Classic Neil Gaiman: full of invention and imagination, poor on character and writing.
On paper, I love Neil Gaiman. I love fairy tales, I love fantasy; I love dark reimaginings. But I do not like poor writing and Neil Gaiman is a poor writer.
Gaiman’s imagination is fantastic, but he reads like an amateur Terry Pratchett. So much so that he borders on plagiarism: anyone who has read Pratchett’s Hogfather (1996) will see the parallels. If you read carefully, you can even see Gaiman recycle one of Pratchett’s jokes, which for any fan of Pratchett like me is deeply offensive.
My second objection is that for a book that is around 600 pages long, surprisingly little of interest happens. Gaiman wanders off on tangents for pages and pages and about halfway through I realised I was bored. Lakeside? The most boring town in America? It could be some kind of mystic safezone but Gaiman somehow never gets around to explaining that part, until the epilogue, when we’re exhausted and in my case disillusioned, so it came as too little, too late. How exciting would human sacrifice have been in the middle of what read like a lengthy holiday from the main storyline? The answer is very exciting. Instead, Lakeside just seems boring. A town of nice people and pasties. Boring.
The book is long partly because of the leaping back to times where the gods were stronger, and this is fine, it’s interesting. But it’s not tied to the present. We don’t see Odin in the past, or Kali, or anyone. There are stories about old gods, forgotten gods, and bits where Gaiman gets existential (and condescending), talking to the reader, telling us this is all happening and at the same it isn’t; explaining, basically, that we are reading a fantasy novel. And then there is the present, where there is a war between old and new. This means it is actually several books in one and they are not tied together in any meaningful way.
Despite the space available, Gaiman stumbles over his recurring problem, which is that he simply cannot write compelling characters. He uses tropes, not characters. This is almost forgivable when the subjects are manifestations of people’s beliefs. But even manifestations need soul. They can’t ride for 600 pages on the hope that the reader will create their own character around a well-known name like Odin. Yes, we know Odin is part of Norse mythology, back when people were mean, so no wonder he’s a grizzly old man. But what about Gaiman’s take on Odin/Wednesday’s backstory? He lets us work it out. It’s lazy.
The same goes for the new gods. They are, at best, hinted at. It goes: you know what media is, right, so I don’t need to tell you. The new gods are not detailed, not even all properly named. They are superficial, which one might argue is the point of them, but the result is that they are bad for the sake of being bad, which is the kind of villain a school child would create. They are cliché and stereotype, but perhaps not in the way Gaiman mentioned. We don’t get a sense of anyone’s purpose. What do they want?
Shadow himself is a nothing – his dead ex-wife says as much: neither alive, nor dead. His coin tricks fail to lend him a personality, and the long descriptions of them read like a technical manual. Gaiman fails to capture any sense of magic with them because they are so dry, and they fail to bring the character to life. They ring hollow. I also didn’t appreciate the way he brought his dead wife back to life purely so that she could sacrifice herself for him. And the fact Shadow is Wednesday’s son is one thing, and one thing only: predictable.
The ending is also a huge anti-climax. I get what Gaiman is saying. I get what happened. It was a con. It just doesn’t work on paper. At the end, it felt like everyone who had been gearing up for a massive battle, reader included, was just supposed to shrug their shoulders, say something like “Oh right, very funny, you got me”, then go about their business. Not me. I don’t muscle through 600 pages to be told that it was all a joke. Got you to read my book. Haha! Well done. Not. It’s the kind of ending that has no bearing to the rest of the book. Aliens could have come down from outer space and it would have made as much sense.
I also disliked Gaiman’s faux diversity. A powerful female love god? A gay djinn? Great. Shame they get killed off though, while the only other main character to get killed off comes back to life and guess which one he is? That’s right, the white male very heterosexual All-Father.
And Mama-ji is a North Indian term for one’s uncle, not for a woman (Though a colleague with Indian roots said it could mean something else in a different dialect. But I think that’s stretching it a bit far.). So that’s another cultural faux-pas from Mr Gaiman.
But most offensive of all is Gaiman’s ferocious and revisionist colonialism. He characterises America as an empty land without gods, asserts that all the gods came in with (relatively recent) immigrants to America. Err….what about Native American mythology!?!?! A rich and fascinating pantheon? One at least as worthy of being mentioned as Norse or Ancient Egyptian? Yes, Native Americans came from Africa through Asia, and so could technically be called immigrants too – but where did their gods go, gods who were already there when Odin appeared, when the leprechauns and djinns arrived? Why aren’t they fighting too? Or are they simply not enough of a threat to these new gods, having been decimated by immigrants once before?
The baffling thing is that the Native American genocide is mentioned by Gaiman so it’s not like he’s unaware. He just shamelessly overwrites history anyway, leaving a gaping hole that I found impossible to ignore. And before anyone complains, it is not “PC gone mad” to be astonished that an entire culture has been written out of their homeland and replaced with colonials from Europe. Being given a few pages in the epilogue to talk vaguely about the land and how important it is is simply not enough. It’s reductionist and insulting.
When Gaiman gets it right (Anansi Boys, Neverwhere – shorter books), it’s great. But when he gets it wrong, it’s far too frustrating to muddle through with any sense of pleasure. I might watch the American Gods series though. I loved what they did with Stardust as a film, and that was another hacked-together story where Gaiman let our cultural awareness of fairy tale mechanics do all the work. The film, helped by great actors like Michelle Pfeiffer and Claire Danes, brought the story to life, and it was beautiful. And I’m a fan of the Sandman comics, which are striking in their visuals and storylines. So maybe the TV series of American Gods can do something with Mr Gaiman’s wonderful ideas, which seem to work so much better when someone else is in charge of what the end product looks like.