From the September 23rd Entertainment Weekly:
When you take the free-fall plunge into a Neil Gaiman book, anything can happen. And anything invariably does, which makes reading this awesomely inventive British writer both thrilling and frustrating: Gaiman doesn’t operate by consistent rules, but according to the arbitrary whims of his jumpy imagination. In 2001’s American Gods, the deities of U.S. immigrants haunt the fringes of society, supplanted by “gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone.” In his trippy follow-up, Anansi Boys, Gaiman contrives a family history for one of those cast-off gods, the trickster Anansi of African folklore.
Fat Charlie Nancy, the novel’s milquetoast hero, is a bland, upstanding bookkeeper who has actively tried to forget his womanizing, cheroot-smoking father, Mr. Nancy (or Anansi), who’s carousing somewhere in the American South. When Charlie’s fiancée insists he invite Dad to the wedding, Charlie dutifully tries to contact “the old goat,” only to learn that he’s recently died while singing in a karaoke bar, collapsing on a buxom blonde and denuding her of her tube top as his final act on earth. Charlie also learns he has a long-lost brother, Spider, whom he can summon by chatting up an arachnid. Sure enough, Spider turns up and proceeds to steal Charlie’s girl and mess with his head.
Gaiman, who wrote the screenplay for this month’s film MirrorMask and is best known for his Sandman comic series, describes his fizzy new book as “a magical-horror-thriller-ghost-romantic-comedy-family-epic, although that leaves out the detective bits and much of the food.” You can’t come up with a finer description than that for this daft tale, which zigzags around the globe before arriving in the Caribbean for a madcap finale. It’s a giddy but somewhat unsatisfying ride. Whenever Gaiman runs into a narrative jam, he veers off in an exhilarating new direction, a diversionary tactic that starts to feel like a cheat. In his gravity-free fictional universe, nothing he has to say seems to carry any weight. B-
From the 17th September Times Online:
Once upon a time, asy, 15,000 years ago, Tiger had all the stories. Every story started with tears and ended with blood. All that mattered in a Tiger story is how you hunted and killed. Mankind knew only Tiger stories then, and we take on the shape of the stories we tell. The world was a bleak and savage place.
Then along came Anansi. Anansi is a Trickster God, He wasn’t as strong as Tiger, but he was sly and charming. So he tricked Tiger and stole the stories. Suddenly the people were telling Anansi stories, tales of trickery. And since you take on the shape of the stories you tell, people learnt from them. They learnt that the weak could defeat the strong through cunning. Ever since that day Anansi stories have been told with relish by slaves, by children, by the underclass of every culture. And ever since then the servants of Tiger have tried to get the stories back. To regain control of the way we see the world.
But Anansi is a Trickster God. Anansi didn’t steal the stories out of altruism: he wanted them so as to make more mischief. He is bored by order. Chaos trails in his wake. He is answerable only to his appetites. One day he’ll give humanity fire, the next bring death into the world.
The battle between the bully and the trickster and the interplay between the Gods and man are the engines of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. The author of the Sandman graphic novels and American Gods gives us powerful deities – Anansi is as charming and dangerous as he ought to be – but the human level of the novel is less convincing. Gaiman cites, among others, Tex Avery and P. G. Wodehouse as touchstones. A little less Avery and a little more Wodehouse would have meant subtler characters.
Fat Charlie, estranged from his family and resident in London, discovers his father was Anansi. Spider, Charlie’s long- lost brother, arrives from America and uses all of Anansi’s wiles to destroy Charlie’s life. Charlie must fight fire with fire: draw on his birthright to banish his brother. In doing so, he becomes embroiled in the timeless struggle between Anansi and Tiger.
Charlie’s domestic world is drawn too broadly to persuade. Secondary characters and locations seem second-hand, taken from films or TV, not life (by the by, is this the first novel to include a Deleted Scene?). Sometimes Gaiman’s humour distances the reader from the predicaments of his characters. This is a pity, as Anansi Boys is a thoughtful, atmospheric novel. I wonder how it will be received in America. The story of the ingenious weak outwitting the tyrannical strong might not be a comfortable paradigm.
Anansi Boys is also Newsweek’s read of the week (September 26th).