It occurred to me when I finished reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman that I had no idea how to frame writing about it. Though I enjoy reading and live in Minnesota, I've never read anything by Neil Gaiman until now. (I haven't even read Sandman.) And I certainly have no frame of reference for writing about fantasy, as this is the first time I've ever set out to do it.
Being a non-authority on both Gaiman and the fantasy genre, I began to panic that whatever I ended up saying about the book was going to be pure bullshittery. However, this worry led to divine consolation. As any nerd can tell you, the joy of books is that they (unlike crowds in high school) are not exclusive. There is nothing stopping any one of us from picking up a book of any sort and enjoying the hell out of it. Still, however, we insist on sticking to what we've always known.
The truth is, to talk about Gaiman's book in terms of genre is a total waste. It's a good book—a great book, in fact. As important to understanding America as it is to understanding the mechanics of good storytelling, American Gods didn't disappoint as a novel. Sure, I fell asleep a few times reading it, and as a friend of mine noted, "nothing really happens," but so what? It's not what it's about, but what it's about, you dig? It's worthwhile in the end and, unlike many books I've read, actually has something interesting to say. However, calling it fantasy would have taken it off my radar in any other situation, and that's pretty shameful.
You probably want to know what it's about. I'll use up my word count if I try to explain it all here, so for the plot and some really great insights into the book, check out Laura Miller's piece about it on Salon.com. She's a little ambitious about how much a reader should know from the outset about mythology and therefore what should be gleaned from Gaiman's hints, but overall she has a great take on the book.
For the very, very lazy, here is a very, very brief synopsis of the book: all of the gods brought to America by travelers, settlers, the indentured, and the enslaved remain here, haunting the land and living in human form—some barely scraping by, others having met with more success—are brought together by Odin (calling himself Mr. Wednesday) with the help of an everyman named Shadow, to war against the new gods, representing the digital age, media, and economy. (One of the most moving ideas in the book is that America is a bad land for gods, which seems to have left a bad taste in the mouths of some since Gaiman isn't American, but I'd say to those people that perhaps they doth protest too much.)
So, what makes American Gods fantasy?
- Parts of it take place in a world that is not our own.
- There are mythological characters.
- Some of the characters use magic.
- The world follows rules of its own making.
It's about as fantasy as Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. I'd be more satisfied if it were advertised as "magical realism," but what do I know? It's been called a "fantasy demi-epic" and a "Wagnerian noir." How about we just agree that it falls under "speculative fiction" and call it a day?