Monday, February 21, 2011

Adventures in Re-Reading: American Gods and "The Monarch of the Glen"

Books Re-Reviewed: American Gods and "The Monarch of the Glen" (from Fragile Things), by Neil Gaiman

I really wish I had decided to reread American Gods last year before I put together my top ten list in December. Because upon rereading the book this past week, I realized that I should have put it higher than Good Omens. Because while Omens is funny and entertaining, American Gods is a much fuller, more interesting creature. I have noted many a time that the reason American Gods works is that it features a fantastic lead character in Shadow. Well, this remains as true as ever. Shadow might just be one of my all-time favorite protagonists. He's that awesome.

With only the rarest exceptions, I don't tend to revisit books this soon after reading them the first time. But I found myself glancing at the bookshelf and thinking about Shadow a lot. I blame the cold; much of the book features scenes in cold weather that mirrors the state of the characters' hearts. As soon as I began to read American Gods again last week, I remembered what it was that had made this book so special the first time around. The book begins with a great opener: "Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time." In two sentences, we already know loads about the main character. We also know a lot about Gaiman's clear-cut style in this book. If those first two sentences do absolutely nothing for you, this may not be the book for you.

So what is it that makes Shadow such a great character? I wish I could tell you. I'm not exactly sure what it is. He's tragic in many ways, but he's capable of humor and kindness as well. In an interview with Gaiman included at the end of my paperback copy, the author mentions what a frustrating protagonist Shadow was to write because of his reticence. Shadow plays his emotions very, very close to his chest. Which is why the few scenes where we get to see him be physically or emotionally hurt can be so effective. He comes off as a total badass, but there's something desperately broken about him. And to add to the sadness of his tale, it's something that's always there. In the novella "The Monarch of the Glen," in which Gaiman gives us a glimpse of Shadow in Scotland several years after the end of American Gods, he's as rootless as ever. Shadow is extremely human, even in the moments where Gaiman hints that he might not be as human as he thought. That's why his character makes the whole story work even at its most chaotic.

And American Gods is an extremely chaotic book. I have to admit that I've never been one for mythology or legends, which is what this novel is all about. I could easily skip a lot of the stuff involving the gods, to tell the truth. The book's most interesting scenes definitely happen away from the gods, in the freezing town of Lakeside, Wisconsin. I love the Lakeside sections of this book. Of course, part of what makes Lakeside work is its role as a safehaven from the world for Shadow. He's been beat up pretty badly by life, and he feels at home there. Which makes what eventually happens there just that much more interesting.

Anyway, the end of American Gods leaves Shadow adrift in this world, which is why I went back and reread "The Monarch of the Glen" immediately after I finished Gods for the second time. I really love this novella. For starters, it makes me want to visit the remote parts of Scotland very badly. Also, Gaiman's prose is just a little more poetic in this story. There's a lovely little sentence towards the beginning in which Shadow goes hiking: "It was beautiful, a desolate beauty that chimed and echoed with the empty places inside Shadow." So perfect. I'm really glad I reread "The Monarch of the Glen," because I picked up a lot more this time around. Reading this, I realized that we learn Shadow's real name (Balder Moon) and get to see that he might actually be an incarnation of the Norse god Baldur. To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about this revelation. It makes sense. But the beauty of Shadow as a men among gods is just that: he's a man. His humanity is what makes him a good character to follow through the strangeness of Gaiman's world. I don't quite want that humanity compromised.

I know a lot of people who read American Gods last year. Some loved it; some hated it. I'd argue that it's a book that really needs to be read twice. I had a hard time following the plot the first time I read the book. This time, everything made much more sense. The second reading gave me a lot of time to think about the points Gaiman's trying to make, and I responded better to the book as a whole this time around.

Overall, a very successful re-reading. This is why I like to revisit books; so I can grasp them more fully.

Note: There has been talk for years about the idea of an American Gods movie, and the general consensus is that it can't be done. I have come up with a whole different idea. This book is begging to be made into a television series. The first season could concern itself with the plot of the novel. From there on, it could take a more "Monarch of the Glen" path and follow Shadow as he travels around the world and meets legends and monsters and interesting people. Seriously, I think this would totally work and could be really good. I love shows about "outlaw" types without real homes or connections, and Shadow fits that type exactly. That being said, no actor on earth could play Shadow. My brother, who absolutely loves American Gods, and I have this conversation all the time. No one can fit both the descriptions of his big, dark person with the dual strength and vulnerability that Shadow has. Casting for this TV show would inevitably be a disappointment.

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