Tuesday, July 19, 2011
The first thing you should know is that this isn't a review of Neil Gaiman's American Gods. American Gods is a book that changed the shape of fantasy literature when it came out ten years ago. One might as well try and hold lightning as review a book like that, especially ten years on.
Nor have I taken refuge in my medievalist training, and attempted a textual comparison between this, the Author's Preferred Text, which contains about 12,000 words more (about 50 pages) than the original edition. I had contemplated that, and then decided that while such an endeavour might make for a practical academic exercise, it would competely miss the point.
The point of American Gods is not the practical. It is belief.
The gods, of course, have always known that belief matters. This is why those who follow the Judeo-Christian traditions are admonished in the Ten Commandments, right at the very beginning of them, to have "no other gods before me." Belief is power.
The gods themseves are about faith, and faith is about belief. But belief, as those of us who read speculative fiction know, cuts both ways. When we talk about our ability to enter the non-mimetic world, we talk about "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." (Coleridge) So as we read, we have faith both in what we believe, and in what we choose not to disbelieve. The theme of American Gods foregrounds one of those things, and the nature of it as a work of speculative fiction foregrounds the other. It is a coin-trick or a two man con of a book, one that asks us to look very hard at one hand while completely ignoring the other, and then when we look up from the page, we find that the magic was real.
American Gods works because of belief. Not just the belief of the reader in the story, but the belief of the characters who inhabit it. "Believe everything," Wednesday tells Shadow, and the characters who succeed do. The vow of an ex-convict spoken over a glass of mead has as much power as the head of the Norse pantheon invoking the words of a fourteenth century English holy woman. Promises matter. A story, well-told, can change everything. We believe, and the gods believe, and the dead believe, and suddenly the coin trick is transfigured - the moon is plucked from the sky.
Or belief steps out of the book.
Because I remember ten years ago, reading American Gods, and trying to convey my excitement that someone not only knew Mad Sweeney, but sure he had gone and written him into a book, and wasn't that a grand thing altogether? and getting blank faces. And now, when I put Buile Suibhne onto a course description, I get students signing up just to read his story. It's a powerful thing, belief. Strong enough to resurrect a god.