Hannan Rimmels, Beth, A Melting Pot of Genres in U.S. Tale, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 22 June 2001, p. 22
Author Neil Gaiman keeps unusual company: angels, Lucifer, old gods, fairies, among others. His human friends are pretty interesting, too, such as Tori Amos, Penn & Teller, Stephen King, Alice Cooper, just to name a few.
Then again, Gaiman’s an unusual fellow. His book tours draw larger crowds than those for most authors who are household names, and he has more awards than can be listed here; but asking the average person “Who’s Neil Gaiman?” causes a blank stare.
The answer doesn’t come easily. His books don’t fit a comfortable niche like horror or fantasy, though his new novel, “American Gods,” contains elements of both, as well as aspects of a thriller, a road trip and vignettes of Midwestern life, all elegantly tied together in an adventure that uses myths to define what makes America.
“It’s that and in some ways also it’s stage magic,” explained Gaiman. “Once you get the end, and it’s made sense for you, then if you read it again, you’ll see a different book.”
“Living in America is interesting. (Writing the book) was as much an attempt to explain America to myself as it was to explain it to a reader,” said the British-born Gaiman, who has lived in the United States for the past nine years.
The novel opens with the hero, Shadow, nearing the end of his prison term, intending to go home to a quiet, peaceful life. Instead, he ends up working for Mr. Wednesday and is ensnared in a struggle for America’s soul. Explaining too much would ruin the plot, but two obvious metaphors are the hero’s name and his frequent coin tricks.
“I wanted Shadow to have come out of prison with a skill that was useless but that represented an awful lot of what was going to go on in the book. Shadow’s like an onion. He was the kind of character that would do things that would surprise me, and authors either really like that or really get pissed off,” laughed Gaiman.
The new novel distills the essence of America in much the same way that his previous novel, “Neverwhere,” gave readers a sense of England’s ancient lineage.
“America is a place where 100 years is a long time, and England is a place where 100 miles is a long way,” said Gaiman, referencing an old joke. “Both of those statements are very true. In England whatever you need, you just have to go back in time and find it. In America, you just get in the car and drive.”
“American Gods” is primarily set in the Midwest, and most of the towns mentioned exist just as Gaiman describes them.
“I didn’t feel any urgent need to explain New York to the world whereas I enjoyed trying to explain why Southern Illinois is in the American South,” said Gaiman.
Readers have congratulated him for inventing such places as House on the Rock, and Gaiman said it is with embarrassment that he explains “that I didn’t make it up. It’s real.”
While the settings are mostly real, the characters are both symbolic yet believable.
“I love getting e-mails from people reading `American Gods’ who say, `I don’t know if I like Wednesday,'” said Gaiman. “The technical boy was a joy to write. I wanted a character who was a future that was already getting passe without being a retro future. When I started it, the dotcom world was at its height, and by the time I finished it the World Wide Web had become a kind of CB radio for the world again.”
That constant change and the price of the American dream are the heart of the novel.
“Part of the theme is that nothing comes free and absolutely everything is paid for. It’s about the price of eternally plunging into the future, which is an American thing,” Gaiman explained.
“The one place where my editor and I disagreed was on the South Dakota sequence. She said `Why have you got these three or four pages of depressing stuff on the reservation? All the cool stuff is when they go see Whiskey Jack. Can’t we cut this stuff out?’ And I said, `No, if you cut that out, then Whiskey Jack becomes just another magic Indian like you’ve seen in lots of books.’
“I wanted you to see the context of Dakotan Native America, to be in what are very literally the poorest places in the country, because that’s part of the price being paid. At the end of the day, `American Gods’ is a book about price, about cost.” Beth Hannan Rimmels writes about comic books, science fiction and fantasy entertainment for various publications. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.