Well this was very disappointing. I purchased a mass market copy of American Gods when it first arrived in paperback in 2002 or 2003. I finally got around to reading it in July of 2015, which means it was one of those books that sits around on your to-read pile for an inexplicably long time before you finally pick it up and read it. I read two other books by Neil Gaiman in that time, Coraline and Good Omens (the latter co-authored with Terry Pratchett)–both of which I greatly enjoyed. I guess when a book sits around for that long waiting to be read you can’t help but build up a sense of suspense.
What an incredible let-down.
The premise of American Gods is solid enough. Shadow is about to get out of prison and is ready to go back to his wife and focus on getting his life back on track. Instead, he gets released a couple of days early to attend his wife’s funeral after a car accident. On the way home he meets a mysterious man who calls himself Wednesday, who seems to know a lot about Shadow and wants to give him a job.
In the opening Gaiman does a little leg work to box Shadow into a corner so we’ll believe he takes the job with Wednesday because he really doesn’t have any other option, but within thirty pages or so a sort of laziness sets in and Shadow becomes a curiously passive character. He basically accepts whatever gets thrown his way. It’s not because he’s depressed, it’s not because he doesn’t have a choice. It’s because if he questioned anything at this stage in the game there wouldn’t be a plot. So for 500 maddening pages Shadow just goes with the flow because plot reasons. He’s not a character or a believable person so much as a totally artificial construct Gaiman needs for the plot to get from point A to point B.
Even with that, Gaiman is in absolutely no rush to get there. American Gods is 588 pages and you could easily trim about 200 off of that. Easily. Particularly in the staggeringly slow middle, where Shadow and Wednesday travel separately and Shadow has absolutely nothing to do. First Shadow spends time in a funeral parlor, where he’s at least peripherally connected to the action, but then he ends up in a town called Lakeside where he’s so disconnected from what Wednesday’s up to that Gaiman has to start slowly setting up a new plotline to bide time–as if he’s starting the novel over on page 250. Except that new plotline takes so long to get going that it never does. Shadow leaves just as he’s getting a hint that something strange is going on in Lakeside. He arrives in Lakeside on page 243 and he leaves on page 412. That’s 170 pages of filler that goes nowhere. Did I mention that Shadow is oblivious because the plot demands that he be? Anyway, Gaiman has to have Shadow go back there at the end of the book to make all this effort pay off but you really just wish he’d leave it alone. Or that an editor would have told him to leave it out in the first place.
The pace is actually infuriating, but the characters somehow manage to be worse. Bad enough that Gaiman expects you to root for Shadow, the most artificial, cardboard rendering of a ‘hero’ I’ve come across in a long time. Worse that the supporting characters somehow manage to out-cardboard Shadow. There’s no one truly interesting, or if there is they only really have a cameo appearance. No one has any depth or nuance. And Wednesday? Predictable as all hell. We can tell there’s going to be a deeper connection between Wednesday and Shadow long before Shadow bumbles his way into the knowledge, which does two things: it makes Wednesday boring because you see his tricks coming a mile away, and it makes Shadow even more infuriating because he’s the only person around who can’t.
If I hadn’t already read two other books by Gaiman, American Gods probably would have soured me on him as an author completely. As it is, I’m flummoxed that the mind behind Coraline also gave the world this convoluted, poorly conceived mess.
3 thoughts on “Book Review: American Gods, by Neil Gaiman”
Ouch. I have a hard time writing reviews like this, even though sometimes I want to. I admire your honesty. I’m glad I read this. I’ve been having some mixed feelings about Gaiman, and I’m not sure what to try next… so, probably not this one. 🙂
Honestly, I’ve never been the biggest fan of his novels. It’s his comics & middle grade & miscellaneous writing I like best.
It’s so strange to me. Co-workers turned me on to this book, telling me it was so great, etc. I made it almost 60 pages before I had to stop. I am quite sure the concept Gaiman constructs is solid, otherwise the book would have few followers. I am sure there must be some solid philosophy in there, otherwise the book would have few intelligent followers. I’ll never know, because the writing is so God awful I can’t continue. After reading the plot summary, I don’t think I was mistaken. Shadow, the main character, apparently remains colorless, nothing really happens of any consequence. It’s a yarn about how modern America dillutes mythology/God/gods, if I’m not mistaken. The new gods are TV and internet. These ideas, albeit decent back in the early 2000s, are packaged in an incredibly boring and weak narrative, which means they could have been better served by his hands outside a narrative? What am I missing?