Plot twists are most often admiringly remarked of as a testament to the skill of a writer, who is capable of transforming around a story and bringing it to previously unimagined directions. More than that truly - they can transform entirely our intellectual framework and ideas, changing not just the characters but our own perception of the world they live in. Almost every time, this is much for the better, shocking us out of our casual omniscience and the slow motion avalanche of text catching us off guard.
Neil Geiman is a writer who is capable of these sort of transformations with panache and elan, but the universe which he reconstructs in such a way destroys much of the strength and power of his work - the writer who is too clever by half, who can wrap up every string of plot, who can transmute characters, who can change the meaning of battles and conflicts, but who in doing so removes much of the significance and power of it. Psychologists have found that when something happens at the end it leaves a much more powerful impression on us: American Gods has the misfortune of placing this bad impression at the end and undermining, sabotaging really, what is otherwise a brilliant novel.
American Gods is based around a certain idea of America - of small town life, of the battle between the old fashioned, the individual, even the heroic, and the forces of modernization, homogeneity, and technology. It takes place in grimy restaurants, in cheesy roadside attractions, in crumbling small cities and stereotypical little towns. If it lacks the length and exploration to make it a Great American Novel, there are still many of the traits which it puts forth - the feeling of decline in the center of America, the search for the authentic and the real, the traditions and customs which Americans brought to their new land and created. There is a great war which is being fought, as new gods, new creations of belief, muscle in on the old gods, so that the internet, television, the automobile, push aside Odin, Bast, Horus, and a thousand more individual, local gods brought from the old world who weaken as their grip on the minds of men weakens.
And then it throws this all away. In the end, this fight between the two sides is meaningless - all contrived, all staged, all just a plot to sacrifice to depraved gods who have no moral compass other than cheating and self-glorification. The battle lines which were drawn, of a fight between old and new, dissolve into nothingness. But the society that we live in clearly still has room for them: it is a real battle, between the greasy spoon small restaurant and the triumph of McDonalds, between Amazon and a local small business, between the internet and particular local life. It cannot simply be ignored, cannot simply be treated as a symbol, or declared that after all, it really didn’t mean anything because the land wasn’t fertile for gods: the book spends hundreds upon hundreds of pages wandering through the sometimes greasy, sometimes foul, sometimes wonderful world of old America - and then in the end it simply declares that the whole battle was contrived by some mysterious outside force and didn’t matter. It makes for a profoundly dissatisfying end. And a short one: a book which spends so long discussion the coming storm and a great battle sees this great battle end in just a few pages.
In a certain sense, this book feels like a far better fit for the other great mythological series of recent times - the Percy Jackson books, which can’t help but be caught up in the dream of simple narratives of bad and good, of the heroic gods who fight against the evil Titans, the Greek Gods despite all of their flaws and sins representing civilization and a connection to humanity. This from the Greek gods, fickle and ironic: American Gods by contrast has little patience for moral grandstanding of the gods, but rather portrays them as self-centered scammers, thieves, and lechers.
What’s left from the wreckage of the great narrative of old vs. new? Individuals, in people like Shadow or Laura, Mr. Ibis or Mr. Jacquel, Chad Mulligan. They can make individual differences and do have control over the immediate contours of their lives: but they cannot change the world. In a sense, there isn’t that much. American Gods has great scenery, fascinating ideas, great mythological asides, a caste of unique, hard bitten characters who in the case of Shadow at least do evolve over the course of the book, but it lacks a moral center and meaning that would give it balance. Instead it becomes flashes of brilliance and clever writing, but nothing more.