(2001/2021) Neil Gaiman, Headline, £8.99, pbk, 730pp, ISBN 978-0-755-32281-7
Is there anyone out there who hasn’t read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which when first published (2001) ran away with a bundle of major awards? If I look to my left as I write this I can see a hardback copy of the original 2001 edition which I got signed in the late-lamented Glasgow branch of Border Books, surrounded by a lot of young ladies dressed up as Death from The Sandman comics.
On the bottom shelf of the bookcase lurks a paperback edition of the “author’s preferred text” which is pretty much the same as this new (2021) edition except for the fact that this one includes “Twenty Years of American Gods: A Preface”. There’s also a “Caveat, and Warning for Travellers”, “Group discussion questions”, a short interview with Gaiman, an essay – “How Dare You”, and a sequel novella “Monarch of the Glen” set in Scotland, which originally appeared in Gaiman’s 2006 collection Fragile Things. There is a furtherAmerican Gods related novella, “Black Dog” which doesn’t appear here and is set in rural, north England, possibly the Peak District.
Conversely, this 2021 version of American Gods adds over 130 pages to the first edition, so if you haven’t read the original, or are a bit of a Gaiman completist, then this is the version for you.
The novel does exist in other forms – comics gathered together as graphic novels, and of course, a sprawling TV series which ran for three seasons before being cancelled. Viewers of the series will probably be familiar with the story, except how it ends. Many will argue that this is Gaiman’s best novel, certainly his best novel for adults, although that is a moot point, especially with this expanded version. Of his other novels, Neverwhere was the novel based on his screenplay for the BBC series, with Gaiman’s ambition hampered by budget constraints, which he put right on the page. Stardust might be considered too light, Anansi Boys, a bit lightweight, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, too dark, but they are very different books and all have their champions.
For the uninitiated, American Gods is about Shadow Moon, about to be released from prison after being involved in an armed robbery, but he is let out two days early because his wife Laura has died in a car accident. Still in shock. Shadow makes his journey home and encounters the mysterious Mr. Wednesday who offers him a job as his bodyguard.
Mr. Wednesday is a bit of a rogue, a bit of a conman, a bit of a charmer, and a bit strange, and seems to know too much about Shadow for his liking. Eventually Shadow realises he is a god, a Norse god, and America is full of gods, brought to those shores by believers from the old countries, except the old beliefs are dying out and new gods are rising, created around consumption and technology, and modern life. What follows is a sprawling road movie of a book, as Wednesday crosses America to warn the old gods that a war is coming and they better get ready, better side with him.
This 2021 edition makes for an even bigger road movie with the addition of those extra 130 pages. Editors are there for a reason, and I wonder if, in some alternative reality, this was the first published version it would have garnered as many awards? When I originally read this there were a couple of plot twists which I didn’t see coming, and Gaiman has always been good at weaving strands of plot, moving them far apart and inter-twining them again. But it’s also full of references and asides that some readers just won’t get, and also there are some plot strands which just seem to peter out, and some characters who don’t reappear. There are also some major gods who don’t feature at all, and you probably know who I mean. Why? Not to offend? Not to cause controversy? As I said, Gaiman completists will want to read this, but I feel that the additional pages turn the book into an expanding galaxy of a novel, which only highlights the gaps in between and the slightly repetitive nature of the plot as Shadow visits new places to encounter another old god. However, the ending where a deadly promise is kept and a visit to Reykjavik to encounter a familiar-looking god is still terrific. Shame it now takes even longer to get there.
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