You know it’s going to be an exciting novel when it wins awards for fantasy, science fiction and horror all at once!
American Gods is a modern-day mythic tale by Neil Gaiman.
All I want to do here is take a look at the novel’s intriguing premise.
On its own, the premise of American Gods is simple enough: over countless generations, immigrants to America have brought their gods with them — literally — with the gods taking human form in the communities that venerate them. However, just as society is a melting pot of different beliefs, the old gods now find themselves competing with new deities, like technology, media, and celebrity.
In one sense, then, this story could be seen as cynical towards religion and spirituality: the gods are simply our own creations, animated only by our belief in them, and they are just as temporal and tangible as we are. American Gods could be an allegory for the fickleness of religion, if you’re so inclined. (Perhaps at this point the premise doesn’t quite work even as a literary device, as one blogger reflects.)
From another angle, however, the premise is more interesting. For one thing, there’s the the idea that “worship” is basic to human experience. Even more interesting is the idea of immanence. In the novel, the gods are not merely imaginary but are intimate inhabitants of our world. “Mythical” is not simply unreal. This mythical or spiritual dimension overlaps with the mundane world, and it’s pervasive: the gods are always with us, as inescapably as breathing and eating.
This immanent way of thinking may be quite foreign to us and it makes for eerie reading. Even in this story of dreamt-up deities, life can still get pretty otherworldly! We Westerners are used to thinking dualistically, in terms of visible/invisible, physical/nonphysical, natural/supernatural, and so on. To think immanently is to ask, instead, What if there is a third layer? Other cultures do just this — it’s sometimes called folk religion.
Whichever way you read the premise, American Gods is therefore more than just a compelling story; it’s a sort of theological reflection, a reflection on life with and without gods. That’s not to say that the author is particularly religious, but that we as readers, whenever we encounter stories, are at some level reflecting on our own worlds. American Gods implicitly questions us about our reality and this includes questions of a theological nature.
Of course, “doing theology” like this isn’t unique. American Gods reminded me a little of Ursula Le Guin’s explorations of Taoism, for example. I suspect it’s pretty widespread in pop culture. Whether or not the storytellers or readers are religious, mythic stories lend themselves to theological questions. Graphic novels and video games are thick with mythic elements and theological issues may follow close behind. It’s fascinating stuff!
What challenging fiction have you read? Where else have you seen stories like this?
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.