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American O.M.G.s

It occurred to me when I finished reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman that I had no idea how to frame writing about it. Though I enjoy reading and live in Minnesota, I've never read anything by Neil Gaiman until now. (I haven't even read Sandman.) And I certainly have no frame of reference for writing about fantasy, as this is the first time I've ever set out to do it.

Being a non-authority on both Gaiman and the fantasy genre, I began to panic that whatever I ended up saying about the book was going to be pure bullshittery. However, this worry led to divine consolation. As any nerd can tell you, the joy of books is that they (unlike crowds in high school) are not exclusive. There is nothing stopping any one of us from picking up a book of any sort and enjoying the hell out of it. Still, however, we insist on sticking to what we've always known.

The truth is, to talk about Gaiman's book in terms of genre is a total waste. It's a good book—a great book, in fact. As important to understanding America as it is to understanding the mechanics of good storytelling, American Gods didn't disappoint as a novel. Sure, I fell asleep a few times reading it, and as a friend of mine noted, "nothing really happens," but so what? It's not what it's about, but what it's about, you dig? It's worthwhile in the end and, unlike many books I've read, actually has something interesting to say. However, calling it fantasy would have taken it off my radar in any other situation, and that's pretty shameful. 

You probably want to know what it's about. I'll use up my word count if I try to explain it all here, so for the plot and some really great insights into the book, check out Laura Miller's piece about it on Salon.com. She's a little ambitious about how much a reader should know from the outset about mythology and therefore what should be gleaned from Gaiman's hints, but overall she has a great take on the book.

For the very, very lazy, here is a very, very brief synopsis of the book: all of the gods brought to America by travelers, settlers, the indentured, and the enslaved remain here, haunting the land and living in human form—some barely scraping by, others having met with more success—are brought together by Odin (calling himself Mr. Wednesday) with the help of an everyman named Shadow, to war against the new gods, representing the digital age, media, and economy. (One of the most moving ideas in the book is that America is a bad land for gods, which seems to have left a bad taste in the mouths of some since Gaiman isn't American, but I'd say to those people that perhaps they doth protest too much.)

So, what makes American Gods fantasy? 

  • Parts of it take place in a world that is not our own.
  • There are mythological characters.
  • Some of the characters use magic.
  • The world follows rules of its own making. 

It's about as fantasy as Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. I'd be more satisfied if it were advertised as "magical realism," but what do I know? It's been called a "fantasy demi-epic" and a "Wagnerian noir." How about we just agree that it falls under "speculative fiction" and call it a day?

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Reader Comments (4)

I loved American Gods, and I get you, but I often get the feeling that grasping for genres other than fantasy comes more from a need to not be reading "fantasy" than it is an attempt to more accurately define a book. It smacks of literary elitism, and fear of being caught slumming it in genre fiction. (Sometimes, but not always—I'm not saying this is you, but I've seen it before in reference to this book.)

I mean, who wants an 800+ page *fantasy* novel sitting on their shelf when they could just set it next to Thomas Pynchon and call it "magical realism," or put it in the stack of pulp authors who have been dead long enough for their work to be called "speculative fiction"?

Whatever, I guess. But it seems like one might be better off taping up your glasses, buttoning the top button, and just saying, "I have a degree in English, bitches. I'll read what I want, and today I want to read a book where a lady eats someone with her vagina, and a zombie kills the hell out of a bunch of people. And there better be some motherfucking spells."

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

I love this comment.

And honestly, this is what I'm trying to get at this year. So, forgive my current (mis)conceptions of genre fiction, because I'm trying to grow. I'm trying to change. I want to love all books, dude. I really, really do.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

Honestly, I think that talking about ANY book in terms of its perceived genre is a total waste. Best case scenario: it lets the writer off the hook from the business of storytelling (i.e. connecting the memories and experiences of the protagonist to the memories and experiences of the reader, and asserting, unequivocally, that the two are linked - by empathy, by sympathy, and by the inherent connectedness of human experience). Worst case scenario: it lets the reader off the hook from the business and the *work* of reading - i.e., and with respect to Mr. Flannagan's GOULD'S BOOK OF FISH, "Perhaps reading and writing books is one of the last defenses that human dignity has left, because they remind us of what god once reminded us before he too evaporated in this age of relentless humiliations - that we are more than ourselves; that we have souls." And if we're not vigorously engaged in becoming "more than ourselves," then what's the friggin' point, right?

You can call AG a fantasy - though it would be more useful to call it a Mythic Fantasy. Either way, one can argue that any fiction, both extraordinary and mundane, is a "fantasy". All fiction re-writes human experience in terms of narrative arc, beginnings, middles and ends. All fiction tricks us into looking for symbol, theme and trope, when our experience assures us that none are available - or if they are, they certainly aren't reliable. We know from our lives that the world is chaotic and unpredictable and dissonant. Fiction superimposes a pattern on that which has no pattern, which makes it a fantasy. It's a useful fantasy, and a fantasy that broadens our understanding of ourselves and the world, but a fantasy all the same.

I hang around a lot of people who are "single-genre readers". I know folks in the kidlit world who read nothing but kidlit and folks in the SF/F world who read nothing but SF/F and folks in the self-described literary world who read nothing but literary novels (that's another distinction that drives me nus: just like all fiction is fantasy, all fiction - the stuff that's written down, anyway - is literary. Why do we have such frustratingly vague terms? The teacher in me wants to give everyone an F). The point is that our lives as readers should never limit or bind. Reading, by its nature, is an expansive activity, and all forms of storytelling should be on the table. That's what I think.

Glad you dug AG - it's not my favorite of his, though. THE SANDMAN series does a lot of what he's doing in that book, and does it better, I think. (Indeed, much of the structure of AG reads like the novelization of a comic series - interesting, but it never lands quite right, you know?) I liked ANANSI BOYS much, much better, and ODD AND THE FROST GIANTS I think is my favorite of all his work.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKelly Barnhill

Kelly, thank you very much for weighing in.

I'm very excited, and a little surprised that so many people are strong against the notion of separating different story forms into genre. When I thought of doing this genre year thing I assumed that people would be standing stronger FOR the separation of genre. I suppose I wasn't giving people enough credit.

I agree with you 100% that "all fiction is fantasy" and "all fiction - the stuff that's written down, anyway - is literary" (only a fool wouldn't). You've put the facts very succinctly, and for that, I thank you...as I'll probably end up quoting you later.

Anyway, I hope that some people choose to read along with me this year, and open themselves up to books they might not have considered reading previously.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

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