Magic & Good Madness: A Neil Gaiman Reread

American Gods Reread: Chapters 3 and 4

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Welcome to the second 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 pick up with our protagonists just in time for one of them to get lucky, while the other endures the final hours of what just might be the harshest Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day in recent history….

Part One: Shadows; Chapter 3: A long night back at the Motel America; Wednesday keeps busy while Shadow endures a dream/vision of lost and forgotten gods. Upon waking, he’s joined by his recently departed (and even more recently revived) wife, who announces that she’ll be watching out for him in the days ahead. Shaken, Shadow tells Wednesday that he’s ready to get the hell out of Eagle Point, returns to bed and cries himself to sleep.

Interlude: “Coming to America,” a violent vignette involving Vikings, Native Americans, sacrifice, and retribution, explaining how the Old Norse Gods arrived in the New World.

Bridget:

Poor Shadow. People have probably had worse nights in worse motels, but that is just no way to end a day that’s already included a funeral, a kidnapping, and a mead hangover. Once again I’m struck by all the noirish overtones in his encounter with Laura: the seedy motel room setting, her cigarette smoke, the lights from the cars and the neon signs outside filtering through the window. I guess it’s hard to get more noir than a beautiful dead woman describing in monotone how she broke your heart, but of course she’s the opposite of the stereotypical femme fatale, intent on keeping our protagonist alive and safe, like some kind of zombified guardian angel.

The conversation between Shadow and Laura sets up and/or foreshadows many of their future interactions: not just the idea of Laura as her husband’s protector (the truth of which will be proved several times, mainly in her dealings with Messrs. Wood, Stone, Town, and World), but also their walk in Lakeside when she asks Shadow if he’s really alive, and even later in the book when he eventually does ask her to stay the night with him (during his vigil).

Admittedly, I’ve never quite connected with Laura as a character before, but I’m liking her much more on this reread. I’ve always felt that everything we learn about her through Shadow tells us more about Shadow than about Laura. Once I started thinking about her as a character who was manipulated by forces beyond her control (namely Loki and Odin), she becomes more interesting. There’s no way to pinpoint when they began to use her as a pawn (just before her death? Before her affair? Before the robbery that sent Shadow to prison?), once she’s brought back by the power of the sun-coin, she’s clearly playing by her own rules. And she’s kind of a badass. (I love, by the way, the suggestion from our casting post that Laura be played by Ruth Wilson. That’s how I’ve decided to picture her from now on).

I’ve always thought that Shadow’s nightmare/vision in this chapter was the part of the book most reminiscent of Gaiman’s Sandman: something about the hall of lost and forgotten gods always seems like part of The Dreaming. As one of our excellent readers pointed out last week, you can find an extremely helpful list of all the deities mentioned in American Gods here (thanks, John!) —but just to namecheck a few, we’ve got Loucetios (spelled “Leucotios” here) a Gallic/Roman deity identified with Mars, war, and lightning; Hubur, a Sumerian deity associated with the both the netherworld and the “Water of Life”; Hershef, an Egyptian ram-headed creator/fertility god; and Coatlicue, a fearsome female Aztec deity who you should absolutely read up on, because she is fascinating. It’s possible that Gaiman mentions these specific gods simply because they’re interesting, and fit the casting call for ancient deities that no one worships or remembers any more, but I also think a strong case could be made for some interesting parallels between what these gods represent and events in the novel.

Finally, the first “Coming to America” interlude…would not have made a very good Eddie Murphy movie, in spite of the title. Interesting that Gaiman chose Tyr along with Odin and Thor as the first Norse gods to reach America (and not, say, Loki, or Balder), but he does overlap quite a bit with Odin as a god of war (and without the three of them, we wouldn’t have Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, etymologically speaking). This section really helps drive home the awesome power once commanded by Odin, and the terrible price the gods demand from the faithful….

Emily: The bath that Shadow takes seems so silly, with its bubbles of crappy shampoo, but in a way it’s a simple set up to something important about his character; if Shadow keeps his promise about something as innocuous as a bubble bath, then he’s likely to keep his promises about the important stuff, too. Which is part of what makes his deal with Czernobog in the next chapter actually a point of concern.

There’s a moment in Shadow’s dream where the voice informing him about the gods says, “Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.” To me, it almost seemed like a funny little shout out to Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta, which posits the opposite where ideas are concerned. It might not have been intentional, but Moore and Gaiman are friends, so the thought sort of tickles me.

I never liked Laura quite so much either on my first read, but it’s entirely possible that that was just a younger me not wanting to acknowledge the complexity of her relationship to Shadow and Robbie, and finding the manner of her death so utterly depressing. She also felt more like a plot device to me and less like a person, but I find myself paying more attention to her this time around, how she words things and what she deems important. I like Bridget’s suggestion that perhaps she was being manipulated by Wednesday and Loki much earlier on, and the inevitability of her role in Shadow’s life following her death. It puts her on a more mythic level as well, which is pretty spetacular.

Of course, we now know more about Viking settlers that we did a decade ago, specifically that plenty of women traveled these voyages and brought their swords with them. So, interestingly, the aside in this “Coming to America” section about the women coming over later is now pretty thoroughly debunked. Ah, our ever-changing grasp of history!

