Welcome to the third installment of our American Gods Reread, a rambling literary road trip through Neil Gaiman’s Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award-winning novel (soon to be an HBO series). Each week we’ll be following the adventures and misadventures of Shadow Moon and his employer, the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, through a landscape both familiar and deeply strange. Please be aware that there will be spoilers in the post and comments.
This week, we rejoin our roadtripping companions as they prepare to leave Chicago a little poorer than they found it…
Part One: Shadows; Chapter 5:
Leaving Czernobog and the Zorya behind, our intrepid protagonists set about robbing a bank. Shadow conjures up a snowstorm, while Wednesday cheerfully fleeces the marks. Felonious mission completed, they travel from Chicago and head toward Wisconsin, meeting up with Czernobog and the delightful Mr. Nancy amidst the strangely compelling kitsch and clutter of The House on the Rock. Hitching a ride on the World’s Largest Carousel, the foursome go joyously spinning toward the infinite….
So much to talk about, so I’ll just go point by point:
• I’m fascinated by Wednesday quoting St. Just. (“Liberty is a bitch who must be bedded on a mattress of corpses.”) The quote also appears in the “Thermidor” issue of The Sandman, one of the darker and most explicitly episodes in the series, in which St. Just appears as a corrupt and nihilistic sociopath. Considering that St. Just and Robespierre were out to wipe out belief and reverence toward gods and superstition in the pursuit of a society based on pure reason, the irony of putting that quote in Odin’s mouth is extreme.
And yet, as a god who feeds off of battles and revolutions (the bloodier, the better), it makes a certain amount of grim sense – more importantly, it gives us a sense of the warped rules Wednesday is playing by, referencing a tyrannical regime dedicated to tearing down gods and destroying history. It’s basically the same project he and Loki are engaged in – note that he doesn’t quote Robespierre, the true believer, but St. Just the cynical manipulator, fomenting revolution for his own gain.
• Is it me, or does this chapter seem to be playing around with casual misogyny? First the poem at the start of the chapter (life is a whore), then Wednesday’s comments about Liberty and women in general (no shock that an old Norse war god wouldn’t be an ardent feminist, but still), then the fictional pain-in-the-ass girlfriend with car trouble…maybe it’s because we’re reading these chapters in pairs, but I feel like all the macho posturing in this chapter is then reversed in the next, with Kali giving Wednesday an (enjoyably sarcastic) hard time and the Attack of the Killer Laura. It definitely seems to balance itself out….
• As much as I love a good caper, the House on the Rock always overshadows the first half of the chapter for me, from Wednesday’s lecture on roadside attractions as places of power and gateways to the infinite to the World’s Largest Carousel, so apologies for giving the robbery short shrift, here, impressive as it is.
• Shadow’s fortune (or as Wednesday would have it “consulting the Norns”: The Norns actually appear later in the book, of course, as the three women at the farmhouse where Shadow’s vigil takes place). “EVERY ENDING IS A NEW BEGINNING” and “LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON” both seem relatively self-explanatory (in the context of the rest of the novel, if not to Shadow); I’ve always wondered if his lucky number (NONE) and lucky color (DEAD) is a winking reference to Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” mentioned in the last chapter, since it contains the line “Where black is the color and none is the number.”
• I love that Shadow chooses to ride “a creature with an eagle’s head and the body of a tiger;” I always picture a really funky-looking griffin, and since we have Herodotus to thank for reporting the existence of that particular mythical beast, it’s such a satisfying choice.
• Finally, the carousel itself: I’d love to know if Gaiman had The Catcher in the Rye in mind at all when he wrote the last few paragraphs of this chapter. It’s such an iconic piece of Americana, and of course the Central Park carousel provides one of Salinger’s central metaphors. There’s something really wonderful (to me, at least) about reading Shadow’s ride on The World’s Largest Carousel as a kind of reversal of Holden Caulfield’s experience – where H.C. comes to terms with adulthood the loss of innocence watching his young sister on the carousel, Shadow makes a kind of irrational leap of faith by jumping onto the ride and is immediately transported back to his childhood just before he enters the realm of the gods. It’s interesting to juxtapose the two scenes – both moments of epiphany, in a way, but in the service of very different worldviews.
Is it wrong for me to view that bank heist as a weird measure of father-son bonding on this read? I think it is. Still, there’s something so oddly… adorable about Shadow making such a fuss to the cops over the payphone, maybe overplaying it a tad. Again, we get that glimpse of how there is something of Odin’s con man makeup that Shadow has no difficulty tapping into. You could argue that for all his protests about not getting on the wrong side of the law, he’s actually enjoying it a bit. I wonder about Shadow’s ease of slipping into that character he creates for himself; is it simply more personality coming to a surface? Or could it be that, like the other gods we have witnessed in the book so far, Shadow’s heritage allows him to become what people expect of him? Does it have anything to do with why Shadow can also conjure the snowstorm, or is that more like a prayer that Odin channels?
A mark of how quickly the world changes – I know that there are still, in fact, payphones off weird backroads in America, but there’s no way these characters wouldn’t have crappy cellphones in this book if it were written today.
As for the House on the Rock, the discussion of places of power is particularly interesting. As Wednesday points out, most of the time when people discover these places, they erect cathedrals and temples in their places, but he picks the House to hold their meeting. It seems a very deliberate choice – no one denomination has power at the House, and interestingly, the collection that runs through it represents all sort of places and cultures. It’s perfect ground.
Weird aside: I find it hilarous how Wednesday finds the need to point out which suits of armor are fakes and when they were built. My favorite college professor took us to the Met and did the exact same thing, but Wednesday’s no college professor.
