Tuesday, May 15, 2007

American Gods in Ampang

Last night, I courageously mastered the Middle Ringroad (for the first time!) to drive to Animah's house in Ampang near the zoo for our monthly book club meeting and brought a ratatouille as an offering. Would have arrived on time too if I hadn't somehow been sucked into the boondocks of Melawati.

Our book this month, Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

I must say, I very much liked the central conceit of the book - immigrants from all over the world came to America bringing their gods with them. Now most of these gods are fading away through lack of interest, and because America has created a new set of gods who draw their power from wired technology.

I felt that I was reading the book on behalf of a much younger self (15? 16?) who was still into superhero comics, read science fiction and fantasy and would have loved Gaiman's magic. It isn't so much that the desire for magic fades as you get older, but that as a reader you get a great deal more demanding. And while I found American Gods and enjoyable, light read to consume over lunch, I was resentful that it was taking time away from "meatier" reads that would have tickled the grey matter a bit more, and thus been more satisfying.

The central character, Shadow, is released from prison early after his wife is killed in a car crash and offered a job by the mysterious Wednesday, who as we learn later, is actually an incarnation of the Norse god Odin. There's an epic battle brewing between the old gods and the new, and Shadow and Wednesday begin a road-trip through the heart of America to rally the troops in preparation for it.

Gaiman himself says about the writing of the book:
I didn't really know what kind of book I wanted to write until, in the summer of 1998, I found myself in Reykjavik, in Iceland. And it was then that fragments of plot, an unwieldy assortment of characters, and something faintly resembling a structure, came together in my head. Either way, the book came into focus. It would be a thriller, and a murder mystery, and a romance, and a road trip. It would be about the immigrant experience, about what people believed in when they came to America. And about what happened to the things that they believed.
In our discussion last night it soon became apparent that none of us felt that the plot of the novel hangs together convincingly. You never really get a handle on the "badies" and the final battle, the climax of the book, turns out to be a damp squib rather than the anticipated firework display.

But there are some excellent episodes in the novel, and much of the talk last night was about our favourite bits. All of us enjoyed Gaiman's journey into the soul of America, and particularly the Lakeville subplot (very Twin Peaks!) where Shadow discovers the perfect small town, without crime or unemployment ... but why is it that young girls keep disappearing?

The night visits from Shadow's dead wife Laura were both chilling and darkly funny. The part where Zorya Poluchnaya (the strange sister who spends most of her life asleep) reaches into the night sky to pluck the moon and offer it as a coin to Shadow is truly moving.

I know that I won't be able to ever watch reruns of The Lucy Show without being afraid that Lucy will talk out of the TV set to me!

I loved the way that gods take human form and are forced into the seamier side of American life - the Queen of Sheeba is a prostitute, Egyptian gods Thoth and Anubis become undertakers, Bast the cat becomes a woman in Shadow's dream and seduces him (but the rough tongue is a dead giveaway!) ... and my very favourite story is that of the gay djinn taxi-driver!

The book evoked some pretty mixed reactions from the group, although most did enjoy it. (Thumb voting - 7 thumbs up, 3 thumbs down, 1 abstention.)

Would I recommend it? (Do I need to? Gaiman has an awful lot of fans, y'know!) Yes, but it will probably appeal to younger readers rather more than to cynical old fogeys like us. The style is very simple (though entirely effective) so it would be a good book to bridge the Harry Potter to more adult stuff divide for readers who haven't managed to move beyond yet.

I'm looking forward now to reading some of Gaiman's short stories.


Greenbottle said...

always wonder how you guys/gals choose what books to read in your book club?...i mean most of the members seem to know all kinds of great books and then pow...a book like gaiman's is choosen?

i guess i'm not one for book club or book anything...i can not read 'under duress'...

Obiter Dictum said...

It lies in my unread shelf. Should open it up now!

bibliobibuli said...

greenbottle - we are v. catholic in our tastes lah. we ask everyone to suggest. animah wanted gaiman and amir h. had been singing its praises so much. we should atually have stuck to one of our rules that we didn't invoke that night - no book gets recommended w.o. someone in the group having read it first! sometimes the discussion is more fun though with a not so good book ...

animah said...

Greenbottle, have you read any Gaiman?

k0k s3n w4i said...

My fave part of the whole book was when one of the new gods, the one that impersonated Lucy, asked Shadow whether he would like to see Lucy's boobs.

I dropped the book laughing.

KayKay said...

