Tuesday, September 6, 2011

American Gods: 10th Anniversary Edition

  The lights went out, and Shadow saw the Gods

And, while it took me almost three weeks to savor and get the taste of The Magicians out of my mouth, here we are now, with a book that is the exact opposite: Sweet, genuinely heartbreaking, and filled with plotlines that actually make sense.

I first ran into American Gods in the throes of my Neil Gaiman fanboy period. It was kind of nice, finding out one of my favorite authors and the one I liked the most at the time had a new book out for me, and naturally I reserved the one copy the library had (it wasn't like he had the rock star levels of fame he has now, so it was easy to get) and got around to reading it.
 I didn't finish it, sadly, because it was long and my attention span was too short, and I got the non-specific feeling that everything was going to crash and burn. I usually get the feeling whenever I'm watching a movie, so maybe there are certain emotional cues involved, but I can always tell when things are about to go belly-up. About a year later, I went back, read it all the way through, and finished it. And surprisingly, the first time around, I hated it.

  I think it has something to do with the time and place. At the time, I'd wanted something optimistic, much like Gaiman's other works, and American Gods just didn't strike me as such. It's very bleak in places and overwhelmingly dark: In the most infamous scene (two chapters in, despite what anyone would care to tell you otherwise), a man is eaten alive in an unsettling manner by a goddess, telling her all the while that he worships her. So I decried the book to those who'd listen and put it down for a while, hating that it ended on such a down note.
Ten years later, at Book Expo America, I happened upon the book again. This time, the copy was touted as "The Author's Preferred Text" and "Tenth Anniversary Edition". Given that this was getting an anniversary edition and not the (in my opinion) highly-superior Neverwhere or his other books, my interest was piqued. So, a few months later, when I had the money, I bought my own personal copy of it. And this time, unlike last time, I was blown away.
American Gods is the story of Shadow, a man released from prison after an assault charge, who finds himself pressed into service by Mr. Wednesday, a one-eyed con man who needs a driver and extra pair of hands for a journey across the country. Shadow, whose wife and employer died in a hideous (and strangely convenient) car wreck, readily accepts and finds himself drawn into a fight he cannot possibly comprehend between the old gods drawn to America by the immigrants, and the new gods of media, technology, and other such powers. But there's something else going on, something sinister beneath every surface, and Shadow will have to figure out what it is before it consumes everything.

 Honestly, I'm not sure if the extra twelve thousand words made a difference, or if it's just that I've mellowed out considerably since high school. In either case, the book's plot actually managed to stump me the first time I read it. The clues are all there, of course, but the twist at the end is honestly kind of surprising. The plotting is slow at first, but picks up quickly as the chapters go on, setting the scene for a rather bizarre and unexpected yet completely original ending. While there are places that stop dead, they seem more like needed background and side-stories, detailing Shadow's downtime in between Wednesday's jobs.
The characters are bright and colorful, with cameos from at least one or two of Gaiman's other works. Shadow is believable as a hero because he loses almost constantly and is completely out of his depth until the very end of the story. Most of Wednesday's mystery isn't revealed all at once, leaving him just as unsettling at the end of the book as he was at the beginning. Most of all, though, it's that these characters seem to inhabit the world. They're real. They have their motivations and wants, needs and hidden agendas, all of it colliding quite well. Mr. Wednesday is an especially well-drawn character, as he seems perfectly affable, but every step of the way, one can question his motives and wonder what he's really about. Finally, Laura, the character whose description I can't mention much (because just calling her by name is a minor spoiler) is almost heartbreaking in her arc, from the moment she's introduced to her final lines in the novel. It's someone you sympathize with, and also someone who you want to see more of.

 And finally, the setting is very well plotted out. In his introduction, Gaiman said he tried hard not to write about anywhere he hadn't been, and it shows in spades. The setting is very vivid, and while not quite truly American, it is true enough to the version of America we all tell ourselves exists, the Ray Bradbury America. The America where things hurt and there is sadness, but there's also a lot of good, everything is beautiful in its own way, and there's a strange kind of magic to the proceedings. In other words, the fun America.  
In fact, this seems to be doing what Grossman tried and failed so catastrophically to do. American Gods takes the stories of magic and strangeness, those oh-so-quintessentially American stories from the likes of Ray Bradbury or Matt Ruff, or even Michael Chabon's Summerland, and shows us what happens when the gods and their champions grow up and realize that while the world's magic, it's got a dark side as well as a light-- some of those talking animals tell you to fuck yourself and people do die. Sometimes, they don't even come back to life. Sometimes, it's even better that they don't. American Gods presents a bleaker (but still beautiful, still magical) America than the thousand magical realism books that have come before it, and in the end, while it's still pretty dark, there's a lot of hope.

