This is just one proof that I need to talk or at least communicate somehow with M. Otaku more often. I have been procrastinating writing about Neil Gaiman and specifically American Gods for quite a while now. Recently, as I was trying to explain to him the Neil Gaiman experience and the book American Gods in particular, a few utterly new thoughts occurred to me. Obviously, what follows is a bit of a ramble: I am in an Airport, and I should be planning for my interview tomorrow, but these ideas are too pressing to leave for later. You see, after reading American Gods, I could not bring myself to read any more Gaiman because, well, bleak does not begin to describe it…. captivating and bleak.
I found myself in serious conflict because this was the same author (and, at a similar time, according to the prologue) as the writer of Coraline which was my second Neil Gaiman experience, and the two books could not be less similar. Coraline is brave and hopeful. American Gods is dank and pervaded by nihilism; although, dank is probably the best description. Coraline is brief and shining, American Gods rambles and everything that shines is fool’s gold.
So, which author is Gaiman? Obviously, that cannot be answered, and I am not sure that Gaiman knows. Coraline rises to the level of Narina, books that Gaiman obviously loves and cherishes. I thought, at least at first, that he has some traces of C.S. Lewis’ Christianity and that the ghosts of Christians past sort of haunt Neil Gaiman and his writing. In that case, the ‘Coraline’ would be just the story with the strongest haunting (as the West, now mostly deceased, is haunted by its belief and Christianity yet), while American Gods shows most clearly that desperate nihilism that the postmodern world abides in: the hopes of modernism having been smashed to bits starting 100 years ago this year.
There is a train of thought that I think binds together Coraline and American Gods in the same author. I know, of course, that this is mere speculation, but, having also just now read The Ocean at the End of the Lane (and previously, Anansi Boys), I think that Gaiman knows what he is doing. What he is doing is connected by a source that I would be very, very surprised if he did not know: (obviously, since I only really blog about one thing) “The Ballad of the White Horse.” (For which, I am very grateful to M. Otaku for introducing me.)
Gunthram, the King of the Danes says: “When he shall hunger without hope/ Even for evil gods.” Alfred responds decrying the despair and anger and nihilism of the pagan king, but that black dankness is the end of all beliefs that do not end in Christ:
Your lord sits high in the saddle,
A broken-hearted king,
But our king Alfred, lost from fame,
Fallen among foes or bonds of shame,
In I know not what mean trade or name,
Has still some song to sing;
Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;
Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.
Now to tell you about American Gods. (This post wanders like the book, and is therefore fitting 🙂 ) If you care about spoilers–tough. The really good stories don’t depend on petty little secrets. The core idea is that people made the gods, but nevertheless, the gods are real. They have some real power, more real the more they are worshiped obviously. However, when people immigrated to America, they brought the gods with them, and America is a harsh place for the gods. They scrabble by, and Oden doesn’t like that. (Obviously…) (And if you whine about me letting the cat out that it was Oden, all I have to say is: the character calls himself Wednesday, its not like its a secret.) He gathers together the old gods to do battle with the new, and hopefully win their places back against the gods of the modern world. (Like the CIA spooks that everyone knows exists etc.) The main character is shadow, and he sees what he sees. Gaiman keeps what I think is a fundamental rule. He allows his characters their privacy, only telling us stuff when we need it.
Obviously, I enjoyed the fact that a lot took place in Wisconsin, and Neil Gaiman. has obviously been there for at least one winter. But the gods, the gods are dismal, and their depredations ranging from petty to horrifying, their origins following similar pattern. Although one is so tragic, and yet so believable, you will (or should) at least weep internally. Oden’s plan eventually falls apart, but nothing is really changed, nor is there any joy in the story.
But, thus is the face of the real world without including Christ. Thus was the ancient pagan world and thus is the modern pagan world. There is nothing for people except nothingness and to forget death for an hour in battle like Gunthram. It is remarkable that Jesus is never seen, nor mentioned. Only the old, squabbling, evil, petty gods, shown for themselves, not as they pretend. Wormwood in tights so to speak. It is entirely possible that Gaiman left Jesus out for the main reason that He is real, and not a figment of peoples imagination powered by people’s minds. I see no other good reason to leave out of America the defining belief of at least half of its people.
My conclusion, Neil Gaiman is a spy, a very good one. And I recommend, in order, Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Anansi Boys, American Gods, and Neverwhere. (The last one falls so far down only because it rambles without reason , American Gods rambles for good reason–ever driven anywhere in American on back roads?)
Sometime, I might well write about one of those specifically, but, for now, you at least know how I sorted out the enigma of Neil Gaiman.