The Hugo Awards, the Nebula Awards, SFX Magazine, the International Horror Guild, the Geffen Award, what do they all have in common? They’re all idiots who unjustly lauded Neil Gaiman’s sprawling, turgid American Gods.
In aforesaid novel, Gaiman (whom I was pleased to recently discover, has not fallen victim to nominative determinism) posits a situation where the broadly contemporary United States of America are littered with destitute gods, brought over by immigrants years previously, but now gone to seed through lack of reverence and observance.
Firstly, if Gaiman, in researching his tome had bothered even the most cursory research into hypothetical trans-creedal panthea, he would’ve come across my own contribution to the canon, Elephant and Castle, which should’ve given him pause for thought.
Within the delightfully vivid and rich world I create,* the status of a god is dependent solely on the number of acknowledged adherents they can claim. Yes, Gaiman’s gods do receive power through sacrificial offerings, praise, traumatic coitus, but this is not a rational way to determine whether one god should be more powerful or significant than another.
Whilst I accept that my own system has its flaws – there is no reasonable way to weight human devotees based on class, gender, personal hygiene, meaning we must accept the gods of the less intelligent, or indeed more exotic peoples of Earth (on the plus side, this does allow for some hilariously ludicrous creation myths to be skewered in my work) – it is much more rational than what is offered in American Gods. Gaiman even presents preposterous “gods” like television, or modern transport which have never merited dedication of sacred buildings, let alone the slaughter of heretics – they have no formally acknowledgeable adherents, Neil, how do you expect to quantify their influence?**
Elephant and Castle is a subtle, beautifully rendered, wholly rational explanation of the bureaucracy of a pan-religious afterlife. I am not trying to establish some sort of Deities Top Trumps, (I cannot make that clear enough following a recent cease and desist order from Winning Moves UK, current owners of the Top Trumps™ franchise) but given that Gaiman’s lengthy ponderous book is essentially building to a “who would win in a fight between…?” climax, he should really have put more thought into laying down the scope and criteria of the argument.
Which brings me to my second issue. Gaiman spends a considerable portion of my time (533 pages in the 10th anniversary edition I was duped into purchasing) setting the scene for an epic Battle of the Gods, then right at the last minute, he laps it. He backs down from the challenge of depicting an apocalyptic Götterdämmerung and instead gets his main character to waffle through a “can’t we all be friends” speech after only one heart spearing and the odd vehicular deicide. Who would win in a fight between Anubis and Shiva? We never get to find out.
This raises another concern of mine – Asgardians aside, Gaiman seems unhealthily interested in the gods of, how shall I put this, peoples of less temperate climates. We are given outrageous explanations as to how Egyptian gods made it to America, and even a non-sequitur inter-chapter vignette about the gods of African slaves (boo hoo), yet Gaiman gives little place to the gods of his own homeland.
Am I saying Neil Gaiman is a massive parvenu turning his back on the homegrown Gods of England? I’ll leave it for you to decide. But let me put it this way, would the story have been improved by the inclusion of John Barleycorn? Or better still, Jinny Greenteeth, dragging kids and grannies to their watery doom? Of course it would’ve. And don’t get me started on The Green Man. Even under Gaiman’s unsatisfactory criteria, He of the Disgorging Head would tear the shit out of “The Internet” on the basis of the number of hostelries established in his name.
My final issue is a particularly personal one, but again it indicates how little consideration Gaiman must have given to research before starting his pocket-ripper of a novel. Back in 1997, (a full four years before the book was published) whilst somewhat disoriented in a proprietary theme park on the west coast of the USA, I offered a small but not insignificant blood oblation to Tom Bombadil to ensure my safe return to a pre-ordained meeting spot (some sort of concession stand offering commemorative tat and fried goods).
This happened on American soil, and means that Tom Bombadil exists in the world of American Gods. Yet Neil Gaiman neglected to involve him. Was it through fear, (many lesser authors are cowed by strongly worded letters from the executors of Professor Tolkien’s estate) or just ignorance? It matters not. Neither is an acceptable excuse.
We are talking about a being over whom the One Ring has no power and barely even registers interest. I don’t believe anyone could tell me with a straight face that Iarwain Ben-adar (approximately “Eldest and Fatherless” for those not conversant in Sindarin) would not have completely swung the balance for whichever side he chose to join in the anti-climactic Ragnarök. I can picture him laying waste to foes who lacked the foresight to exist before the concept of time, and those who have little appetite for tiresome rhymes. Unfortunately Gaiman could not. The tit.
Admittedly Bombadil’s inclusion would have ruined any tension within the book and made the result of any battle a foregone conclusion, but that is no excuse for Gaiman shirking his responsibility to accurately reflect the pantheon at his disposal.
In short, Gaiman and his book failed on so many key levels, from determining the rules of the game, to including the gods for whom he should have congenital affection, then finally chickening out of the definitive orgy of god-slaying he was fluffing throughout the book. Would that the pandering leftist back-patters of the genre fiction awards panels had seen this at the time.
* Obviously I have only offered a brief excerpt online; I’m not stupid enough to post whole chapters so some Wotsit-fingered lackwit can feast upon my talent without even making a notional commitment through a fiduciary intermediary.
** My own system is also applicable for establishing market-based pricing for the delivery of services (smitings, fertility, success in battle) by the deities. However, I imagine Gaiman would probably use the data on acknowledged worshippers to establish some sort of benefits system for “underprivileged” (ineffective or boring) gods and set up funds to support their status as “beings of ethnic cultural significance”.
Strange Goings-on in Lakeside
As an addendum, I feel I should also quickly address the addendum to the novel, in which the main character of American Gods, Shadow (a pathetic name for one’s protagonist) solves the mystery of the missing children in the secluded town of Lakeside. Basically, the kids were being offered up annually in sacrifice to Hinzelmann, their bodies were placed inside the clapped out old cars on the lake ice, and that’s what kept the town prosperous – if you didn’t see that coming I suggest you go read some Dan Brown, you’ll find it captivating.
When Shadow finds out about the sacrament and eventually precipitates the death of Hinzelmann, he is committing one of his most idiotic acts. The facts are there in the book – the sacrifices at Lakeside work. We’re told the quaint little town has a well-stocked local library, plenty of independent businesses, low unemployment, and little crime outside of the scheduled annual child murder.
Unfortunately Gaiman, with his blinkered, mealy-mouthed relativist world view seems unwilling to accept that this is a perfectly sustainable approach to ensuring the prosperity of a small town. If one mousy little girl has to get ritually killed and sent to an icy grave at the bottom of a lake in order to avoid an increase in petty crime and unemployment and a corresponding decline in house prices, I think that’s a reasonable bargain to make.