Happy 2015! If part of your new year plans include reading great books, beginning or continuing a book club, eating great food and listening to good music, I hope you’ll include daeandwrite in your plans. My next featured book will be The Hundred Year House, by Rebecca Makkai, one of my top five reads of 2014. But today, special guest blogger Maestro Robert Baldwin, Music Director/Conductor of the Salt Lake Symphony and Professor at the University of Utah, joins us to review American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. I know “Dr. B.” from performing in It’s a Grand Night for Singing at the University of Kentucky for several years. Dr. B. returns to his former home at U.K. to conduct the show, and spread his good-humor and knowledge. He also writes about music, creativity, imagination and the spaces in between: https://beforethedownbeat.wordpress.com.
A Story Waiting to Pierce Us: American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Review by Robert Baldwin
Good books absorb and entertain, even as they challenge your assumptions. Neil Gaiman’s works have defied categorization ever since he entered professional life as a graphic artist and writer of the Sandman series. His journey from comics to award-winning novelist goes straight through American Gods, the Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel of 2001. Even if good books are semi-autobiographical, Gaiman has excelled also at perhaps writing a biography of every American as well. It is a cleverly crafted book that will entertain, challenge and engage, even as it waits to drive the nails home (that an enigmatic spoiler alert…).
Journeys define our lives. Every trip, whether actual or metaphorical, challenge us with the unknown even as it reveals the familiar. Good books do the same. In American Gods, Gaiman takes us on a journey of our inner landscape by way of weird America. As if America was not weird enough, we also meet characters from around the world: Mr. Wednesday (the Norse god, Odin), as well as other gods, spirits, legends from humanity’s cultural memory chest.
Would you believe that all the gods that people have ever imagined are still with us today? … And that there are new gods out there, gods of computers and telephones and whatever, and that they all seem to think there isn’t room for them both in the world. And that some kind of war is kind of likely.
Gaiman takes the concept of an American Melting Pot and gives us the dysfunctional spiritual legacy of humankind, about to run head-long into the 21st century. But Gaiman, an Englishman, is looking at America from the outside. The weirdness he sees is filtered through his Englishness. And that is what makes the book work, in my opinion. The recent English transplant has the unique vision to see what is truly going on.
Oden som vandringsman (Odin, the Wanderer) by Swedish painter Georg von Rosen (1843-1923)
America is a country of travelers and seekers. No matter where we are now, our ancestors came from somewhere else, seeking a new life. That we Americans continue to do so in our daily lives, careers and pastimes is beautifully and frighteningly clear in American Gods.
“This is the only country in the world,” said Wednesday, into the stillness, “that worries about what it is.”
“The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.”
Like many Americans, I’m a bit of everything: Scottish, English, Polish, Swedish. But the northern European blood is strong. Perhaps that’s why the characters and Old Gods in Gaiman’s universe seem so real…and so dangerously familiar. But I’m also an American. I’m writing this review on a computer made in China after eating a meatloaf spiced with Moroccan spices, bought at a store that I drove to in my Japanese car.
The essence of America? Everything came from somewhere else.
That is the place Gaiman takes us. But instead of things or people, he casts gods, myths and legends into the mold. Old thought-forms appear as morticians, swindlers, prostitutes, killers, and con men. Sounds unsavory, but the alternatives are the New Gods: sinister personifications of technology, media and the stock market. Gaiman cleverly anthropomorphizes today’s vices and dangers as convincingly as the old gods that have been with humans from the time immemorial. Sadly, both are as dysfunctional as our human neighbors. Yet both also have qualities that attract us.
The book follows an enigmatic character named Shadow, recently released from prison. Therein lies another metaphor, as most of us exist in prisons of our own making. Shadow is us; or, rather, we are Shadow.
At times the book seems like Joseph Campbell on an Ayahuasca trip. American Gods is alien, yet familiar: at times quite uncomfortable, yet personally reflective. It is a parallel universe of our human failings as well as triumphs. It challenges, entertains and injects humor in all the right places. Even if it falls short as the perfect novel, it excels at being a perfect story. It is the story of us. The story of U.S.
The best authors help us to ask big questions. Neil Gaiman is no different. He excels in positing “what if?” What if things were not as they seem. What if they are exactly as they seem? What if our thoughts are real? What is everything is an illusion?
People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghost, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.
American Gods presents a travelogue of the psyche. Well-versed in the concepts of Jung, Freud and Campbell, Gaiman introduces us to Odin, Loki, Anansi and Johnny Appleseed (a quintessentially “American” god). But be careful, if you solve the mystery, you may not like what you discover.
“All your questions can be answered, if that is what you want. But once you learn your answers, you can never unlearn them.”
But maybe, if you are lucky, you may just find your new creed.
“I can believe things that are true and things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen – I believe that people are perfectable, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkled lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women. I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state. I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste. I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like martians in War of the Worlds. I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman. I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumble bee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself. I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck. I believe that anyone who says sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too. I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system. I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.”
All-American Fare with a Twist; Hamburgers, of course. But in the spirit of the book, you’ll have to travel across America to try them:
The entire Ring des Niebelungen by Richard Wagner (Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung) is the perfect compliment for Mr. Wednesday’s schemes. But if you need a break from 17 hours of opera, progressive rock will get you into the mood. Might I suggest:
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Complete. George Solti and the Vienna Phil
Jethro Tull: Aqualung
King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King
Gaiman writes in such a way that you see yourself embodied in each character. Old Gods tend to be that way anyway, so if you see yourself in the role, go for it!
The Starzz Network has picked up the option for a miniseries, due out in 2016. No word yet on casting.