Thursday, 1 November 2007

Still Riding on the Back of Sandman

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Let's talk about genre fiction prizes. The Hugo Award is science fiction's gold standard... Every year, along comes The World Convention and the attendees (dedicated fans) vote for the best SF since the last time. As a fiction fan, I will usually disregard a Booker, or Nobel author, but The Hugo will make me take note. SF's silver standard is The Nebula Award, given out by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Of America. This is the big peer award; and while it has tarnished a little in recent decades (the SFWA is becoming a bit of a joke), it's still significant enough to make it on to the front of a novel.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman managed to take home both of these awards in 2001, and further to knock back the Bram Stoker horror and Locus Fantasy awards... It even got a nomination for the BSFA award. To gain one is an achievement, to win both marks you down in the SF hall of fame (Le Guin managed this feat with The Left Hand Of Darkness, Niven pulled it off with Ringworld, Card delivered it with Speaker For The Dead, and each book is now canon), and to get both plus others is the genre fiction equivalent of Tiger Woods. Suffice to say I picked up American Gods with pretty high expectations.

It didn't merit them.

I cannot, on any level, understand the praise lavished on this humongous heap of horse shit. The conceit of the novel is a simple one: in modern America, the distant mythical gods of the past - from Norse to Egyptian - are co-existing with us while trying to get on with the long habit of immortality. It's a conceit that fans of Gaiman's work should be familiar with, since it is shared with almost everything else he's ever done. Sandman, the epic graphic novel series on which his reputation was built, is based around this central conceit. Good Omens, co-written with Terry Pratchett, is based on this central conceit... So, with this much experience, at least he should be good at it by now. To justify this epic sweep we have the prospect of a war among the gods as the central crisis, and the story is structured as a cross-America road novel.

So, why did I hate it so? Well, firstly lets look at the book itself, Gaiman has allowed his publishers to pad this extended edition with a massive epilogue/appendix and introduction. This contained interviews, background and context on the story, clearly Gaiman is rather proud of this one. I read this first, and in this section he repeatedly hammers home that this is supposed to be an "American Road Novel", the man is bordering on hubris with the conviction that he is an English writer attempting the Great American Novel. Thus, despite all this sales pitching, it was surprising that the novel more than anything else reminded me of The Long, Dark, Tea-Time Of The Soul by Douglas Adams and Small Gods by his former collaborator Terry Pratchett (and his best work). Both of these share an almost identical tone, conceit and plot structure, both of these are written by quintessentially English writers, and both of these are satire. American Gods is satire without the laughs.

Add to that the unbelievable length (600 pages of nothing happening?), the central character who is farcically poorly developed (at the beginning he is a loner with no family or prospects, at the end he is a loner with no family or prospects), and the hideously poorly executed denouement, a wet fart instead of an orgasm. I wasn't impressed... The structural flaws of the novel are clear throughout. A key example is that for the first half of the book there are short stories of background interwoven every other chapter, while in the second half these are stripped out with no explanation. This is just one of the threads he's left fraying in the fabric of this kilogram heavy tome. Yes, there are a lot of things wrong with this Great American Novel.

I'm not saying it's meritless, Gaiman has a lot of good ideas that he manages to pack this book with. Each individual scene contains enough meat that he keeps your interest. He tries, with intermittent success, to paint America as the grand outsider's canvas Leone does in his Dollars Trilogy. But a novel isn't visual the way a spaghetti western is, and there is no art to this one. The central conceit has been done before, better, by an author called Neil Gaiman, and his collaborator, and his collaborator's inspiration.

So much for the most heavily awarded speculative fiction novel of the naughts.


Anonymous said...

I agree. The awards heaped on "American Gods" are somewhat puzzling. A friend of mine, after reading it, commented,"I liked this better when it was Sandman" and there's certainly a lot of truth to that.

If I might, I'd suggest "Anansi Boys" as a better time investment than "American Gods". He puts the funny back into it in "Anansi Boys" and I found it much more enjoyable than "American Gods".

Also, FWIW, I don't think Gaiman, or Gaiman fanfolks (among which I'll cheerfully count myself), praise him for his originality. He's a refashioner, imo, and some of his refashionings are much less extensive than others.

I was puzzled by the nomination for a Hugo this year of his "How to Talk to Girls at Parties." It's a perfectly adequate short story, mind you, but award material? Not so much. Granted, I didn't care for the winner (Pratt's "Impossible Dreams") either, so maybe my idea of good genre short fiction simply doesn't coincide with that of those who actually vote for the awards.


Edwin Hesselthwite said...

The bit I found really baffling was the numerous reviews I found that compared it - favourably - with Roger Zelazny's masterpieces and particularly Lord Of Light.

Lord of Light is one of the few SF books I've read in the past 5 years that could still excite the "oh my fucking god" that only really good SF hits, I don't know how I'd missed it before.

But apart from centrally dealing with religious figures I see no common ground here. One is fundamentally Americana, the other a westerner's lovesong to the eastern faiths. I've never worked out whether LoL is poetry or blasphemy, but what I do know is that it's magnificent at being whatever it is.

I never quite got around to How To Talk To Girls, mainly because Escape Pod didn't get the rights to it - I should. To be honest tho, none of this year's Hugos blew me away. Kin was feeble, and only Eight Episodes really stood up conceptually - but the execution was patchy.

Some years the crop is poor I suppose.

Thanks for dropping by.

Bibliolatrist said...

Thanks for this post - it reaffirms my suspicions re: American Gods, and now I can save myself the time and money.

You see, after hearing so much praise heaped on Gaiman, I thought I'd have to cave in and read American Gods, but unable to quite go that far, I started with Fragile Things. I have to admit that I'm rather unimpressed. Sure, some of it's entertaining but not to the extent that I'd label him the second coming, as many seem wont to do.

Pritchard Buckminster said...

Hey. Somewhat unsurprisingly I am going to cautiosly disagree with you here Edwin. Was the book worthy of the awards? No. No question of that. Was it a bad book? Not at all, I really enjoyed it for all its clumsy structure and inconsistent form.

I felt the lack of central character was required to humanise the inately alien Gods and therefore his lack of development was purposeful. Think early S King (i.e. Christine) and you know this is hardly an unusual tool. As for the satire comment,well, I laughed!

I know what you're saying but I can't help but feel that you have let your disgust at the awards being handed out like sweeties affect your view of what is still an excellent novel.

Oh and I wasn't that impressed with LOL. Definitely not his best imo. So maybe this book appeals to certain types, eh?

Shades of Grey said...

It was the first of his I read and I was pleasantly surprised. My copy came with no award tags nor raving reviews so I read it unencumbered with expectation. It was fine. Interesting enough to make me search out Neverwhere and later Anansie Boys. That it was garlanded with awards that it doesn't deserve isn't Gaiman's fault (or is it?).

On the awards thing, I recently decided to see where sci-fi had got to after a 25 year absence. I bought 8 novels, being either US or UK award winners of the past 7 years and with a couple of notable exceptions have been massively disappointed. If these really are the prize winners the genre is in huge trouble.