And we’re introduced to Mr. Nancy, one of my favorite characters in the whole novel. This might have something to do with the fact that I had Anansi folktale books when I was a little kid. Also, having read Anansi Boys, when Mr. Nancy brings up his dumb son, my new reaction is “Fat Charlie! I love you, Fat Charlie!” Ahem.
Part One: Shadows; Chapter 6:
Shadow finds himself transported into Wednesday’s mind, in which the gods appear in various forms and incarnations simultaneously; he recognizes Wednesday as Odin for the first time. Only a small group of old gods have responded to Wednesday’s invitation; Mr. Nancy warms up the crowd. Wednesday issues a call to war against the new American gods of technology, insisting that they’re out to displace and destroy the Old World deities. The old gods, especially Mamma-ji/Kali, remain dubious, but Mr. Nancy assures Shadow that Wednesday will win them over to his cause, one by one. After chauffeuring several deities to dinner, Shadow is kidnapped, interrogated by Wood and Stone, and unexpectedly freed by Laura, who has handily slaughtered his captors. Confused, battered, and hunted, Shadow flees South.
Well, if only the gods are real, then Chapter 6 brings us face to face with some serious Realness, as we’re catapulted into Wednesday’s mind. Riding their otherworldly mounts on a starlit beach of skulls, Shadow sees Wednesday, Czernobog and Nancy in their true form(s); I’ve always enjoyed how elegantly Gaiman captures the experience of glimpsing the divine through Shadow’s eyes, the metaphor of “the multifaceted jeweled eyes of a dragonfly” showing all aspects of the gods. If it’s possible to channel a Viking Metal album cover on acid and not be over the top (even when Odin gallops toward Valaskjalf bellowing his own name), that pretty much sums up this scene for me, in the best possible way.
The chapter centers around Odin’s address to the roomful of deities who’ve deigned to respond to his summons, and I think it’s helpful to read his speech in light of the poem that prefaces this chapter: Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s “Unguarded Gates.” Published in 1895, Aldrich’s poem was depressingly well received at the time, but has become infamous over time for its rampant xenophobia and racism—a call to protect the “white Goddess” of Liberty from immigrants eager to turn America into “the cesspool of Europe.” Of course, as Wednesday himself pointed out in the last chapter, “Nobody’s American. Not originally.”—and yet his arguments rely on the same kind of fear-mongering and inflammatory rhetoric as the Aldrich-loving nationalists of the 1890s. As with the St. Just quote in the previous chapter, which reflected the darkest and most cynical sentiments of the French Revolution, Wednesday seems to be reflecting the most sinister and divisive elements in American culture and adopting them as part of his strategy, here: playing on the fear of the other, cultivating paranoia about the new and unknown to achieve his own ends and increase his power.
Wednesday is essentially appealing to the Old World gods, the established deities who came over to the New World and put down roots, to turn on the influx of newer gods with suspicion and destroy the upstarts before the upstarts have a chance to wipe out the old. It’s a familiar story, sadly, but it’s not the definitive American narrative.
Of course, Wednesday’s not content to let the weight of his words convey the entirety of his message, and the attack at the restaurant and Shadow’s abduction help handily reinforce the seeds of fear he’d been endeavoring to sow.
Again, I like the reversal of the random nuggets of misogyny scattered throughout the last chapter; as his world gets weirder and more dangerous, Shadow finds comfort in his memories of his mother, in the image of Liberty as she appears on the silver dollar given to him by Zorya Polunochnaya, and of course his greatest ally is Laura, who slaughters his tormentors and sets him free. Each of these women is a source of comfort but also protection, in a very non-passive sense, especially when it comes to Laura, who turns into an undead murder machine, rescuing Shadow like an action hero swooping in to save a damsel in distress….
Finally, the one thing I don’t understand about this chapter is what exactly Laura knows, at this point in the novel. Shadow asks her, “Do you know what’s going on? Do you know who these people are? Who you killed?” and she responds, “I think I do know.” And that’s it – he doesn’t ask her to explain, she doesn’t offer. Is it possible that she could help him piece together the conspiracy? Does she really know what’s going on, in a big picture sense? I’m not sure what to make of this exchange – any thoughts?
I could be mistaken, but I think that Mama-ji’s mention of the version of herself in India is the first time we hear about the gods having different incarnations of themselves in different places. I always loved this device, but wondered at it as well – is it because they simply can’t be in more than one place at a time? Is it because gods have to adapt to their people when they grow and change?
The names Wood and Stone were lost on me when I first read the book, but this time around I realized – wood and stone were the first materials we used to make tools, beginning the technological advancement of humanity. It’s sort of a perfect name for their lowest rung thugs. Also, their access to such high level equipment (helicopters and the like) is impressive, and really makes Wednesday and crew seem pitifully outmatched. It’s a great way to drive home the point of how unbalanced this fight will be if it ever gets going, making the danger a lot more immediate, though there’s still a lot of the book to go.
The choice of who can enact violence throughout the book is always interesting to keep track of. Shadow notes that he could take out both Wood and Stone and potentially get out of their with their guns, but he refuses to unleash that part of himself. This then leads to Laura’s rescue, which leaves me with one specific question: is this something that Laura can only do because she is dead? I mean that both in terms of physical capability and mental inclination. We’re aware that Laura doesn’t view the living the same way now, which indicates that this whole rampage wouldn’t have been possible before she died. Which I think is interesting, but it makes me feel like we don’t quite know Laura, at least not the Laura that Shadow knew.
That hilarious exchange between Shadow and the raven (where he asks it to say nevermore) really does strike as a moment that you see an opening for, and just have to use. I love it so.
Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. She thinks Odin should add “Queen of the Phonies” to his list of fancy names and titles, the old fraud.