Subtitled: America must be especially beautiful to people from other countries, but does it mean the same thing to them? Also, what’s the true meaning of the roadside attraction?
Four years ago my friends and I went to see Neil Gaiman speak at a local high school. He was charming, funny, and erudite, as I expected him to be, and as he continues to be on Twitter (1.7 million followers! What!). He showed us a sneak preview of the film adaptation of his children’s novel Coraline (a totally enchanting movie if you haven’t seen it). He read from his newest children’s novel, The Graveyard Book. I bought a signed copy.
Neil Gaiman is British, but lives in Minnesota, of all places– not New York or Los Angeles, but Minnesota. To me, that means he must know, and maybe love, America, because Minnesota is too remote and not-Britain to be ambivalent about. It’s the American heartland forgoodnesssake. I’ve always found that interesting, and American Gods, I feel, gives me a little more insight into how that residential paradox works.
American Gods is kind of a slow burn of a novel. I actually bought it for my boyfriend, on one of my first trips to Borderlands in the Mission (a totally enchanting sci-fi/fantasy bookstore on Valencia if you haven’t been there), because I knew he’d been wanting to read it. He started it, never finished it, said nothing was happening. It’s true that most of the story feels like a preparation for some big event (a war between the gods, incidentally), but after you stop waiting for the war to start, I think you can appreciate the burning.
Our hero is named Shadow, and he’s just gotten out of prison. There’s something special about Shadow that, being inside his head most of the time, we never completely understand. He doesn’t talk much, he doesn’t moralize much, he’s good in a fight and he accepts jobs from strange, potentially sinister men that he’s just met. But we know, from the little choices he makes, that he’s a good person anyway.
Part of Shadow’s disconnectedness from the world is because of the years he spent in prison. Part of it is because, right after he is released, his wife is killed in a car accident along with his best friend, who she had been having an affair with. So he starts his post-prison life in a kind of vacuum. No connections, no home, nothing and no one to care or live for.
He falls into a weird work relationship with a man he meets on the plane home, an older, bearded gentleman by the name of Wednesday. At this point, if you know anything about Norse mythology, you know who the guy’s supposed to be. I mean, the name of the book has gods in it! But while we might know who Wednesday is, we don’t really know what he’s up to—just that it has to do with a war, a coming storm (oldest metaphor in the book, am I right?!? e.g. “there’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne”), that it’s taking place in America. Also, that it has to do with the gods of the Old World (including the Old New World) and the gods of the millennium (read: technology, drugs, tabloids, etc).
Add to this the fact that Shadow is being followed around by his dead wife, and the fact that the small town Wednesday stashes him in between jobs is hiding a dark child-abducting secret, and there’s enough to keep your reading interest even if the storm takes forever to come.
One of my favorite touches in the novel is the way Neil Gaiman makes subtle observations about the American landscape. It’s something I like to do too, when I’m on the road: observe all the little idiosyncrasies, from road signs to billboards to store windows to restaurant decorations. When I feel like I’ve seen something special, that couldn’t be anywhere else in the world, it’s like a little, private victory to add to my collection.
The epic nature of the mythological landscape feels special because it’s grounded in the real America. It feels like all of these places really exist, and that Neil Gaiman has probably been to them. It makes the book feel bigger than itself.
“They spent the night in a Super 8 motel south of La Crosse.” (234)
“They ate their Christmas lunch late in the afternoon in a hall-like family restaurant in northern central Wisconsin. Shadow picked cheerlessly at the dry turkey, jam-sweet red lumps of cranberry sauce, tough-as-wood roasted potatoes, and violently green canned beans… [The waitress] wore a bright red-and-green skirt edged with glittering silver tinsel.” (234)
“Main Street, which they were on, was a pretty street, even at night, and it looked old-fashioned in the best sense of the word—as if, for a hundred years, people had been caring for that street and they had not been in a hurry to lose anything they liked.” (252)
“In America everything goes on forever, said a voice in the back of his head. The 1950s lasted for a thousand years. You have all the time in the world.” (537)
On my road trip, I was everywhere looking for the real America. I thought I might find it in those same types of ephemera: signs, windows, décor. Nevada and southern Utah felt, in passing, like home—strip malls, gas stations, highways and Starbucks. And home for me isn’t special; it’s where I live, it’s home. I thought I found it, for a little bit, on Route 66 in Arizona. But I realized that to an extent, the tourist kitsch of Williams and Seligman were parodies of the real America, created in dialectic response to the expectations people have when they arrive. Looking at the droves of European tourists, I wondered if they could tell the difference. Of course, maybe all this time I’ve been living in the real America, and I’m the one who can’t tell the difference.
