This post contains spoilers through the first 12 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 16.
One thing that I struggle with in American Gods is that this is a story about mysteries that always seems to stop short of really expressing the strangeness and power of worshiping and being worshiped, of sacrifice and sacrificing and being sacrificed to. When Mr. Wednesday and Shadow visit Las Vegas, Gaiman tells us that “The secret is this: people gamble to lose money. They come to the casinos for the moment in which they feel alive, to ride the spinning wheel and turn the cards and lose themselves, with the coins, in the slots. They may brag about the nights they won, the money they took from the casino, but they treasure, secretly treasure, the times they lost. It’s a sacrifice, of sorts.” The space between what people say they believe, and what they actually believe, is interesting, but Gaiman doesn’t really explain why that space exists, or what people get out of making that kind of sacrifice and treating its holiness as a kind of secret.
Similarly, we don’t really know what the entity at the heart of the casino gets out of that loss, those sacrifices. Wednesday promises him a drink that he describes to Shadow as “like bees and honey. Each bee makes only a tiny, tiny drop of honey. It takes thousands of them, millions perhaps, all working together to make the pot of honey you have on your breakfast table. Now imagine that you could eat nothing but honey. That’s what it’s like for my kind of people…we feed on belief, on prayers, on love.” It’s an OK metaphor, but not a sufficient one to really convey what it would be like to receive those small offerings on a regular basis. And while honey’s wonderful, it’s not the same as existence. The magnitude of the metaphor doesn’t match Wednesday’s petulance, which I think is one of the nicest moments in the novel at showing what happens to diminished deities: “What the hell else can I do? They don’t sacrifice rams or bulls to me,” Wednesday complains after Shadow objects to him shortchanging a waitress in San Francisco. “They don’t send me the souls of killers and slaves, gallows-hung and raven-picked. They made me. They forgot me. Now I take a little back from them. Isn’t that fair?”
My frustrations with the way Gaiman’s descriptions of worship, and awe, and sacrifice fall short (so often, he gets a great image, and then sort of flattens it with a statement, as with “He pushed himself into a crevice of skulls, hollow eye-hoes stared at him, a clutter of ivory teeth smiled at him, but he kept climbing, pulling himself up the mountain of skulls, every sharp edge cutting into his skin, feeling revulsion and terror and awe.”) is partly writerly — it’s not as if it’s impossible to write about mystic experience, because folks have been doing it for centuries. But it also gets to a question I have about the entire central conflict of the novel. When Wednesday and Shadow visit Eostre, she tries to tell them that she’s doing fine:
“I’m telling you,” she said. “I”m doing fine. On my festival days they still feast on eggs and rabbits, on candy and on flesh, to represent rebirth and copulation. They wear flowers in their bonnets and they give each other flowers. They do it in my name. More and more of them every year. In my name, old wolf.”
“And you wax fat and affluent on their worship and their love?” he said dryly.
“Don’t be an asshole.” Suddenly, she sounded very tired.
Of course, she’s not. But the people stealing worship from her aren’t the New Gods: it’s Jesus, who may be stuck hitching rides in Afghanistan, but is doing just dandy in the U.S. of A. On one of their trips, Wednesday tells Shadow that “There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe that they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do And that is what makes them dangerous.” But I think the novel’s missing an acknowledgment that wars are particularly vicious when the available spoils are small. The fight between the Old Gods and the New isn’t just about which side will be richer in the end: it’s about which will remain to survive on the quantity of belief that’s left in America.
The problem is that belief isn’t necessarily finite. And while Mr. Wednesday may insist that he’s doing what he’s doing because he wants to, he obviously doesn’t believe the New Gods are worthy of worship. His description of the dissolution of America as a coherent country (though a direct contradiction of the idea that there should be a lot of Gods each with their own established community of followers to sustain them) is in part a rejection of pop culture and mass phenomena and media as unifying phenomena: “San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside anymore than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis…They may share certain cultural signifiers—money, a federal government, entertainment—it’s the same land, obviously—but the only thing that give it the illusion of being one country are the greenback, The Tonight Show, and McDonald’s.”
And as Greg Sanders wrote in the first installment of the book club: “I tended to find the New Gods quite bland. I think that’s fairly intentional and consistent with what you said about stripping away the mythology. However, as a side effect, it also meant that they didn’t really interest me as villains.” And that lowers the stakes of the conflict as well. Gaiman never really seems to consider the idea that the New Gods might meet Americans’ needs more, that Media might be better at holding together the country than the New Gods are, that in television, and the Internet, people might find satisfying answers to deep and powerful needs.