Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Re-Reading _American Gods_

I just finished reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods again. It was my first time through the book since writing my own novel. It was also my first time through since I finished graduate school, my first time through since "outing" myself as an atheist, and my first time through since diagnosis. Not all of these things necessarily affected my reading of the novel this time, but they are notable because it's only been about 6 years since the last time I read this book. Taking note of the changes in my life over that time illustrates the fundamental shift in the reader's point-of-view that can happen in the span of just a few years.

Sometimes, when we talk about our points of view, we talk in terms of childhood vs. adolescence vs. adulthood. Sometimes, that's useful. It's also useful, though, to talk about the large changes in point of view that can happen within a phase of life. For example, I was an adult the first time I read the book. I'd been living on my own for several years, I'd finished school already, and I'd found my career path. In most of the objective ways we measure our maturity, I was the same as I am now. Still, my most recent reading was far, far different than my original reading had been.

For example, in both readings I noticed that Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, etc. from the Abrahamic traditions were kept offstage. The first time I went through this book, I took it to be a choice that Gaiman made to keep the hokey Christ-as-a-character trope from dragging his book into the kind of territory occupied by the worst student writing & the occasional well-worn gem like Life of Brian. This time out, though, it struck me differently. This time, it did not seem so much like it was about avoiding a cliched trope, but instead about balancing the scales.

The new "gods" and the old ones are cultural archetypes. They don't necessarily represent the most successful deities, in terms of the length of the religion's life and/or number of adherents. Instead, they represent the ones that have become the most tightly woven into cultures and the least appropriated/rewritten by outside influences. This is why we see Horus and not Ahura Mazda. Why Jesus is too cool for school, but Czernobog is not. It's also why Odin fits more neatly into the landscape than Zeus would.

Because the Abrahamic traditions are, for the most part, cultural exports who are completely rewritten by each new culture that imports them, they don't reflect their points of origin as clearly and necessarily as the gods we are introduced to are able to do. To put them front-and-center in a book about the way that America alters the gods that land on its shores would be to create too large a problem. The Abrahamic traditions have been altered so much here that they would not have the necessary connection to their "old-world" counterparts. 

More importantly, though, their "old-world" counterparts have little to no resemblance to the original versions of those faiths. They were often-rewritten and appropriated stories long before they came to America, diluted so much from their beginnings that it would become impossible to say for sure that the changes that happened to them here were changes to the original religion and not merely the undoing of changes that had been applied to them by the last culture that assimilated into their faiths.

I appreciated this choice as I re-read the story. It made Gaiman's ideas about folklore and traditions much clearer, and it set certain limits on the kind of criticism he was offering. It also clearly delineated the difference between the monoculture that represents our narrative of our national identity from the lived traditions that make up the diverse range of American experiences. It helped to draw lines around Wednesday's assertion that the U.S.A. is only a single country in the most superficial ways.

This time through, I also found this to be a more profoundly atheistic novel than I had the first time I read it. Some of this might be my imposition of my own ideas on the narrative. The first time I read this I was already an atheist, but it had not yet become important to me to articulate my reasons for being one. As such, I did not think as much about the representation of faith traditions in literature as being critical of faith traditions as a whole. Now, though, I can't miss these points.

For starters, there's the rather obvious point that each and every one of the gods featured here--including the ones from the most ancient flashback scenes--is explicitly shown to be a creation of the human mind. They may be embodied because of a supernatural or fantastic process, but none of them are the mighty creator deities that precede reality and, it is made clear throughout the book, none of them will be here once there are no people to remember them. In fact, the book is littered with references to gods that decide to kill themselves because they find existence without veneration pointless.

Looking beyond that most obvious gesture, there's also a clear lack of definition to the idea that is presented by Whiskey Jack about what the "creator spirit" might be. It's an almost-deism that is presented to us, enough for plausible deniability if the author is accused of outright disbelief, but it is presented with such a high degree of uncertainty that it could just as well be a recognition of the underlying motion of all self-replicating chemistry. It's not a concrete idea, but a description of a vague notion that someone else did not fully articulate. For a book that is so vivid in its depictions of every element of mythology, it is a remarkably unconvincing description of the "true" grand designer or creative spirit.

Lastly, we have the way he sketches out the new gods. The technical boy, the television creatures, and the drugs are all presented as the new objects of veneration, but when they are described, they are often said to be something like the "ideas of people" rather than real people. Their ideal presentation, their abilities, and their talents are, at best, reflections of the desires of some vague and unrealized cultural group who, unlike the people of Lakeside, the First Nations communities, or the immigrants shown in the flashback scenes, do not seem to really exist themselves.

These unreal ideals are themselves the product of an unreal ideal, making them flavorless, formless, and ultimately, unsatisfying to both the reader and to the characters who are often confronted by them. It's a brilliant move, and an unsettling one if you happen to catch it.