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Jealous gods and godless cities, part 2

Last week I had a few thoughts about my summer-vacation reading. Here are a few more, with convenient and crassly commercial buy me links to Amazon. Just in case.

Reading some of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels, Ted over at Crooked Timber remarked how `human’ Gaiman’s inhuman characters seem. I haven’t read Sandman since college, but I read Gaiman’s American Gods while on vacation, and I had precisely the same thought about the gods depicted there.

Gaiman places gods, fairytale characters, and characters straight out of myths into middle America, where they have gradually been abandoned and forgotten by the immigrants who brought them from the old world. The old gods get by as hustlers, prostitutes, and meat packers, and they take advantage of the occasional old-world believer who stumbles across them. The new gods, meanwhile, the gods of computers and media, ride in limousines and command great contemporary power. One of the immersing things about this world that Gaiman puts together is how naturally he does it. Gaiman blends his primary story with narratives of various gods, how they came to America (with slaves, or Irish servants, or explorers), and how they slowly faded into memory. Eventually, he ends up with a new myth and believeable-feeling myth about America: Of course Odin must have some American form, and when the generations of warriors who believed in him are long gone, the man who assumes his form has to get along in the world somehow.

The crux of the story revolves around conflict between the old and the new gods, all of whom are vying for power and for believers. They fight over things that seem very distinctly human. But when the nature of the conflict is truly revealed, it’s brought home just how human the war is: A war not so much over the future of American Gods, but for the future of a few jealous, hungry, and tired dieties making a last-ditch effort at self-preservation.

In his comments on Sandman, Ted suggests that making a truly unearthly psychology must be impossibly hard, and doesn’t fault Gaiman for not trying it in Sandman. At least in American Gods, the innate humanity—the generosity, greed, and vice—of Gaiman’s gods are what makes the story compelling. It’s no weakness, as I see it, but a great storytelling strength not only that Wednesday, Ibis, Czernobog and the rest have to get jobs, but that their lives wear them down, make them grumpy, and incite them to scheming, just as if they were mortal. Otherwise, we wouldn’t care much about war between them all.

I read American Gods and Perdido Street Station in close succession, and after the dazzling world-building that Miéville takes on, I found it hard to get into American Gods at first. In the end, however, I think that Gaiman comes out as a superior storyteller: I cared more about his characters and enjoyed the whole of the book more than Perdido Street Station. Miéville, on the other hand, is fantastically imaginative and generated a fascinating world in which his stories take place. I’m looking forward to reading more from both authors.