However, in the interest of objectivity, I have to throw out some points that the book is weak on, and really only one segment comes to mind: "My Ainsel". In this segment, Shadow stays in a small town somewhere in the Northern Midwest, and the story switches tone from a road story to a small-town fantasy somewhere along the lines of Stephen King. And starts that small-town dark fantasy from the beginning. While the stories tie together in interesting ways and eventually leads to a nice neat ending for everything (well, except for Shadow, but he's not too bad off either), the energy of the book and indeed the tone change completely, and one begins to wonder when the hell Mr. Gaiman is going to get back to the plot in progress and on with the show.

But this is a minor quibble. American Gods is a beautiful book, beautiful in that it's all the things one could want at once-- humorous, sad, heartbreaking, frightening, and wonderful. You should own this book. You want to own this book. It's the one book to have won all kinds of literary prizes and still actually be good. That alone means you are obligated to read it. So please, buy the new edition of this book. You will enjoy it. I promise.

Next time: 20th Century Ghosts
And after that: The Sheriff of Yrnameer

The Magicians

 "He's trying to use the Neitherlands to get to Middle Earth. I think he wants to be the first man to have sex with an elf." 
- Janice

   I should immediately point out that I am a fan of classic children's fantasy literature. I've read Harry Potter more times than I can count, once read my sisterThe Hobbit because my dad was working and she needed a bedtime story, hell, I still have a soft spot in my heart for E. Nesbitt, she of The Enchanted Castle andFive Children and It. All of these are lovely books, though a little stilted and of course weathered by time. They've aged well, but even something that's aged well will still show its age in spots. The reason that I point this out is mainly becauseThe Magicians by Lev Grossman appears to hate me. Which is fine by me, because I hate it right back.

Oh yes, dear reader, it's another one of those kinds of reviews.

I found this book through rather interesting channels. When it came out not two years ago, it was well-lauded by the press and poised to become a classic in its own right. As it had been called one of the best fantasy novels of a rather strange and twisted year in my life, naturally, I had to read it. That first time, the book defeated me utterly. I simply couldn't finish it. I found it boring, the characters apathetic, and the plot in general mostly a pointless framework for the author's sneering disdain. However, at BEA, I was "delighted" to find out (in an event I later blocked from memory because of how this book affected me) that Mr. Grossman wrote a sequel, to be published in august, called The Magician King. When I finally remembered the book months later, I remembered only how bad I thought it was, and wondered why it (much like Mr. Mann's efforts are getting a sequel) would have ever made it past the first book.

  With a renewed sense of purpose, I set out to my local library in search of a copy of The Magicians, determined to get through it and look at it from a less-biased viewpoint for the purposes of review. I sat down and read, and read, and read some more, taking two weeks to finish the book and finally come to some kind of conclusion. And my conclusion is thus:
This is the most intelligently-written pile of twaddle masquerading as a book that this site will ever have to review. Possibly until the sequel.

 The problem, of course, is not the quality, but the content therein. For the most part, it's a viciously stupid book, one which has decided upon a campaign of deconstruction and pursues it so doggedly that at times it rivaled its fellows in the deconstructionist fantasy movement for sheer unsubtlety and lack of taste. It does show brief signs of brilliance and potential-- the idea of post-college mages living out a Bret Easton Ellis-style drugs-partying-drinking-sex "I love this oh god I'm empty inside and destroy everything good I know" existence is an idea whose time, I believe, has come, especially now with the final rose being laid on the bier of the Harry Potter series-- but most often, it falls flat. The point it appears to be trying to make (and it's possible I missed the point, but given the quality and tone of the book, I don't care) is that the reality of all these fantasy worlds is a lot darker and nastier than the children's books we grew up with would allow us to believe. That it tries to get this done with loathsome characterization, sequences of events so far apart in their establishment that it almost seems like everything comes out of nowhere, and other, equally glaring faults.

The Magicians starts with Quentin Coldwater vanishing a nickel in a sleight of hand trick. He and his two friends, James and Julia, are going to an interviewer to see about a spot at Princeton. When he and James finally arrive at the interview, the interviewer is dead, Quentin grabs a mysterious folder with a book by one of his favorite authors in it, and receives an invitation to Brakebills College. Following the invitation, he finds himself in a summer garden. From there, the story follows Quentin from school to that time after school, and finally into the land of Fillory, a land from his favorite book series, though one that has not remained static with the passage of time. Quentin will lose friends, grow as a person, and finally realize who he is before the end, and all of it will take a lot out of him.

Well, in theory, anyway. Quentin is the kind of privileged, overachieving shit you always hated to be around in high school, the kid to whom Ivy League status was a foregone conclusion, who passed every test and couldn't afford to be friends with many people because he had his future to think about. He doesn't grow through the book so much as he just sort of shuffles from one scene to the next, often with bitter comments and empty displays of emotion. The book is set up so in places he succeeds almost in spite of himself-- to get into Brakebills, he has to pass the AP exam from Hell, all the magic is based on studying and repeating over and over again, he passes easily through the grades within a few months instead of a few years...the only time he's really challenged is in the last third of the book, and even then, that's only because the author stops writing challenges tailored to him and puts him in the frame of a traditional fantasy.

