Staying Behind the Curtain: A Book Review of American Gods

Ever since reading Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, I have been eager to pick up more of his work. I am new to the world of Gaiman, but it is through the enthusiasm of his fans that I even learned of him in the first place. I mean, some of the authors I admire most admire him, so I knew there had to be something very magical and very special about his work. And there is. That is what I loved about The Graveyard Book - its sweetness and scariness, its treatment of the fantastic as ordinary and accessible. These things reminded me of the writing of the master, Peter S. Beagle. And these elements are present in American Gods, too. But I'll be honest, after The Graveyard Book, American Gods was an absolute shock. I had to transition from reading about the adventures of little Nobody Owens growing up in a graveyard to wading through a gritty, jaded view of America and the most graphic descriptions of sexual encounters I have ever read. I knew beforehand that Gaiman has written books that are more "kid-friendly" versus books that are intended for adults, but I had no idea the gulf between would be so huge. If I had read The Graveyard Book as a ten-year-old (which wouldn't have been possible, since it wasn't yet published, but hypothetically speaking...), I'm sure I would have liked it, and had I moved on to American Gods, I would have been scarred for life.

Now, don't get me wrong - I'm not against gritty or graphic writing. In fact, I am opposed to censorship in any form, and I think what always needs to be in place instead is some sort of warning, rating, etc. so that parents can do the censoring for their young children, individuals can filter out what they themselves don't want to read, and so on. So, at the end of the day, I guess I lean toward, "Bring on the gritty."

However, my dilemma is as follows:

A fantasy author has to work extra hard to make his or her story believable. I know that seems like an oxymoron, but it's not. If you are creating from scratch a fantastic world with magic and miracles and monsters and strange settings, you need to make sure that the magic has rules, that the miracles are not too many, that the monsters are neither too strong nor too weak, and that those strange settings are just familiar enough that the reader will venture inside them. You must not draw attention to the fact that as an author, you are making all of this up. Yes, an author's ideas are a patchwork of the stories that have influenced them, as well as their life experiences, but in the end, an author is making it all up.

Photo: "American Gods" by browneagle44 of Deviantart.com
When I read Sapphire's Push, I felt that the plight of the main character, Precious, was so revolting and impossible and unfair, it drew attention to the fact that the author has (or, at least, is capable of having) a disgusting mind. There were so many hardships piled on that character, I just wanted to throw my hands up and say, "You've lost me." Anyone can build a nightmare - we live on Earth, for Pete's sake - but not everyone can make a story out of it.

Did Gaiman manage to piece together a story out of some nightmarish images? Yes, pretty much - I mean, it took about 300 pages to get going. But did he destroy the illusion that he was trying to create of a world populated by forgotten gods and shiny new ones? For me, he did. A reader can only suspend disbelief so long, and when a writer just wallows in gratuitous descriptions of sex and gore, the reader's gaze slowly slides off the story and onto the realization that the author is conjuring these images all on his own. To my mind, conjurers should stay out of mind, and behind the curtain. Everything conjured should be conjured in service of the story. Period.

I know there are masses out there who would disagree with this review, and that's not only okay but good. Discussion is the ultimate goal of The Geek and Inkwell. So bring it on. :) I know that what I've said is basically blasphemy, considering Gaiman's swarms of devoted followers. I am still a fan, too! So I hold out hope for Neverwhere, which is next on the list.

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