Feature – Pittsburgh Tribune Review

From today’s Pittsburgh Tribune Review:

About halfway through the writing of his new novel, Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman had one of those moments of doubt that every writer fears. The manuscript, in Gaiman’s words, “was misbehaving,” and he was at a loss about what to do.

“I have no idea if this is any good,” he told his editor, who listened patiently for three hours on the phone while Gaiman read to her, his handwriting so idiosyncratic that a fax would have been so much gibberish.

The editor reassured Gaiman he was on the right track, that there was no need to write a more serious book. But the question remains how could such an accomplished writer doubt himself? Gaiman, the author of the acclaimed graphic novel series The Sandman and other works including the novel American Gods, is not exactly a novice.

But Anansi Boys is unlike anything Gaiman has done before, an almost light-hearted novel that is as much comedy as it is fantasy.

“Whenever you get in the field of humor, it gets a lot more problematic,” Gaiman says during a recent phone interview. “It’s why so many humorous writers work in teams. In teams you can tell immediately if something is funny because the other guy laughs. But if you’re sitting there in a room occasionally making little chucking noises to yourself, there’s no guarantee.”

What is guaranteed is that Gaiman’s rabid following will embrace just about anything he writes. The Sandman series, about a mythic character on a series of quests against varying historical backdrops, is one of the acknowledged classics of the genre.

Gaiman, however, seems to be equally adept at the novel form. His book American Gods won a Hugo Award for best science fiction/fantasy novel in 2001.

Anansi Boys covers the same territory, but with a different approach. Fat Charlie Nancy, who is living an ordinary, humdrum life that takes a detour when he finds out his father, recently deceased, was a god. And no ordinary god but one descended from the anansi, or spider, folk tales that originated in West Africa and spread to the Caribbean and especially Jamaica.

Gaiman, who calls himself a “mythology junkie,” immersed himself in folklore to research the book. The anansi folk tales of West Africa that provide the novel’s background are strikingly similar to the work of Joel Chandler Harris, the author of the “Uncle Remus” stories that featured Brer Rabbit.

“One of the interesting things about West Africa, which I sort of allude to in the book, is you get areas where the spider stories are told and areas where the rabbit stories are told,” he says. “But it’s the same set of stories. The Brer Rabbit stories just happen to be Brer Rabbit and not Brer Spider stories. That was the version that (Harris) heard as a title. But they’re just as likely to be stories about anansi.”

One of the pleasures of Anansi Boys is how Gaiman manages to blend fantasy and modern life. One particularly amusing section concerns a trans-Atlantic airplane trip Fat Charlie takes where a catering snafu results in only breakfast being served.

As it turns out, the situation really happened; only it was far worse in real life.

“When I was on that flight, it was delayed 12 hours, and instead of taking off at four o’clock in the afternoon, it took off at four o’clock in the morning,” Gaiman says.”Everybody was hungry, everybody was miserable, and then they discovered that all they had in the way of food was corn flakes, and with no milk and with no spoons, and only unripe bananas. Grown men began to cry in their seats.”

While he has had success in both the graphic novel and novel forms, Gaiman doesn’t have a preference, only saying that he gets enjoyment from both. The joy of Sandman, he says, was that everyone who read that series has the same image in their heads. In Anansi Boys, Fat Charlie probably will spawn as many different mental images as there are readers.

“I love the fact that there are people who will read ‘Anansi Boys’ and, if you read it fast and lazily, you may fail to notice the skin color of the various characters,” he says. “You are not going to know who is black and who is white. … You are certainly given clues enough to figure out everybody, but I don’t do the thing of actually saying he was black or white. … I love the fact there are people who will read the book and never notice that, and I could never do a comic like that.”

Gaiman is frequently asked why he works in the fantasy realm. It’s a question that baffles him, akin to asking why the moon is in the sky. To answer, he cites a G.K. Chesteron quotation about how the point of a vacation is not the destination but returning home.

“All the things you took for granted, you don’t have to take for granted anymore,” Gaiman says. “You are granted the ability to see them from a different angle, and to see them in a new unit of time. I think that is so important. When people say, ‘Why fantasy?’ I say with any luck I can send you home again and have you see it with different eyes.

Capsule Review
The mirthful legend of a West African fable provides the backdrop for Neil Gaiman’s new novel, Anansi Boys.
Gaiman skillfully integrates the spider tales of the trickster god in a modern setting, setting up the question: What would gods be like if they walked the earth? Gaiman’s answer is a madcap, screwball world that is partly absurd, occasionally humane and always entertaining.
— Regis Behe