gods came to be, how they were carried over, how they survived. Recommended.
“You’re walking on gallows ground, and there’s a hempen rope around your neck and a raven-bird on each shoulder, waiting for your eyes, and the gallows tree has deep roots, for it stretches from heaven to hell, and our world is only the branch from which the rope is swinging.”
“Death had vanished from the streets of America, thought Shadow; now it happened in hospital rooms and in ambulances. We must not startle the living, thought Shadow. Mr. Ibis had told him that they move the dead about in some hospitals on the lower level of apparently empty covered gurneys, the deceased traveling their own paths in their own covered ways.”
“Mad Sweeney himself began to throw both details and irrelevancies into Ibis’s narrative (“…such a girl she was, with breasts cream-colored and spackled with freckles, with the tips of them the rich reddish pink of the sunrise on a day when it’ll be bucketing down before noon but glorious again by supper…”) and then Sweeney was trying, with both hands, to explain the history of the gods in Ireland, wave after wave of them as they came in from Gaul and from Spain and from every damn place, each wave of them transforming the last gods into trolls and fairies and every damn creature until Holy Mother Church herself arrived and every god in Ireland was transformed into a fairy or a saint or a dead king without so much as a by-your-leave…”
"They think,” said Shadow, “that they think they’re the white hats.”
“Of course they do. There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe that they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.”
“And you?” asked Shadow. “Why are you doing what you’re doing?”
“Because I want to,” said Wednesday. And then he grinned. “So that’s all right.”
“There are stories that are true, in which each individual’s tale is unique and tragic, and the worst of the tragedy is that we have heard it before, and we cannot allow ourselves to feel it too deeply. We build a shell around it like an oyster dealing with a painful particle of grit, coating it with smooth pearl layers in order to cope. This is how we walk and talk and function, day in, day out, immune to others’ pain and loss. If it were to touch us it would cripple us or make saints of us; but, for the most part, it does not touch us. We cannot allow it to.”
“Tonight, as you eat, reflect if you can: there are children starving in the world, starving in numbers larger than the mind can easily hold, up in the big numbers where an error of a million here, a million there, can be forgiven. It may be uncomfortable for you to reflect upon this or it may not, but still, you will eat.”
“We need individual stories. Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, “casualties may rise to a million.” With individual stories, the statistics become people—but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless”
“Look, see the child’s swollen, swollen belly, and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, his skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears? To see him from the inside? And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted, distended caricature of a human child? And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies’ own myriad squirming children?”
“Wututu was put in with the children, not with the women; and she was not chained, merely locked in. Agasu, her brother, was forced in with the men, in chains, packed like herrings. It stank under that deck, although the crew had scrubbed it down since their last cargo. It was a stink that had entered the wood: the smell of fear and bile and diarrhea and death, of fever and madness and hate.”
“She could have told you of her daughter, twelve years old and already eight months pregnant by an overseer, and how they dug a hole in the red earth to take her daughter’s pregnant belly, and then they whipped her until her back had bled. Despite the carefully dug hole, her daughter had lost her baby and her life on a Sunday morning, when all the white folks were in church…”
“America has invested her religion as well as her morality in sound income-paying securities. She has adopted the unassailable position of a nation blessed because it deserves to be blessed; and her sons, whatever other theologies they may affect or disregard, subscribe unreservedly to this national creed.
“—AGNES REPPLIER, TIMES AND TENDENCIES”
““It’s a holy place,” said Wednesday. “That’s the American Way—they need to give people an excuse to come and worship. These days, people can’t just go and see a mountain. Thus, Mister Gutzon Borglum’s tremendous presidential faces. Once they were carved, permission was granted, and now the people drive out in their multitudes to see something in the flesh that they’ve already seen on a thousand postcards.””
“They will win,” said Whiskey Jack flatly. “They won already. You lost already. Like the white man and my people. They won. And when they lost, they made treaties. Then they broke the treaties. And they won again. I’m not fighting for another lost cause.”
“It’s like the idiots who figure that hummingbirds worry about their weight or tooth decay or some such nonsense, maybe they just want to spare hummingbirds the evils of sugar,” explained Wednesday. “So they fill the hummingbird feeders with fucking NutraSweet. The birds come to the feeders and they drink it. Then they die, because their food contains no calories even though their little tummies are full. That’s Paul Bunyan for you. Nobody ever told Paul Bunyan stories. Nobody ever believed in Paul Bunyan. He came staggering out of a New York ad agency in 1910 and filled the nation’s myth stomach with empty calories.”
“They took our lands, they settled here, now they’re leaving. They go south. They go west. Maybe if we wait for enough of them to move to New York and Miami and L.A. we can take the whole of the middle back without a fight.””
“I believe that life is a game, life is a cruel joke and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.”
““This isn’t about what is,” said Mr. Nancy. “It’s about what people think is. It’s all imaginary anyway. That’s why it’s important. People only fight over imaginary things.””
“You got to understand the god thing. It’s not magic. Not exactly. It’s about focus. It’s about being you, but the you that people believe in. It’s about being the concentrated, magnified essence of you. It’s about becoming thunder, or the power of a running horse, or wisdom. You take all the belief, all the prayers, and they become a kind of certainty, something that lets you become bigger, cooler, more than human. You crystallize.” He paused. “And then one day they forget about you, and they don’t believe in you, and they don’t sacrifice, and they don’t care, and the next thing you know you’re running a three-card monte game on the corner of Broadway and Forty-third.””
““Think of us as symbols—we’re the dream that humanity creates to make sense of the shadows on the cave wall.”
“It’s not going to be a war.”
“Then what is it?”
Whiskey Jack crushed the beer can between his hands, pressing it until it was flat. “Look,” he said, and pointed to the waterfall. The sun was high enough that it caught the waterfall spray: a rainbow nimbus hung in the air. Shadow thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. “It’s going to be a bloodbath,” said Whiskey Jack, flatly.
Shadow saw it then. He saw it all, stark in its simplicity. He shook his head, then he began to chuckle, and he shook his head some more, and the chuckle became a full-throated laugh.
“I’m fine,” said Shadow. “I just saw the hidden Indians. Not all of them. But I saw them anyhow.” “Probably Ho Chunk, then. Those guys never could hide worth a damn.” He looked up at the sun. “Time to go back,” he said. He stood up. “It’s a two-man con,” said Shadow. “It’s not a war at all, is it?” Whiskey Jack patted Shadow’s arm. “You’re not so dumb,” he said.
“She wondered how far he had traveled, and what it had cost him to return. He was not the first whose return she had initiated, and she knew that, soon enough, the million-year stare would fade, and the memories and the dreams that he had brought back from the tree would be elided by the world of things you could touch. That was the way it always went.”
“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.”
“Shadow felt sorry for them all. There was an arrogance to the new ones. Shadow could see that. But there was also a fear. They were afraid that unless they kept pace with a changing world, unless they remade and redrew and rebuilt the world in their image, their time would already be over.”
“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 which is the territory. You must remember this.
“—FROM THE NOTEBOOKS OF MR. IBIS”
“He sat down on a grassy bank and looked at the city that surrounded him, and thought, one day he would have to go home. And one day he would have to make a home to go back to. He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while, or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough.”