Rumblings of war too distant: American Gods on TV

Every good reader and writer knows that to build a good story one requires a structure, and often, that structure is the bones of another, older tale. Almost every fantasy series does just this, bringing us into a world whose battle for existence is really just another in an ongoing conflict, only the gaps between them are so large that it feels new for those involved. A Song of Ice and FireLord of the Rings, even Harry Potter, many of them hint at what has come before, and often make it sound as though that battle, the one we just about missed, was actually the more exciting and epic and dark one; too bad we got the watered down present instead.

Neil Gaiman’s work of genius, American Gods, comes at this in a slightly different way. Here, the past, one of bloody glory and sacrifice, literally wages war with the present and future. The old gods, fearing irrelevance in the modern world, go to war against the smug new ones, and a crisis of belief envelopes the United States. ‘This is the only country that doesn’t know what it is,’ the mysterious Mr. Wednesday tells Shadow, our protagonist, at one point. The book was first published in 2001. The TV series debuted this year, but it’s eerily timely, considering everything that’s happening, not just in the US, but many other places in the world.

american godsMy relationship with American Gods is one of deep respect, bordering on an almost reverential awe. I think this is Gaiman’s greatest work, and nothing he’s done, before or after, comes close. It’s such an ambitious idea, to distill the soul of an entire country, and pour it into these forms from all over the world, but somehow, he managed it. The sheer audacity of it, to take all these immigrant stories and not just elevate them to the level of the divine, but to actually have the divine take form on your page and give it an almost disturbingly human quality, so the gods piss and fuck and act as ridiculously human–if not more so—than the believers they need so badly—this is soemthing that so few writers do with any grace, let alone the mastery that Gaiman displays. Our myth writers, who sell in the thousands, cannot compare. This, this is myth writing or retelling or casting or whatever you want to call it. It’s making the old new in such a way that you can see it happening, and only marvel at the sheer craft with which its done, like a glass house in which you can see all the beams and rafters, and appreciate the architect’s vision for what it truly is.

Anyway, enough blathering about the book. How did the TV series do? I was nervous, coming to it, which is why I put off viewing it for so long. The book was so cerebral, so intense an experience, that I felt no TV show could do it justice. The avalanche of great reviews calling it the show of the year and whatnot only made that apprehension worse. There’s something about extremely glowing reviews that puts me off; maybe it’s the hipster in me, who refuses to like what the mainstream has dubbed incredible. Not unless I dubbed it incredible first, ya know.

Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon, lost soul in a lost nation.

Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon, lost soul in a lost nation.

So how does the show compare? Some of the key elements are the same: Shadow, a taciturn, brooding, muscular man gets out of jail to find that his wife has died in an accident. He is hired by Mr. Wednesday, a tricky old man who has some sort of grand plan up his sleeve, one which Shadow does not entirely understand. There is a crazy leprechaun named Mad Sweeney. The dead wife comes back to life and follows Shadow around. Gods old and new turn up in Shadow’s path and taunt or tease him, with lethal consequences or not depending on whose side they are on. And the whole is interspersed with flashbacks, stories of side characters, from the past or the present or in between, and how they came to America, bringing with them their beliefs and traditions, and their gods. Now, the gods feel abandoned, their followers turning to newer deities like Technology and Media (played by a totally-enjoying-herself Gillian Anderson), and the incense and sacrifice that once formed the staple of their diets, their very existence, is gone.

mr wednesdayThe casting is pretty damn good. Ian McShane plays Mr. Wednesday, and he does bring the character’s slippery charm and humour to the fore, but doesn’t let viewers forget that within, something else roils and churns, soething much older and more sinister. Ricky Whittle is broody and beautiful as Shadow, and I really liked Emily Browning as Laura Moon, or ‘dead wife’ as she’s more often called. The show has the added advantage of focusing on Laura more than the book did in some ways, following her journey, which parallels Shadow’s own. Just as Shadow journeys from doubt to belief and back, Laura, a much more nihilistic character, does the same, and Browning plays her clutching at meaning in an understated manner, which perhaps makes it all the more impactful. There also seem to be expanded roles for some of the side characters here, such as Bilquis, a fertility goddess, and Mad Sweeney, who really lingered on the edges in the book, only careening chaotically into the middle of the action now and then. I suppose this is done to pad out the whole season, and leave enough meat for a second, if not third and fourth as well.

Emily Browning as Laura Moon

Emily Browning as Laura Moon

There are downsides to this padding—and that means that the ‘conflict’ doesn’t really start until well into the season, if then. Some of the episodes are stuffed with too much long drawn out conversation, which works well for a comedy, or more ‘realist’ drama like Mad Men, but here runs the risk of being boring. I could have done with less hijinks with Laura for instance, and more of Mr. Nancy, the form of Anansi the Spider. Or perhaps more of the old gods and their stories, and less of Mr. Wednesday and Shadow conversing? Shadow is never the most entertaining conversationalist, so really, these are one man shows that we could have done without.

