When I read a book for pleasure, I always read it twice in a row. The first time around, I read it quickly, picking up only vital pieces of information and skimming over long descriptions and lengthy dialogues that don’t help to move the plot forward. I read it fast because I want to know what happens next. (And sometimes, as blasphemous as it sounds, I may read the ending of the book before I actually finish the story.) For the most part, I put things like writing style and pacing and all that literary stuff out of my mind. But the second time I read it, I take my time. Now that I know the plot, I enjoy the actual sensation of reading. I enjoy exploring the writer’s style, getting to dig into the character’s minds, seeing little things I missed beforehand and going “so that‘s what this means!” One could argue that I should just read carefully the first time around, but for me, by knowing the ending, I’m not distracted about wondering “what’s going to happen next?” I can focus on the characters, their motivations, their actions, the plot, by knowing the eventual end point. The first time around, I enjoy the story. The second time around, I can enjoy the book as a piece of literature.
Which leads me to the latest book I finished, American Gods by Neil Gaiman. The basic premise is that the gods that people believed in- Norse, Egyptian, Hindu, Native American, etc.- all exist in America. Not just gods, but other fantastical spirits like leprechauns and kitsunes exist as well. They live and breathe as normal-looking humans, albeit with some special talents. In the past, people believed in them and they lived and flourished. But now these old gods are being threatened by the new American gods (Internet, Media, TV, etc.) and an ex-con named Shadow gets caught up in the upcoming war between the two factions.
If you’ve read any of my previous posts on books, you’ll know I’m a big fantasy fan. I’m not exactly equating mythology to fantasy- there were certainly ancient folks who believed in their pantheon gods and for all I know there are still some people today who still do- but religious mythologies do have fantastical elements about them.
Most of my knowledge is on ancient Greek mythology but at one point I knew a fair amount of ancient Egyptian mythology and I’ve dabbled a little bit in Norse mythology. So you can imagine the geekfest I had as I enjoyed puzzling out which characters represented which god. Of course I didn’t know everyone, but I enjoyed doing research on the ones I didn’t know and finding more about their respective worlds and pantheons.
The novel is told mostly form Shadow’s point of view which is interrupted once in a while with small vignettes of a past individual (not related to the main plot) encountering one of their gods in the real world, helping to flesh out a little of the gods’ history in America. Gaiman’s writing is clean and clutter-free, though not as sparse as Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory. The little mini-stories were a nice way to shed light on some the gods that weren’t the main focus of the story and glimpses into American history that has a little more fantasy in it than we usually imagine.
So the underlying question of the story is: Are we too desperate to cling to the past and preserve its traditions, or are we so anxious to barrel towards the future that we ignore those who have come before us? That’s for you to decide. If you’re not into mythology, you might like the novel, but you might not pick up on some of the subtle nods to the pantheons that the characters belong to (though I’m sure you can Google and a kind soul out there will have made a list of which god each character is.) But don’t let that turn you away! There’s plenty of sex/violence/introspective musing that doesn’t require lengthy knowledge of ancient gods to enjoy.