My other favorite thing that Neil Gaiman does in American Gods is meditate on the nature and power of belief. The “gods” that are featured in the story are less like big-G gods who control the winds and the oceans and the fates of men, and more like beliefs made manifest who strengthen and weaken with people’s changing faith in them. To that extent, it’s unclear if these “gods” retain the core essence and identity of the actual god, or if they’re more an image, a shadow, a representation. (A question I had after the book: if these Old World gods were brought over by immigrants to America, is there a different, similar copy that remains in the Old World?)
Ancient mythology is referenced and re-lived, as when Shadow agrees to hang from the tree of life—Yggsdrasil or its Virginian farmland equivalent– for nine days and nine nights, something Odin does in Norse myth. Meanwhile, the Egyptian god Anubis works at a mortuary and eats slices of organs from the bodies he embalms.
But even more interesting, to me, was the way American mythology was identified and lived. The gods Shadow runs with are stronger, able to puncture dimensional fields, only from locations of deep significance. In America, these are tourist traps in remote places, where people make pilgrimage every vacation season. Most prominently:
1) The House on the Rock near Spring Green, Wisconsin, is where Shadow first witnesses the supernatural powers of the gods he is accompanying. They walk the tree-lined, Victorian-themed Streets of Yesterday, purchase fortunes from a machine using branded House on the Rock coin tokens, and ride an antique carousel to the strains of a slightly off-key Strauss waltz, which transports them to a separate dimension where they hold their godly council.
2) The center of the United States near Lebanon, Kansas, is where the Old gods hold a ceasefire meeting with the New, because neither has much power there—it’s a place of “negative sacredness”. This point was determined to be the U.S.’s geographic center in early 20th century, though the plaque had to be erected a few miles from the exact spot because a farmer didn’t want it on his land. The monument and the park and the hotel were meant to attract tourists, but never really did. Thus, the lack of power.
3) Rock City near Chattanooga, Tennessee, is where the final showdown takes place. The gods do battle over this mountain lookout that also has animatronic attractions and a seven-state vantage point.
I really like Gaiman’s ideas: that people’s beliefs have power, that places have power, that whether it’s a totemic and totalizing religion like Christianity, or an unshakeable positivistic belief in science; whether it’s fairy tales or animism or origins stories; or whether it’s just a lifestyle, a set of behaviors, an absorption in modern technology; it all means something because it requires some kind of faith, and because we are always searching someway somehow for something transcendent.
“The paradigms were shifting. He could feel it. The old world, a world of infinite vastness and illimitable resources and future, was being confronted by something else—a web of energy, of opinions, of gulfs.
“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.” (536)
Note: Rumors that this will be an HBO series as early as next year. Confirmation?
For the first guest post in the history of My Beautiful Bookshelf, fellow blogger Elspeth Olson will be contributing her especial book wisdom to my humble book blog. Elspeth is one of my brilliant colleagues from graduate school, a librarian extraordinaire currently getting her second Master’s (!) in Vancouver. Check out her blog at http://bluecastledreams.wordpress.com/.
When I was a child my best friends could be found on the library shelves.*
Perhaps this concept is a cliche now. As geek and nerd cultures become mainstream, the stories of lonely children who lived in their heads have also increased, but in my opinion the proliferation makes the stories no less powerful. It is, after all, the foundation to every great hero story since warrior epics fell by the wayside and Everyman heroes took the places previously held by Beowulfs, Gilgameshes, and Siegfrieds. Those of us who read and imagined ourselves into adventures are the mild-mannered alter egos of the heroes and heroines who starred in our mental epics.