Would I recommend it? Let me put it this way: you can live without watching it. It’s stylistically done, yes. Some of the acting is great, yes. But does it string together well as a story? So much that is great about the Gaiman novel is that though it appears a little fragmented, though it takes a while for the shape of the ‘quest’ to come together, and even then it is only a small glimpse of what we must understand as a much larger battle that human minds cannot possibly comprehend, the whole works together. This? It’s a bit draggy in parts, and too incomprehensible in others, and overall, lacks the big picture amazement that say, Game of Thrones or Legion have. Hopefully it’ll be tighter next season.

But if you haven’t already, go read the book. Trust me, that is one thing you will not regret.

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Stories that Want to be Told

Everything you can imagine is real. – Pablo Picasso

 I have been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘growing up’, about the books that have shaped me into the person I’ve become, the person I continue to evolve into. A few months ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s much awaited The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book which was feted with much ado and reviewed graciously all around. It failed, somehow, to move me. Perhaps this was because, as I wrote earlier, I had extremely high expectations of one of my favourite writers, expectations that even Gaiman could not fulfil.

 Or perhaps it was because I had already read a book that had portrayed the transition from child to adult in a manner that very, very few could possibly hope to achieve.

John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things is for me what The Shadow of the Wind was to Daniel in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s magnificent novel (of the same name). It is the secret book that found me in the midst of a hundred fellows, a thousand fellows. It was drawn from the shelf with a vague curiosity, a sort of purposeless browsing that I no longer have the time or the inclination to indulge. It found me, I think, in some strange, personal way, and it affected me profoundly, continues to affect me, upon every reading.

 The story begins, as all good stories ‘should’, ‘Once upon a time’. A young boy named David loses his mother to a wasting illness, in spite of his best efforts via counting routines and habits to keep her in good health. His father remarries and David must welcome both Rose and her new baby, Georgie, into the family. To make matters worse, England teeters on the brink of World War II, and David’s father is forced to move the family to Rose’s old family home on the outskirts of London, far from all the boy has known. Unable to cope with his grief and overwhelming resentment of Rose and Georgie, David turns to the thing he and his mother both loved: fairy tales. The books containing these stories have begun to whisper to David, and in his dreams he sees a strange, capering figure, with a face like a half-moon and a crooked hat who says with a cryptic, twisted smile ‘All hail the new king.’

 The story takes the track well-worn by generations of child-explorers: like Alice, David disappears into a strange wonderland, a pastiche of the fairytales he has grown up hearing and reading, lured thither by his dead mother’s voice. This world is no happily-ever-after vale, though, the shadows of war, disease and nightmare lying heavy upon it. David knows he cannot stay here, but the only way to get back is to make his way to the Old King, who rules weakly from his castle in the east. The King possesses a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things, which may be able to get David home. David must, of course, pass through a set of trials to get there and meets friends and enemies of varying abilities and dangers on his way, including a helpful Woodsman, communist dwarves, a murderous huntress, a beautiful, wandering knight in search of a Dark Tower and the sinister and all-powerful Crooked Man.

 In my short lifetime of reading, I have yet to come across a book that tells the story of discarding childhood in as beautiful, simple or affecting a manner. Connolly pieces together the golden threads of childhood fairytale favourites with the half-remembered and still-dreaded nightmares of things under the bed, waiting in the shadows, half-glimpsed in the faces of strangers. The sheen he gives to old tales is startling, whether it be his rewriting of Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, each more macabre and Carter-esque than the sanitized versions most of us postcolonial brats are exposed to. In addition to this, when he enters this new world, David brings with him his own nightmares and the filth of his own world, its wars and troubles—he must face them down in this story, or not go back at all.

 I think, I think that Connolly and Gaiman are trying to tell the same story in their own ways. How do you deal with grief, loneliness and confusion as a child, how do you make that journey into adulthood and still retain a veneer of innocence and the ability to wonder? If your tale is just a plot woven by the Crooked Man for his own ends, if reality can be shredded away by the vicious talons of varmints, where is the stability, the meaning, the happily-ever-afters and heroics we dreamed of in stories of yore?

 Gaiman’s prose, while elegant as ever, did not move me, didn’t convince me in the same manner Connolly’s did. Perhaps that was because I came to Connolly with an open mind, and read him at a time when I myself was ‘growing up’. I could identify with David more than with the unnamed narrator in Ocean, I could see echoes of the stories I knew and loved in his own adventures. Gaiman attempts to create a new mythology for his world; Connolly rests his hero’s adventures on the backs of tried and tested figures and plots, and somehow makes them seem new.

 Perhaps that, really, is where the magic lies. As I grow older, I find myself turning more and more to the kind of stories my mother tried to wean me off of. ‘You can’t always read these fantasy and fairy tale things,’ she told me on my fifth re-read of The Lord of the Rings. ‘You have to read other books some day.’

 And yet, despite my best efforts, I find myself coming back to these, to the stories where a plucky hero passes through great and otherworldly trials to find himself rest and reward at the close. These stories remind that though ‘life is filled with great grief’ there is also ‘great happiness’. That though there are Beasts and Crooked Men in their underground tunnels, waiting to foster the evil that dwells inside you, with the right attitude you can battle them away, find allies in unlikely places and reserves of courage where you never thought to look before.

