With Anansi Boys, his first adult novel in almost five years, Neil Gaiman turns away from the epic, apocalyptic fantasy of American Gods in favour of a smaller story, a frequently humorous, occasionally emotionally fraught family drama about the sons of a God and the trouble they get themselves into.
What, you were expecting Terms of Endearment? This is Neil Gaiman I’m talking about here. He is the former journalist who, in the late 1980s, created The Sandman, a 75-issue comic book series that not only revolutionized and reinvigorated that genre but also stands as one of the great novels of the 20th century. His last adult novel, American Gods, was a groundbreaking New York Times bestseller, and his subsequent children’s novel, Coraline, sold millions of copies while thrilling children and scaring the hell out of the adults around them. Gaiman, a transplanted Englishman now living in Minneapolis with his family, has made a successful career out of defying expectations and channeling a world of myth and tale back into the contemporary consciousness.
Anansi Boys is no exception: A rich repository of myth and story masquerading as a fantasy novel, it defies easy categorization. Gaiman describes the book as “a magical-horror-thriller-ghost-romantic-comedy-family-epic.” It’s as good a description as any, although he notes that it “leaves out the detective bits and much of the food.”
As the novel begins, Charles “Fat Charlie” Nancy, an expatriate American, has made a solid if unremarkable life for himself in London. He’s got a job he dislikes at a second-tier talent agency (run by the oily Grahame Coates, who makes Ricky Gervais’ character from The Office seem well-adjusted) and a sweet fiancee, Rosie, whose mother dislikes him intensely.
When he returns to the United States for his estranged father’s funeral, Charlie makes two discoveries that overturn his life of quiet, if comfortable, desperation. First, he learns from a group of neighbourhood women (who have, it should be noted, secrets of their own) that his father was not just the irritating, too easygoing, feckless figure of his memory (his mother left Mr. Nancy when Charles was a boy and took him to London) but, was, in fact, the human incarnation of Anansi, the Spider God of West African folktale, both trickster and culture hero.
Fat Charlie also learns that he has a brother, Spider, who is his opposite in every way. Confident where Charlie is meek, smooth where Charlie stumbles, gleefully narcissistic where Charlie is insecure, Spider is very much his father’s son. When the brothers meet, they set off a chain reaction of events that includes infidelity, murder, romance, torture, suspenseful chases, jail breaks, bird attacks, awkward dinners, Caribbean cruises and karaoke. Ah, those kids.
While Anansi Boys is tangentially related to American Gods (Mr. Nancy was a minor character in the earlier book), it is a marked departure in tone. Sly and understated, it is a novel rich in Wodehousian humour inflected with just enough Pythonesque bizarreness to remind readers that Gaiman more than held his own with British fantasy humorist Terry Pratchett in their collaborative novel, Good Omens. One can almost picture a young John Cleese as Fat Charlie, deadpanning his way through the increasingly surreal and disturbingly amusing (or is it amusingly disturbing?) events of Anansi Boys.
Gaiman draws that humour, at least in part, from the tone of the original Anansi stories, which he threads through Anansi Boys. These stories depict Anansi as the consummate free-spirited trickster, creating and spreading wisdom almost by accident, as a by-product of his own desires. He is also the father of stories (“All stories are Anansi stories,” Gaiman writes. “Even this one.”) whose words give shape to reality. When he passingly calls his slightly chubby 10-year-old son Fat Charlie, for example, the nickname sticks. In a running gag, Charles Nancy, even as a relatively lean adult, will always be Fat Charlie.
In spite of the humour and the fantastic trappings, Anansi Boys is firmly rooted in the domestic and the realistic. While its characters initially seem broadly drawn, they quickly reveal surprising depths and contradictions that defy our expectations. We expect Spider, for example, to wreak havoc on Fat Charlie’s organized life: We’ve seen this type of character and narrative arc before. What we don’t expect is for Spider to reveal a yearning for the mundanity of Fat Charlie’s life; we don’t expect our trickster figures to want to settle down.
Nor do we expect the psychological depth Gaiman brings to Fat Charlie himself. We’ve seen this sort of milquetoast figure before; we expect his growth but not its particulars. Gaiman routinely defies expectations and Anansi Boys resonates with a human verisimilitude, even when the going gets strange.
Gaiman doesn’t just draw from the folktale tradition, he also returns to it. Anansi Boys can be read, if one so chooses, as a new Anansi tale: the story, beginning with a song, of what happened the time that Anansi died and his boys finally met. Which, I suppose, would make Neil Gaiman a cultural elder, a storyteller whose tales resonate with secrets and deep truths. That sounds about right.
–Robert J. Wiersema