A problem that goes hand in hand with this one is that the main conflict is internal. Now, I've had no problems with internal conflicts in the past, Richard Kadrey's work is rife with them and one of my favorite books, The Neverending Story has this as the very central conflict. But here, it's Quentin wrestling with questions everyone else, up to and including the reader, already know the answers to. And when he engages in self-sabotage, it doesn't feel like there's anything attached. Some pretentious idiots have attempted to say "but you're feeling what he's feeling!" And the answer to that is no. In fact, utilising my law of precision F strike for reviews,fuck no. If I were feeling what Mr. Grossman insists I feel, I'd put a bullet right through my own eye, like the hero in a (not much) better Harlan Ellison story. Not a single thing Quentin does applies to any particular identifiable logic, save for maybe the denouement, which I'll get to.

Moving to another track, however, we come to the fact that the book openly insults any lover of fantasy fiction who decides to read it. At first it's merely the mocking tone and the overly-technical nature of magic, saying something to the effect of "What, you thought it was going to be easier than this?" as its academically-focused heroes go through complex hand gestures.
But then comes Welters. And the mocking and sneering Mr. Grossman decides he is done with the earlier, subtle mummery and decides to drop it entirely.

And oh, dear reader, you will wish he hadn't. Welters, you see, is a deconstruction of many magical games, most notably Quidditch*. Unlike those games, however, you never get to know the rules (except that they're stupid and they involve capturing squares on a board, and that there's a ball), everyone openly declares that the game is "stupid and pointless", and they play multiple games of it. In a further deconstruction of the trope, the Physical Kids (the book's heroes, named such because they study the physical discipline of mag-- y'know what? Screw it. Not important) lose several matches. However, in one particular scene, a drugged-out student makes derisive comments about "gotta get in my Quidditch robes" and something about "I don't suppose you have a time turner?" which caused me to put a dent in my wall across the room from where I read. Thankfully, the book was spared from further abuse due to my enduring love of the Metuchen Public Library, whom I would have to pay. That Mr. Grossman stooped to openly attacking his targets is lazy, and in fact not even amusingly unsubtle. There are ways to attack one's subjects, and then there are rudimentary methods loved by only the most zealous and pretentious. Such as Mr. Grossman, who places his literary significance above authors of a higher quality and skill.
And this tone doesn't change at all. In fact, the character of Josh seems to be there simply as a mouthpiece for how much every classic fantasy novel sucks, where the character of Quentin is supposed to herald some kind of new deconstructionist hero and a third character, and obligatory love interest named Alice is meant to hew to how the books traditionally work, which of course means she gets killed in a final confrontation with the slightly newer kind of villain. Spoilers be damned, if you made it this far through the review, you're probably only reading the book out of morbid curiosity anyway.

And as a final point, a final capstone, plot elements are called back to in a random fashion. I paid attention to the book, reading it over the course of a week (I could only do it in small doses. You will forgive my failings or at least understand that they come with great intestinal fortitude), and I still couldn't tell where some of the elements that everyone seemed to know about came from until I recalled earlier portions of the book, then went back and read through them. If Chekhov's Gun is the rule that if you have a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act, it will be fired in the third; Grossman's Gun** is the gun that is unloaded, uncocked, and left in a locked drawer offstage during the first act, only to suddenly go off and blow someone's head off in the third after all and sundry have forgotten it. It makes no narrative sense, and the callbacks are annoying, not informative to the plot.

However, despite this, there is some light. The book is astonishingly well-written, the characters do tend to have their own voices, and the descriptions are top-notch. This would actually be a good book if the characterization and indeed the plot weren't such steaming piles of absolute and complete garbage. As for the denouement (I told you I'd get back to it...might be my own little Grossman's Gun there, but it's there), it's the one part of the book I liked. It's sweet, even if it recalls characters who have had no bearing on the plot whatsoever, and it's a nice few passages where things are almost put back into balance for the horrid book that came before it. Almost. In it, Quentin almost appears human, and while Josh gets another moment about how lame all fantasy novels are, it does end things on a little beautiful note.

And then you realize the book has a sequel, which destroys the impact of the ending a little.
So in conclusion, I cannot recommend this book. Ever. To anyone. I do know there are people out there, literary hipsters, let's call them, who will read this and enjoy it. Good for them. For anyone who actually enjoys reading, however, give this book a pass.

Next time:
American Gods
Please, God, anything but this again

* A word which still has not appeared in my spellcheck menu, which both gives me hope and a bit of sadness.