 I think Connolly manages to do what few writers apart from Lewis Carroll have done: take a child’s darkest dreams and craft with them a road to adulthood. David changes in the course of the story, as do his readers. And yet …

 ‘I came back,’ said David, and the Woodsman smiled.

 ‘Most people do, in the end.’

 Truer and more encouraging words were never spoken.

 The Ocean at the End of the Lane

There is something inherently disappointing about a hugely-anticipated book that you can, despite deliberate pacing and long work hours, finish in two days. The tragedy of this is only exacerbated when the book in question is by Neil Gaiman.

Yes, that’s right. You can finish The Ocean at the End of the Lane in two days. One, actually, if you’re not trying very hard to stop. Surely that makes something crumple a little and die inside.

Gaiman’s latest offering has been described by the author as his ‘best book’ so far. There have been rave reviews about it in a number of newspapers, there was a huge build-up with the three-chapter release, and the book comes studded with great endorsements from Erin Morgenstein and Joanne Harris, both writers celebrated for their ‘weird’, magical realist fiction. The cover too, in both editions, is gorgeous.

See? Pretty cover.

See? Pretty cover.

So what went wrong?

I hate to confess that I was not hugely overwhelmed by this novel. In fact, given the build-up and my anticipation/excitement, I was decidedly underwhelmed. I have read better Gaiman, and while I agree that the book certainly has its strong points, it doesn’t touch, in my opinion, the success with which The Graveyard Book or American Gods or even Smoke and Mirrors told their stories. Instead of leaving me with any of the satisfaction or awe that those books did, Ocean leaves me feeling confused, lost and a teensy bit annoyed.

What is it about? Well, that’s not precisely clear (intentionally so, one would assume, knowing Gaiman’s style). A little boy is witness to the dark forces unleashed by the death of a lodger. He becomes the target of those forces, and finds solace and safety with the Hempstocks, three mysterious women (of three different generations) who live on an idyllic farm at the (you guessed it) end of the lane. Of course, no fantasy novel worth its paper is going to end there, and there are complications and tribulations galore, in those quickly-turned 243 pages.

What I got from the first three chapters (posted pre-release) was a sense of darkness and foreboding, of forces bigger than human comprehension brooding upon and entering our fragile world. In short, it was a Lovecraftian ethos that permeated those pages, but unlike Lovecraft’s world, what I felt on reading Ocean was not mute, uncomprehending horror, but more a general what’s-the-big-deal sort of ‘eh’.

I am not saying Lovecraft is a better writer than Gaiman, of course. My heart will always belong to the latter. I just have a bad feeling that I’m either missing something massive in this novel, the finding of which would make the whole thing click together into awesomeness; or Gaiman hasn’t lived up to the hype in this particular book.

And that is something I just cannot bring myself to believe. Contemplate it, yes, but not believe.

The problem, perhaps, is that Gaiman is, in this book, walking too thin a tightrope. He seems to be telling the classic growing-up story, of a child discovering that the world is far more fragile than he had ever imagined, encased as he has been in the covers of adventure stories. The unnamed narrator learns that ‘Death happens to all things’, and that adults are never as self-controlled and perfect as he once imagined them to be. You cannot rely on your loving parents all the time, nor can you expect yourself (despite all the plucky school stories you might read) to be a hero when the time comes. Sometimes it’s all just too vast for you to comprehend, let alone handle.

There are some beautiful lines in the book, throwaway moments almost when Gaiman seems to be writing a letter to a younger self than a novel for adults. It is those moments that most resounded with me, such as when the child narrator wonders why grown-ups’ books are so boring, why they don’t read about adventures and fairies and magic. When he reflects on the self-centredness of his child-self, and how that is a trait peculiar to children, the belief that there is nothing more important than him/her in this world. That conviction of self-worth is one that is missing in the grown narrator (and, supposedly, his readers). Gaiman attempts, through this short novel, to remind us of a time when though we were helpless and alone and dependent, we did not rely on the straight and most obvious paths to take us home. Instead, like he points out, we wandered from dell to fairy circle and back.

But overall, I’m left feeling rather incomplete. I don’t understand what the ‘fleas’ in the book were, why (spoiler) such a creature’s name is significant at all, what on earth the varmint are and why they are so terrifying, and honestly, I’m still lost about the ocean. Maybe a second read will do wonders for my understanding and opinion. After all, I did appreciate American Gods much more on the second read. But, I must admit, I did enjoy it on the first. I did not leave me feeling just a little bit cheated.

Was it the hype? The fact that it’s a Gaiman? The fact that I’m jealous of his wife and the book is dedicated to her? (Okay, I’d like to believe I’m not so petty as all that.) I’m not sure. But what I do know is that Ocean is not what I would call, on the first go, Gaiman’s ‘best’ work. It is good, as all his books are, but far from his best.