Cult Read: American Gods

American Gods
Neil Gaiman, 2001


by Emer O’Toole

 Neil Gaiman has made a career out of restitching old myths from the old DC comic characters he brought back for his bestselling series, The Sandman, to his latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. First published in 2001, Neil Gaiman’s ode to America, American Gods, became an instant cult classic. This may stem from the fact that it blends the best aspects of fairy tale with the most captivating aspects of a road novel.

Fresh from serving three years in prison for aggravated assault, Shadow learns that his wife, Laura, has been killed in a car accident with his best friend, the man who had promised Shadow a job. The two had been having an affair during Shadow’s sentence. Without a job, a home or a wife, Shadow finds his life more or less non-existent. He is essentially a living ghost, navigating the world without purpose. When an older man, claiming to be a refugee from a distant war and the king of America, offers Shadow a job as his bodyguard, he has no reason not to accept. ‘Let’s see. Well, seeing that today certainly is my day — why don’t you call me Wednesday?’ is the man’s reply when Shadow asks who he is.  Anyone with a basic knowledge of mythology will be able to figure out Wednesday’s true identity as a manifestation of Odin, ruler of the Norse Gods.

Odin’s quest allows Gaiman to explore the history of America, mythology and the power of belief, as Wednesday says: ‘This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is… No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique… They know what they are.’  Gaiman exposes the stand-out aspects of American culture which don’t exist anywhere else- the roadside attractions and concealed worlds that exist only in the depths of a nation built around highways- without wasting time on the clichéd icons of the main American cities.

Interestingly, Gaiman wrote American Gods while travelling across America in an attempt to understand American beliefs and ideologies. Perhaps the best element of the novel is the way in which Gaiman portrays his own thoughts on his experience with America through the fantasy genre. This is revealed through the alternative, dream-like universe Shadow inhibits where he meets Gaiman’s many representations of Ancient Norse myths including Mr Nancy (a manifestation of the spider God Anansi) and Czernobog, the Slavic God of darkness.

Contemporary American gods – TV, the internet and credit cards – have announced war on the old ones resulting in an epic battle of the gods. The novel climaxes on the idea that Gods do not exist on an external plane but adapt with the culture and people who worship and believe in them, as Gaiman writes, ‘Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.’

Part of American Gods’ enormous success – and, by extension, Gaiman’s – is the way in which it fuses concepts which are not ordinarily combined: humour and horror; reality and fantasy; the fairy tale and the novel. Gaiman spoke of his attempts to ‘describe the experience of coming to America as an immigrant… watching the way that America tends to eat other cultures.’ In this way, the novel portrays all of the contemporary aspects of American ideals through the lens of ancient cultural myth.