Greenbottle, to answer your question, our book club prides itself on idiosyncratic choices making for a lively blend of reading. We've discussed Nobel Prize winners,debated Magic Realism, ripped apart Sappy Sentimentalism, dissected Crime Noir and disputed Booker Winners. And into this tumultous stew, we now toss in a pinch of Gaiman. Doesn't necessarily improve the taste in my opinion, but I'd rather swig from a lively concoction with some bitter components than imbibe a bland brew of awards-endorsed required reading.

SecretHistory said...

Questions about book club:

1. What happens if someone turns up and did not read the book? Does he/she get punished.... severely?

2. What happens if someone turns up and read the wrong book?

3. Does everyone speak? At the same time?

4. Does it turn into a fight club when someone disagress vehemently?

5. What happens if someone reads a different version of the same book?
For example the British version of A Clockwork Orange and the American one without the last chapter?

6. Do you have to bring an offering each time before the bookclub altar and appease the "God of Reading"?

7. What happens if it rains feline and mongrels and no one can hear anyone?

8. What happens if there is a blackout? Does anyone prepare a battery operated light?

9. What happens if Neil Gaiman lurks in the kitchen and hears your discussions?

10. What happens if the characters of the books appears from the book like the Japanese horror movie "The Ring"?

KayKay said...


1.Yes, female members are forced to discuss the merits of Gaiman as a graphic novelist opposed to Gaiman the novelist...topless. As the sole male, I have to remove my pants and undies on condition I wax beforehand.

2. The someone is fed the wrong book...1 page at a time..into an orifice of my designation.

3. Is there any other way to discuss a book???

4.Rule 1. We don't talk about the Fight Club.
Rule 2. We don't talk about the Fight Club.

5. We scrap both versions and go for the Japanese translation instead.

6. The God's name is Krishna. The offering..show up naked and bring beer.

7. We lip read of course.

8. As the sole male..I start groping the other members.

9. I'd haul Gaiman's American-Transplanted Brit Ass into the living room and bugger him senseless for filling 600 pages of American Gods with Pseudo-Intellectual drivel.

10. A collective decision is taken to stop consuming more alcohol.

The Eternal Wanderer said...

LOL, Kaykay! Reading your answers to secrethistory's questions just made snort with laughter...not good when you're taking a swig of Coke at the same time! (my poor Vaio screen!)

I've read American Gods sometime ago and I quite like it for the descriptions of the various gods and deities that got displaced when they were forgotten. There are a lot of references to the spiritual condition of modern America (and the world, for that matter) - how people forget their roots so easily in their pursuit of a prosperous life in the Land of Opportunity.

I love the interactions Shadow has with his dead wife...creepy but very cool at the same time, like the part she frees Shadow from captivity but slaughtering those MIB (men-in-black).

To read Gaiman requires an absolute suspension of belief and to open to a realm of infinite fantasy and possibilities. He has an incredible and a wild imagination, though I agree that he tends to be a bit wordy at certain parts and predictable, too (how many of you knew Low-Key was Loki from the very first chapter? I did)

One of Gaiman's book Stardust has been made into a film which would be released in the states in a couple of months. Haven't read that one but I did read his other novel called Neverwhere, which was just incredibly moving. A powerful story of an unlikely hero dragged into an underground fantasy world filled with colourful characters and murderous fiends. It was made into a BBC miniseries too!

Any wonder that I'm a Gaiman fan? :-)

Anonymous said...

Gaiman's comics are somehow inexplicably better than his novels.
I love most of his comics.
But I almost fell asleep reading American Gods.


elisataufik said...

i didnt enjoy American Gods as much as I did Stardust and Neverwhere.. I though it was a bit crass and less sophisticated than the latter two novels.
I liked bits of it though (Yes, the gay-djin part was funny!), I loved some of the characters (Shadow and wife, the twins, and the undertakers) but not all, simply because I think some of them were mere fillers and didnt contribute much to the story.
This book made me crave for pasties. I found myself making curry puff (almost the same lah kan?) soon after finishing reading this book.
This book also made me miss driving through the american midwest. I can just imagine him ona roadtrip and stopping every now and again to scribble notes.

Anonymous said...

"A powerful story of an unlikely hero dragged into an underground fantasy world filled with colourful characters and murderous fiends."

Now THAT is an original concept LOL :D

Anyway yeah, I picked up the Anansi Boys, read about two pages, and put it back down again. There's nothing new there.

PS. Way to show off your Vaio, wanderer. You could've said "laptop" but then again, what else is a Vaio for ? :D