From the October 1st Globe and Mail:
‘Stories are like spiders,” we are told in Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, “with all they long legs.” This is one of Gaiman’s most intriguing comments on the nature of storytelling — he’s made a few here and there — and it perfectly describes Anansi Boys, perhaps in more ways than intended.
Author of the landmark series of Sandman graphic novels, and more recently an acclaimed children’s author (Coraline, The Wolves in the Walls), Gaiman weaves a contemporary comic fable from the intricate, colourful threads of Anansi, the Afro-Caribbean spider/trickster god. The resulting tale has legs, to be sure, even if they don’t always scuttle in sync.
Fat Charlie Nancy leads a quiet, unremarkable life in London. His job at a talent agency is unfulfilling, his boss a cliché-spouting tyrant. He is soon to be married to the chaste, good-hearted Rosie when he gets the news that his father (the noisy skeleton in his closet) has died in Florida. At the funeral, Fat Charlie — still burdened with a childhood nickname given him by his delinquent dad — learns of a brother he never knew he had. A brother named Spider, who soon comes barrelling into Charlie’s carefully arranged life, dragging chaos, magic and horror in his wake.
It turns out that Mr. Nancy Senior himself (met briefly in Gaiman’s 2001 novel, American Gods) was really Anansi, who long ago incurred the wrath of Tiger by conning him out of all the world’s stories. Spider is the son who inherited the old man’s reality-warping powers, but along with it the undying hatred of the bloodthirsty feline deity. Charlie’s bungled attempt to use magic to exorcise this catastrophic sibling from his life inadvertently gives Tiger the chance for which he’s been waiting for millennia: to wreak vengeance on the spider clan.
It’s surprising that Gaiman hasn’t plunged into this rich mythic material already. For Anansi is the storyteller god, and the god about whom the most stories have been told, and as anyone familiar with Gaiman’s work knows, his core preoccupation is story itself: What are stories, where do they come from, how do they work and why do we need them?
This is not a novel overburdened with self-conscious ruminations, however. It sets off at a jaunty clip and rarely slows down, deftly spinning (how can one avoid the phrase) a web of complication, suspense and shameless coincidence. There is much to delight in here — highlights include a dryly humorous guidebook description of the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Andrews. There are also some frustrations. Gaiman is a thrifty recycler of stuff that works, and while the novel has a lighter, more screwball feel than much of his other writing, it is populated with familiar types, including a coven of witchy old ladies, a murdering monster hiding behind a mask of respectability and, as hero, a milquetoast stuck in a humdrum job, to whom fantastical (and life-altering) things start to happen. The ingratiating, rather twee narrative voice that usually prevails could be submitted as evidence of an evolutionary link between Beatrix Potter and Alfred Hitchcock.
The sharpest scenes of the book are early on, when Spider plays the randy, omnivorous trickster, and comic muddle reigns. Later, the plot moves into thriller territory and Anansi Boys settles for a simpler darkness-versus-light palette. There are good people and bad people, and everyone’s going to get what they deserve. At this point, Gaiman the creepmeister finally crawls out of the log pile, and there are some great hair-raising moments. The horror show is capped off, unfortunately, with a tidy feel-good ending that may be right for a light-hearted comedy, but doesn’t do justice to the anarchic world the novel has allowed us to glimpse.The Sandman stories were memorable in large part because their darkness was rarely recuperated. Embedded in the main narrative of Anansi Boys are stories that reveal the trickster god’s disturbingly selfish, amoral side. When we’re first introduced to Spider, it is clear he has inherited these traits, but simply meeting the right girl starts him on the road to redemption, his earlier nature explained away with a neat but unconvincing plot twist involving a family curse.
Gaiman himself calls the book a “magical-horror-thriller-ghost-romantic-comedy-family-epic” (note the suitably arachnid octet). The hyphenated freight train of a description is no doubt meant ironically, but it is accurate. The question is, does Gaiman pull it off? Not entirely. By trying to be so many things at once, or in sequence, Anansi Boys displays an energetic insouciance toward genre, but in the end not a lot stands out. How many kinds of story can a story be before it loses distinctiveness, like Fat Charlie trying to please everyone?
This eight-legged beastie delivers a good scare as it skitters past, and some laughs, but one wishes it had left more of an impression.