‘American Gods’ Book Club Part II: Wide Open Spaces

This post contains spoilers through the first nine chapters of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. If you want to spoil beyond that, feel free, just label your comment as such. For next week, let’s read through chapter 12.

This section’s a beautiful explication of the idea of America, but reading through Mr. Wednesday’s speech to the Gods, it struck me that there’s part of Gaiman’s set-up of this universe that doesn’t quite make sense:

When the people came to America they brought us with them. They brought me, and Loki and Thor, Anansi and the Lion-God, Leprechauns and Kobols and Banchsees, Kubera, and Frau Holle and Ashtaroth, and they brought you. We rode here in their minds, and we took root. We traveled with the settlers to the new lands across the ocean. The land is vast. Soon enough, our people abandoned us, remembered us only as creatures of the old land, as things that had not come with them to the new. Our true believers passed on, or stopped believing, and we were left, lost and scared and dispossessed, only what little smidgens of worship or belief we could find. And to get by as best we could. So that’s what we’ve done, gotten by, out on the edges of things, where no one was watching us too closely. We have, let us face it and admit it, little influence. We prey on them, and we take from them, and we get by; we strip and we whore and we drink too much; we pump gas and we steal and we cheat and we exist in the cracks at the edges of society. Old gods, here in this new land without gods.

The whole setup of the novel relies on the idea that what’s distinct about America is a kind of flux and insecurity, that what’s unique about it is its blank slate nature, its lack of an originary identity, and in these sections of the book, one of the main ways that’s manifested is in an erasure of Native Americans in the narrative. “Nobody’s American,” Mr. Wednesday tells Shadow. “Not originally. That’s my point.” When Sam hitches a ride with Shadow and asks if he has Indian blood, he denies it. Of course it’s true that America today is defined by its immigrants, but that doesn’t mean that this was a blank and empty country before they started to arrive. And to a certain extent, all countries are immigrant countries, all the land was originally unpeopled—so what is it about the United States that makes it vulnerable to this kind of flux and insecurity? Are all countries this way originally, before their religions and traditions stabilize? Or is there something different about America?

Mr. Wednesday, for example, tells Shadow that “This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is…The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.” In Gaiman’s world, that anxiety’s a result of the fact that America doesn’t have an originary set of Gods. But I wonder if that perpetual search would feel more profound if there’d been something there that was destroyed, if this wasn’t the first great contest between deities for American dominion.

That said, I do love Mr. Wednesday’s description of the American failure to access the divine:

In the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.

And I hope we’ll learn a bit more about how Jesus (who, as Mr. Jacquel notes “does pretty good over here. But I met a guy who said he saw him hitchhiking by the side of the road in Afghanistan and nobody was stopping to give him a ride. You know? It all depends on where you are.”) fits into this cosmology. Is he an Old God? A new one? What about Islam and Judaism? Are they dominant religions? Are the Old Gods and the New just fighting over the scraps of belief that are left? We’ve got throwaway references to Christianity, Middle Eastern immigrants who are a way to engage with figures of legend rather than Allah. If American Gods is about the fact that there’s little belief left to go around, aren’t the monotheistic faiths the enemies of both the Old Gods and the New Ones?