This is a work of fiction. All the characters in it, human and otherwise, are imaginary, excepting only certain of the fairy folk, whom it might be unwise to offend by casting doubts on their existence. Or lack thereof.
Neil Gaiman (American Gods)
The life cycle of a book is strange. A book is not born until the writer puts down the final full stop (or finishes off with the ultimate authorial flourish: The End). A book can be ready for the world to see in a few short weeks, or it can spend a lifetime in that incubator known as the writer’s desk. A book’s longevity depends on others: its pages may survive, but for the book itself to truly live on, it needs readers. The magic of the written word fades if there are no wide-eyed believers willing to sacrifice time and effort to read it.
The same holds true for the superhuman beings in Gaiman’s award-winning fantasy novel and the DWL Readers’ Club’s first read, American Gods. The story’s protagonist, ‘Shadow’, is a recently released convict who finds that the life waiting for him outside the prison walls is very different from what he had envisioned. An encounter with a mysterious stranger (named ‘Mr. Wednesday’) leads Shadow on a journey across the United States, which reveals some pretty unsettling truths about him and about the characters he meets along the way. The vulnerable nature of divinity is a central theme in the book. No matter how great their powers, deities can only live as long as there are mortals who believe in them.
It took quite a superhuman effort for us mortals to finish this rather large book (approximately 600 pages) in time (approximately two weeks) for the Readers’ Club’s first meet. The two-hour discussion on a balmy summer evening at the Roadside Café touched upon gods (American or otherwise), Gaiman’s influences, his new book (The Ocean at the End of the Lane), movie adaptations, Tolkien, Dean Koontz and world peace. Emotions were running high when we sat at the table and our voices rose several decibels within a very short time. Afia had the good sense to ask our neighbour, H.M. Naqvi (who seemed to be busy at work on his next novel, or so we would like to think), if the noise level was bothering him. Apparently he was leaving, and so we were free to scream our disgust or delight over the book as we pleased.
The verdict: American Gods had its brilliant moments but overall, it did not live up to the hype. Rahedeen found Gaiman’s ideas to be thought provoking and imaginative, and she enjoyed the witty dialogues, but she did not feel wholly engaged or immersed in the story. She thought that the author added too many elements to follow through on/ to remain consistent and so, in her opinion, the scenes fell flat. Omer felt this could have occurred for practical reasons. He said he could imagine Gaiman getting carried away with the elaborate story universe that he had created but eventually being restricted by editorial pressure or time constraints. He likened the author to J.R.R. Tolkien and Anne Rice, both of whom were known for having created massive worlds with extremely in-depth characters and settings, which could never have been done justice to within the confines of print. And because Gaiman is a natural-born short-story writer, Omer’s theory was that he may further have structured the book as three or four novellas woven together by Shadow’s plot, thus leading to multiple, seemingly standalone sub-plots.
Afia found the book engaging and the narrative well-paced, with a good buildup of tension towards one climactic event. But we all agreed that the pace fizzled out when the climax came around.
Death, redemption, resurrection, sacrifice, guilt, love, loyalty and, of course, faith were themes that featured prominently in the novel. The general concept was that gods of the traditional faiths were fading away in America because there was a dearth of believers to perform the rituals required to keep them alive. Afia felt that this expanded her view of the god/believer relationship and was quite empowering from the individual believer’s point of view.
As the name indicates, American Gods was overflowing with gods of all shapes and sizes from a variety of cultures and countries. There were Native American gods, Egyptian gods and European gods whose origins were from mythology, folklore or old wives’ tales. A lot of these were unfamiliar to us and as Omer pointed out, he spent some time Googling the various gods and goddesses in the book just to understand the story better. (I did too and ended up jumping from one link to another because the origins of some of the gods made for quite an interesting read.)
The book had a very, to quote Afia, “American feel to it, given that Gaiman is not a US national”. The author seemed quite taken by what he saw during his travels around the US. The focus on the road, the cars, the motels, songs on the radio – all this was quintessentially American. But, ironically, the gods were mostly non-American. And America, as the book says, “was a good place for men, but a bad place for gods”.
The next meeting of the DWL Readers’ Club will be held on Tuesday, 16th July at 6.30 pm at the Roadside Café. For this session, we have agreed to read something by modern American fiction’s late blue-eyed boy, David Foster Wallace. Readers can pick up anything penned by DFW, and when we re-converge on the 16th, we will have a broad discussion on the author and his writing style. For readers who are not located in Karachi, we will be live tweeting the discussion and we encourage you to participate via Twitter.
Neil Gaiman Photograph: Google Images
Photograph 2: Farheen Zehra