In high school, I read Michael Ende’s wonderful fantasy novel The Neverending Story (translated from German: Die unendliche Geschichte). “Read” is probably a polite way of describing how I devoured the story – it felt more like swallowing great lumps of it, each time I sat down to read. Though I loved the story, enjoyed characters like Atreyu and Falkor, and was amused by the way each chapter starts with the subsequent letter of the alphabet, it was Bastian who caught my attention. Ende managed to capture the way a book can pull one wholly inside its pages, how it dominates the mind entirely and leaves one unaware of even the biologically necessary processes like breathing. In Ende’s world, Bastian is physically pulled into the book, much as Harry Potter seems to physically fall into Dumbledore’s Pensieve. Obviously, in our mundane world, this doesn’t happen. But it can feel like it does.
There’s a sense of complete shock that occurs when one encounters a passage in a book that perfectly verbalizes something in one’s own psyche or experience. I felt it when I read The Neverending Story because in elementary school and middle school and high school I turned to fantasy literature for the escape, much as Bastian does. I recognized in Bastian what L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley calls a “kindred spirit,” this lonely, somewhat odd child who loses himself in a book.
The shock of recognition happens in two ways – characters and descriptions. While character kindred spirits are fascinating, it is the surprise of recognizing a familiar feeling or experience in the pages of a book that is most interesting to me.
Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors. Her fantasy novels are populated with incredibly believable personalities, and have an unexpected streak of humor. Of all her novels – though her retellings of Beauty and the Beast (Beauty and Rose Daughter) are wonderful and Aerin in The Hero and the Crown is the ultimate example of the “sheroes” genre – of all her novels and her strong female characters, my favorite has to be Harry (Angharad) Crewe in The Blue Sword.
The Blue Sword tells the story of Harry Crewe, who moves to the Homelander colonial village of Istan in the desert province of Daria after her father dies. It’s not hard to read this as a fictionalized version of a 19th-century British colonial town in someplace like Africa or the Middle East. Harry has always felt like she doesn’t quite fit in her role in life, and moving to Istan – well, she’s surrounded by other Homeland colonists and soldiers, all of whom complain about the sand and the wind and the heat. Harry, on the other hand, feels drawn to the sand and the wind and the heat and the distant mountains, as if she is finally home. When she is unexpectedly abducted by the king of the Free Hillfolk, the name given to the final remants of the old Damarian kingdom, Harry is forced to confront something within herself that allows her to finally fit within her own skin and find the right place for herself in her suddenly expanded world.
Aside from the fantastic story (to which I have done no justice in the above description), Harry and her story appeal to me for two primary passages found in the book. Robin McKinley describes the experiences of insomnia and anger in a way that finally verbalizes how I know them. Early on in the book, Harry finds she can’t sleep. Every night, she goes to bed like a proper Homeland maiden, and every night she lies awake, or sits in her window-seat and watches the night pass. I, too, go through phases when I somehow don’t sleep. It’s not that I’m not tired – I am. If I try to get up and do something like read or work, I can’t focus. But I just don’t sleep. McKinley describes the aftermath of what I call a white night as not feeling much the worse for wear, other than a “moral irritability” from knowing one OUGHT to have been asleep all those hours. This is so it. Sure, I don’t feel all that rested after one of the bad nights, but mostly I’m just grumpy about having wanted to be asleep. I enjoy sleeping. When I miss out on that enjoyment, I feel annoyed by the loss.
As for Harry’s anger – there’s a moment in the book when Harry realizes that she possesses some gift – psychological, intellectual, magical… it could be argued any way – that is linked to strong emotion. And she realizes that she has unconsciously trained herself to calm, because leaving the way open to other passions means never fully closing the gates to anger. Harry looks back into her early childhood and remembers tantrums, expressions of rage that frightened her nurses and frightened herself. To control them, she taught herself a “nonmuscular control.” When I first read that passage, I felt like something inside my head froze, and all I could do was stare at the paragraph in shocked recognition. Like Harry, I feel I have trained myself to a controlled sort of calm. It’s a daily fight, for keeping my temper has never been easy, but I know I have to try.
People read for many reasons. There’s the escapism, sure, but I think the most powerful reason is to find those moments when an author perfectly describes a person, experience, or place that one thinks is unique to oneself. For the time it takes to read the passage, there is a strong sense of connection to both author and characters. And the knowledge that the passage is there makes the reader feel a little less lonely.
*Seriously. When other kids had imaginary friends they made up, or anthropomorphized their toys, I pretended I was playing with the children from the Pippi Longstocking stories, Annika and Tommy. I have no idea why.