Sunday, December 21, 2008

American Gods - and Demons

The All-Father (Odin)

Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2001) made the New York Times bestseller list in July of that year. The events of September 11 were like a fulfillment of the author's prophetic imagination.

In this novel, the characters frequently allude to "the coming storm." I picked out six of them - and only one was a reference to the weather. Some examples: "it's not a storm of our making," "it scares me - I would do anything to get away," "if I can get away before the storm hits, away from a world in which opiates have become the religion of the masses," "the war had begun and nobody saw it. The storm was lowering and nobody knew it." The ostensible text is the coming battle between the Old Gods and the New. But the hidden text...? One is inclined to wonder: what did the author know and when did he know it? The imagination has its sources of perception and feeling, and its accuracy is far sharper and more deadly than mere news reporting. This author's imagination has tuned in to the new theory of government, stated a few years ago in a New York Times article by Ron Suskind, who was quoting one of the Bush people: "We're an empire now... we create our own reality. " The New Age has come to government. Welcome to literary theory as political creed.

Who are the Old Gods? Well, there's Mr. Wednesday - Odin - Wotan - Wotansday - Wednesday - the All-Father. Shadow, the ex-con who is the hero of our tale, runs into Mr. Wednesday after his release from prison a couple of days early because he learned that his wife was killed in a car crash. Mr. Wednesday offers him a job as an "errand boy," and Shadow, somewhat dubiously at first, accepts. Mr. Wednesday tells him, "I have as many names as there are winds, as many titles as there are ways to die." It's not always crystal clear who the Old Gods are, or what they want, but it's clear who the New Gods are: credit cards, freeway, Internet, telephone, radio, hospital, television, plastic, cell phone, neon, bureaucracy - the gods of debt, servitude, rootlessness, Empire.

But there's this: the New Gods always give themselves away in the way they speak. Here's the Fat Kid, his eyes glinting "like an antique computer monitor," who tells Shadow: "You tell Wednesday this. You tell him he's history. He's forgotten. He's old. Tell him we are the future and we don't give a fuck about him or anyone like him. He has been consigned to the Dumpster of history while people like me ride our limos down the superhighway of tomorrow...Tell him we have fucking reprogrammed reality. Tell him that language is a virus and that religions are an operating system and that prayers are just so much fucking spam... It's all about the dominant fucking paradigm, Shadow. Nothing else is important."

The Fat Kid, Media, Town, Mr. World - they all want a "clean world," they want to "own tomorrow," they want "to write the future in Letters of Fire." Shadow begins to notice "how they seem to like to speak in cliches." The New Gods sound like robots, ever reproducing the things they have already heard. In the end it's about the word - the ability to speak, and to take responsibility for one's beliefs. As one of the Old Gods explains, "This isn't about what is... It's about what people think is. It's all imaginary anyway... People only fight over imaginary things"-- because ... "People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen."

In this novel the magic of the Old Gods meets up with history and with the techno-magic of our era. There is love and wonder too, and the border between life and death opens to reveal the common story. Shadow's wife comes back - in a sort of half-life, and becomes Shadow's protectress. But she wants to be alive again, to feel the real blood in her veins - "Make it happen, hon. You'll figure it out." Shadow almost does -- but not as a new Christ figure, although he hangs for nine days in a vigil over Wednesday, on an ash tree in Virginia. He hangs there because the stories go on, and because the stories go on, the hero as bearer of imagination is willing to be moved, to act, to believe, to stand. Only such a decision, taken in the marrow, can lead to a real future, of truth - not the cliche-ridden nightmare foisted by illusion-mongers and manipulative fakes feeding off the chaos they have created.

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