 

Part One: Shadows; Chapter 4: Shadow and Wednesday start off on their journey, heading for Chicago, where they meet with Czernobog and the Zorya. An epic game of checkers leads to an uncomfortable draw: Czernobog agrees to help Wednesday in his coming endeavors, but Shadow will have to surrender to a killing blow once their business is concluded. Zorya Polunochnaya, the midnight sister, gives Shadow some advice on how to talk to the dead and protection in the form of a shiny silver dollar (that was once the moon).

Interlude: In “Coming to America 1721,” Mr. Ibis surfaces for the first time, recounting the life of Essie Tregowan, a brassy Cornish lass who always remained on good terms with the piskies and spirits, if not on the right side of the law.

Bridget:

For me, this is the chapter where the book really starts rolling along, and I’m always happy to see the Zorya, with their odd blend of otherworldliness and brusque, canny hospitality. I didn’t know anything about Slavic mythology on my first read, and definitely didn’t know until relatively recently that Gaiman had actually created and inserted Zorya Polunochnaya into their existing sister act.

I was, however, familiar with Czernobog thanks to an early childhood fixation on Disney’s Fantasia, and particularly the Night on Bald Mountain sequence. I’ll talk about that a bit more over on the Mix Tape post, but it’s interesting that while Disney’s animators pictured the god as a malevolent, quasi-Satanic deity, there’s really no proof what role the “black god” filled in early Slavic theology; no one’s even sure if his counterpart, the white god “Bielebog,” actually existed—his existence is predicated not on historical sources but on the assumption that a Black God presupposes an opposing White God…according to the laws of binary thinking, I guess. I enjoy the way Gaiman eventually handles that ambiguity, as well as the backstory he creates for the character, steeped in the slaughterhouses of Chicago like something out of Upton Sinclair’s darkest nightmares. Yet Czernobog’s so likeable, in a grisly, grizzled way. (Right? It’s not just me, is it…?)

I could spend another whole post dissecting the games of checkers, and the parallels between the games played by Shadow and Czernobog on one hand and the plot of the novel as a whole on the other, but I’ll just note that it’s an extremely clever bit of writing by Gaiman. I quite like this chapter on the whole, but it’s the light touches and quiet, winking moments that I enjoy most of all, upon rereading—for example, when Czernobog asks Shadow if he has a brother, and Shadow responds, “Not that I know of.” (page 73). Which is true, but when you know that he’s Odin’s son, you realize that we’ve already met two of his brothers in the last chapter’s flashback to Viking times. Also, something about Odin reading “Humor in Uniform” is priceless….

Finally, speaking of interludes, Essie Tregowan’s is one of my favorites: an engaging picaresque that’s kind of a Cornish Moll Flanders for the supernatural set: ups and downs, tragedies and reversals, but in the end she’s remembered by the faerie folk. (And hey, at least she never married her brother!)

Emily: I love Shadow’s response when Wednesday asks him why people call him call him that, and he says simply, “It’s a name.” Almost as though he himself doesn’t really know. Just a nice touch. Also, Wedensday’s eating of all that pork with so little decorum immediately put me in mind of Denethor’s rending, manner-less meal in the Return of the King film, and the visual symbolism intended at that point in the movie. Wednesday suddenly seemed a whole lot creepier.

Being someone who was raised for most of her childhood in the Chicago area, this was the place where the America aspect of this book started to feel particularly authentic to me. That first sentence, “Chicago happened slowly, like a migraine,” is entirely accurate to the Chicago driving experience. No matter what direction you approach it from.

Shadow’s coin from Zorya Polunochnya put me in mind of a book I read years ago about the sun and the moon in mythology, fairy tales and fables. Basically, it discussed how men’s stories were commonly solar and women’s were lunar. Of course, with men there is an implied double-meaning in the sun mythos, being both associated with the sun and light, and also in being sons (think Helios being a sun god and his son Phaeton’s disastrous chariot ride, or Bejamin Tabart’s version of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” where the giant stole from and killed Jack’s father, requiring him to climb to the sky—where the sun is—to find retribution). Even Zorya Polunochnya makes a comment to this affect, saying that she can only offer Shadow the moon’s protection since he gave the sun away, and that this protection would be from the daughter—not the father. Of course, Shadow’s last name is Moon, mixing the solar and lunar mythology by being a Moon but also a son. I’m thinking this will be pretty fun to keep track of as the story goes on.

The Essie Tregowan interlude always made me pretty happy because we’re given a fable-like tale about a woman who takes all sorts of risks in her life, but rather than her being customarily punished at every juncture the way that women often are in these tales, her life simply keeps on going and building. It has all sorts of ups and downs, but it’s quite the adventure, and the relative morality of Essie herself is inconsequential; we’re free to make up our own minds about her. Also, it works in wonderful juxaposition to the last vignettes from the past—we are being shown that for all that the gods can be cruel and merciless, they are also capable of being guardians and do feel obligations to their people.

That’s all for now, but there’s plenty more to discuss in the comments—and check back in next week for the big city, blizzards, bank robbery, and a ride on the World’s Largest Carousel in chapters 5 and 6.

 

The analysis continues in this week’s American Gods Mix Tape.


Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. Every time she reads the description of Wednesday’s blonde conquest at the motel, she pictures a young Shelley Long. This weirds her out.

Emily Asher-Perrin sadly did not get her hands on any mead last week, but she did have some awesome pumpkin hard cider. She also can’t get behind borscht, as much as she likes beets. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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