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Apr. 21st, 2017

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What did you just finish?
American Gods by Neil Gaiman (I read the Tenth Anniversary edition, but didn't notice any important differences between that and the original). I've read this book before, but it's probably been a decade or more, and so reading it now was as much an experience of rediscovery as it was of straightforward narrative. There were certain scenes and images and even lines that have remained burned in my memory after all this time, some of them important to the plot and others mysteriously random (a car sitting on the ice of a lake and holding secrets within, Wednesday's con with the broken ATM, Shadow's cellmate, No man, proclaimed Donne, is an Island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other's tragedies., an indentured servant's belief in brownies and redcaps, a body hung on a tree for nine days), and other things just as prominent that I'd forgotten entirely (Laura's ghost, Shadow's love of coin tricks, the Men in Black, the Buffalo man), as well as a few that I remembered but which didn't actually happen (a scene with Jesus that I suppose must have actually been part of some fanfic I read).

To be honest, I didn't expect to like this book, or at least not as much as I liked it back when I first read it. In the years since some of the shine has fallen off Gaiman for me, and I haven't liked much of his new work, and so I suppose I projected that backwards and assumed I'd outgrown him.

Such was not the case.

Or, well, there are several plot twists that work better on first acquaintance when they can be genuinely shocking, and I do think the climax doesn't quite hold up to all of the preceding tension and anticipation, but none of that matters, not really. The book sucked me from the opening page and I could barely put it down until I was done. The prose is surprisingly stark, Hemingway-esque – so few adjectives and descriptions, and that's normally not a style I even like, but here it's magically compelling, always making me want just a little more, just a few more pages.

I guess I should actually summarize the plot, huh? Though I sort of assume everyone already knows it. Shadow, a big tough-looking late-20s man with a secret nerdy thoughtful soul, has spent three years in prison for a dumb small-time robbery that went wrong. He's released three days early when news reaches him that his beloved wife has died in a car accident. Grieving, lost, not exactly suicidal but not exactly enjoying life either, Shadow has nowhere to go (it's hard to get a job with violence crime on your record) when he accepts an offer to be the bodyguard/driver to Mr Wednesday, a man who quickly turns out to a conman and then turns out to actually be Odin, as in the Norse God. He tells Shadow that every immigrant to America ever brought the literal incarnations of their beliefs along with them, but as those beliefs are forgotten the Old Gods are losing their power and then their lives. Wednesday is traveling the country trying to organize the Old Gods to declare war on the New Gods (Technology, Media, etc) who are benefitting from a current glut of belief. Shadow, inevitably, is drawn into the conflict, though the real heart of the book is more his need to start living again than all of this metaphysical drama. The modern-day plot is intercut with small asides illustrating the lives of various immigrant believers; my favorite was always and still is the story of twins taken from Africa and sold as slaves:
There was a girl, and her uncle sold her. Put like that it seems so simple.

No man, proclaimed Donne, is an island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other's tragedies. We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, made into an island) from the tragedy of others, by our island nature and by the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived and then by some means or other, died. There. You may fill in the details from your own experience. As unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life. Lives are snowflakes- forming patterns we have seen before, as like one another as peas in a pod (and have you ever looked at peas in a pod? I mean, really looked at them? There's not a chance you'll mistake one for another, after a minute's close inspection) but still unique.

Without individuals we see only numbers, a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, "casualties may rise to a million." With individual stories, the statistics become people- but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless. Look, see the child's swollen, swollen belly and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, this skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears? To see him from the inside? And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted distended caricature of a human child? And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies' own myriad squirming children?

We draw our lines around these moments of pain, remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us. They are covered with a smooth, safe, nacreous layer to let them slip, pearllike, from our souls without real pain.

Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.

A life that is, like any other, unlike any other.

And the simple truth is this: There was a girl, and her uncle sold her.

It's not a needlessly dark book – there are funny moments, silly moments, clever moments – but it's a book that is fundamentally shaped around the concept and power of belief, of blood, and of human sacrifice, that last one to an extent that I think I never before noticed. It's a book for winter, when the light is fading and there's only one thing that will bring it back. It's a 500-page version of "Those Who Walk Away From Omelas".

And I love it, even if I'm having trouble articulating why.

I also couldn't help but wonder what the TV adaptation will look like. Even aside from the difficulties in translating any written work into an audio-visual medium, this one has a vital plot twist that turns on two words that are spelled differently but which sound the same when spoken out-loud, as well as a main character who is resolutely, defiantly taciturn, the vast majority of his personality hidden beneath the surface like the metaphorical 9/10ths of an iceberg. It's gonna be a challenge.

Mount TBR update: 13, go me! I have to celebrate these little victories.

What are you currently reading?
Rusty Puppy by Joe Lansdale, the latest in the Hap & Leonard series, under the theory that I needed something light and amusing after this week. I'm not sure everyone regards murder-mystery thrillers as "light and amusing", but I can – in the right circumstances, at least.


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