From today’s Toronto Star:
When Neil Gaiman writes about gods, those gods are windows to ourselves, our faults, fears, gifts, aspirations. The parts of ourselves we dare not speak of.
Gaiman’s American Gods (2001) was an ambitious and imaginative epic about the history of belief in North America. In his new novel, the continent is a melting pot of beliefs from every settler who’s ever come to it, and the gods of the old world, spanning all contributing cultures, face off in a gruesome battle to the death with the new gods of the 20th century, such as Media and Technology.
American Gods was sweeping, philosophical, breathtaking. Anansi Boys presents a character from American Gods, Mr. Nancy. Most important, it airs the dirty laundry of his divine progeny, the Nancy brothers, as they grapple with his legacy. Anansi Boys is a great book; just don’t expect the same kind of deeply jarring experience that American Gods provided.
Anansi Boys is a comedy about two estranged sons and their dead father, Mr. Nancy, “the finest liar you’ll ever meet,” who is also the god Anansi. He is the spider, the trickster god who weaves tales and gives names to all things.
Anansi is the greedy but loveable figure who stole the stories from Tiger 10,000 years ago, who harnesses his cunning for doing less work, having more fun, and laughing in the face of death, even when he dies. And he’s died many times.
Inspired by the Anansi stories of west Africa and the West Indies, Gaiman offers a lighthearted tale about coming to terms with family secrets, with personal secrets, and with our humanity – or, in the Nancy brothers’ case, godhood. To Gaiman, humanity and godhood are often portals to one another.
To create this interplay between men and gods, Gaiman uses the Anansi brothers – plain old Fat Charlie and his precocious, charismatic brother, Spider. They are doppelgängers and they are something else, something even more deeply and hurtfully joined. They’re family.
Fat Charlie notes that Spider looks “like Charlie wished he looked in his mind, unconstrained by the faintly disappointing fellow that he saw, with monotonous regularity, in the bathroom mirror.” Fat Charlie is crippled by a morbid embarrassment brought on by his father’s trickery and hijinks. He just wants to live a quiet, respectable life.
Spider got all the god qualities, and he has been having an epic time with his powers. To make matters worse, Spider proceeds to masquerade as Fat Charlie, to bed his brother’s fiancée, to unsuccessfully blackmail his evil boss, and to invade his house. Basically, he ruins Fat Charlie’s life by doing a better job of living it than Fat Charlie seems to be able to do.
In the world of the Nancy brothers, even in the midst of their feud, there are grave dangers to face – such as their father’s murderous enemies (led by Tiger, who’s out for revenge). But Anansi Boys remains lighthearted and playful, even at its darkest moments. It’s one of things that make the novel so excellent.
The story is told in the same carefree, simple language and style of the Anansi stories that pepper the novel, in which Gaiman’s narrator explains how Anansi tricked the Bird Woman and cooked her in a pot; how Anansi stole the stories from Tiger; how he convinced his family he had died so he could poach the fat peas from his wife’s garden without interruption.
Gaiman’s tone lends the book the same effect as that of the Anansi tales themselves: You never take it too seriously, especially when the greatest dangers and sorrows loom. For example, Spider tells Fat Charlie, as they go on a raging bender to mourn their father, “sorrow settles upon us like pollen in hay-fever season.” Charlie, in his utter melancholy, looks out the window and notes that “an early dog walker, at the end of the road, was encouraging a Pomeranian to defecate.”
Does Anansi Boys stand on its own? Well, it’s not quite a sequel to American Gods. It’s more of a spin-off. Yet while Anansi Boys works without American Gods, it will be richer if you’ve read the predecessor, which provides a wonderful context for the Nancy brothers’ dilemmas.
Nevertheless, chalk this book up as another great work from Neil Gaiman. It takes the bright, eccentric humour we see in his children’s books and uses it to spin a deeply original adult novel about the frustrations – and occasional rewards – of family relationships.