From the October 1st Daily Telegraph
‘We do not really mean, we do not really mean what we say,” is how the Ashanti start their stories about Anansi. “It begins, as most things begin, with a song,” is Neil Gaiman’s preferred formula. Not that it matters, since, as Gaiman points out, all songs are really stories, and all stories are tied together by a web, as are all people. At the centre of the web is Anansi, the spider-man god to whom stories belong, and have done since he tricked them out of Tiger.
Anansi has something in common with Loki from Norse mythology, and more with Brer rabbit. He is an inveterate joker, even if the butts of his jokes find the consequences distinctly inconvenient; but it is impossible to dislike him. In that sense, Anansi represents someone we all know well, the charming, irresponsible chancer and teller of tall tales. This book is, at heart, a shaggy dog tale.
Gaiman is best-known for his Sandman series of graphic novels, but here he demonstrates an equally vivid ability to portray the mythic and the fantastic in comic prose. In the dedication, he tips his hat to the ghosts of P.G. Wodehouse and Tex Avery, and slapstick and verbal pyrotechnics are the primary motors of the book.
Fat Charlie Nancy (he was fat only for a short period in his childhood, but the nickname stuck), who works in a crooked actors’ agency in London, is embarrassed about almost everything. Then his father in Florida keels over with a heart attack while singing in a karaoke bar, tearing the top from a busty blonde during his fall. (These things happen. A friend of mine in his fifties died on the dance floor of Madame Jo-Jo’s, the transvestive nightclub in Soho. It wasn’t a dignified end, but he’d have enjoyed its comic aspects.)
So too with Fat Charlie’s dad. As Charlie soon discovers, his father was Anansi the spider, and a god. He finds out, too, from a Caribbean neighbour with a sideline in voodoo, that he has a brother, Spider. Unwisely, Charlie summons up the brother, who seems to have inherited all the family’s luck, charm, ability to work minor miracles and, above all, determination to enjoy himself in the most irresponsible manner without any heed for consequences.
Like Fat Charlie, we know that actions have consequences, and have no doubt that they will be visited upon the luckless Charlie. From this point, despite excursions into magic and voodoo, the plot brings to mind Waugh. Charlie’s life collapses spectacularly; his brother steals his girlfriend, loses him his job and gets him arrested on suspicion of fraud and murder.
The resolution of all of this involves, as it always does in comedy, a certain adjustment of the personalities of all the characters, an understanding, and an untangling, of crossed wires in love, and that the bad end badly and the good live happily ever after (or nearest offer). Gaiman’s artfulness is to make this template also a story about the nature of stories, and his own considerable charm is expended in telling you whathe is going to do, and how he is going to do it, all along the way.
The chief pleasure of Anansi Boys, though, is in Gaiman’s writing, which has all the casualness of a yarn told in a bar, or while fishing off a bridge with a bottle of beer by your side – Fat Charlie’s dad, asked what he does, answers that he “loafs and fishes”. Leaving aside the small details of engaging with the world of the animal gods of the West Indies and Africa, and the incursion of magic into south London and Florida, it also exhibits the ruthless logic essential for comedy of this sort. As in Wodehouse or Decline and Fall, the wheels never come off.
Gaiman does not reach those heights, but the apparent effortlessness of this sort of writing requires planning and execution of a very high order. It has moments of predictability, but they are those inherent in farce. Some of the jokes are too facetious for some tastes, others perhaps slightly too macabre. But this is a very accomplished comic novel; the slickness and the slightness are the product of someone who knows exactly what to do with his material. Neil Gaiman is a very good writer indeed, and this is a very funny bedtime story.