In the fourth chapter of American Gods, Shadow sets out on his journey across the United States with Wednesday, taking a pit stop in Chicago to meet with…I actually don’t know who they are. And what the hell is going on. That is not a question. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read American Gods.
I’ve struggled to find the right word for what I just experienced here in chapter four of American Gods. First of all, this reflects entirely in my own experience and shouldn’t be interpreted as any sort of fault with this chapter. But as soon as Wednesday and Shadow got to Chicago, I felt like I had been dropped into a large, active party in a part of town I’d never been to. I only came with a couple friends, but they seem to know everyone here, so they split off from me pretty early. I’m left to stand awkwardly by the table full of snacks, and I gorge on handful after handful of Chex mix, but I’m the asshole who picks out all those dark rye pieces because they taste the best and no one’s looking, so who cares? I’ll blame it on someone else later, but for now, I peer around the room and I just feel left out. I can hear snippets of conversation come floating past me. I catch lines I am familiar with or topics I might know something about, but I don’t say anything. It feels too awkward to speak up and butt into a conversation between total strangers.
In short, I feel ignorant. And what I mean by that is that I understand what’s going on here in chapter four, at least on a basic level, but all the details escape me. I thought I’d figured out the general idea behind this book by now, that gods were real physical beings, and the Wednesday/Odin was recruiting gods in some sort of battle with the people who attacked Shadow. I don’t think I’m wrong about that, but I don’t know who Zorya and her family are supposed to represent. Well, I should say didn’t. I had to Google the name to learn that they were part of Slavic mythology, but I didn’t know this until well after I’d read chapter four.
Don’t get me wrong. I still am enjoying this experience, but I was lost. And I’m perfectly fine admitting that! I had not the slightest goddamn clue what was going on, but we’d starting making more headway on the main plot and I was excited to see where this was going.
First of all:
“How’d you lose your eye?”
“Wednesday shoveled half a dozen pieces of bacon into his mouth, chewed, wiped the fat from his lips with the back of his hand. “Didn’t lose it,” he said. “I still know exactly where it is.”
SEEEEEEEE I TOLD YOU. He has to be Odin, right??? THIS IS SO AWESOME.
There’s still a lot of coy and cryptic talk from Wednesday. There’s some meeting coming up “with a number of person preeminent in their respective fields,” and it will be “at one of the most important places in the entire country.” Of course, when Shadow asks where this place is, all Wednesday offers up is that he merely said one of them. There are multiple locations. Which is not fair. You are cheating with words.
But Wednesday is not exactly the pinnacle of someone possessing a lot of social tact. He asks Shadow if he fucked his dead girlfriend. And he expresses that he loves the girls in Minnesota and Wisconsin because they remind him of the girls he liked when he was younger: very white, blond-haired, and blue-eyed. Oh, that’s cool I guess. OMG I bet he would be one of those assholes on an online dating site whose profile says, “I only date wht grls. i’m not racist its just a preferance.” I mean right.
what is my brain
When the two make it to Chicago, things become strange, incomprehensible, and, bizarrely, quite fascinating for me. It’s here that I meet the Zorya sisters, three Slavic gods who possess powers I don’t even begin to understand. (I’m afraid to Google toomuch because I don’t want to accidentally spoil myself.) I understood that Wednesday was not receiving the most joyous welcome from these people, though Czernobog’s greeting to Shadow was AMAZING.
“How do you do, Mr. Czernobog.”
“I do old. My guts ache, and my back hurts, and I cough my chest apart every morning.”
And this is what is so fascinating to me, even if I truly don’t understand what is going on: it seems Gaiman is giving gods physical bodies, bodies that age and hurt and feel and experience life that we as humans do. I’m not sure how the logistics of it work, of course, because obviously these beings are around for a lot longer time than we are. How does aging work for a being like Odin, who is thousands of years old? Why do they live in houses amongst humans? Just to blend in?
I’m asking some SRS BSNS questions that I know aren’t going to be answered yet and are essentially just teasing you to spoil me, so I’ll move on. I admit that despite feeling bewildering by a history I knew nothing about, the entire set of scenes in the Zorya household are layered with a lot of information and subtle bits of character development, so even someone like myself could remain intrigued by what I was reading. Czernobog’s life working in the meat industry is so fascinating to me because…is the dude a god too? Is he supposed to represent Dažbog? If so…I am formulating thoughts. Okay, so, in this universe, do gods have to take a more active role as if they were a human when less people believe in them? I suppose that matches up with the “belief” ideas put forth in the first chapter and…I mean, are there many people who follow this Slavic myth anymore? He even mentions earlier that he’s been largely forgotten. And then there’s that hall of gods that Shadow saw in his dream.
Hmmm. My brain is doing brain-like things.
I still haven’t quite figured out why Czernobog is so adamant about not accompanying Wednesday on his journey at first. It’s obvious that he’s pissed and that whatever Wednesday suggested is ridiculous and absurd to him. Why the resistance? What does Wednesday need from others? Czernobog has a brother? But they are both part of the same person? I AM SO LOST.
“Were you close?” asked Shadow.
“Close?” asked Czernobog. “No. We were not close. How could we be? We cared about such different things.”
YEAH I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT.
And then, the checkers game. What the holy hell is going on? I knew something was strange when Shadow agreed to play a game, and then Wednesday paused to tell him he didn’t have to do it. It’s checkers, I thought. Of course he doesn’t. So there must be someother reason for this. The old man pretty much annihilates Shadow in the first round, and when he asks for another game, Czernobog agrees, but only if he’ll accept a wager. What do they agree on? If Shadow wins, Czernobog must come with them. If he loses? Czernobog gets one attempt to smash Shadow’s head with a sledgehammer. And Shadow agrees to this. And he loses. He loses and he asks for ANOTHER GAME. SHADOW. I MEAN….WHAT ARE YOU DOING. (Also, I totally noticed Czernobog’s insistence on playing with the dark pieces. I C U THERE.)
But Shadow, realizing the man basically repeats the same game, stomps all over him in round two. Which brings us to an interesting place: now Czernobog has to come with them, and after this is all done, he still gets the opportunity to smash Shadow’s head.
Well that should be fun. What does this all mean? Why a checkers game to decide fate? I can’t figure this out I FEEL SO USELESS.
I also found myself fascinated by Shadow’s meeting with the third sister, Zorya Polunochnaya. First of all, she is unaffected by the cold, scaling a fire escape in the freezing Chicago weather whilst barefoot. It’s clear now that she’s the midnight Zorya, meant to stare at the Great Bear constellation to keep the “bad thing” chained up in those stars. I am not sure if these gods must still do this, but perhaps they do it out of habit. Maybe that’s why the midnight sister isn’t around during the daytime; even if it has no affect, they spent so long doing the same thing that they just continue doing it.
Shadow is starting to become aware of not only how bizarre this all is, but, in his words, like he’s “in a world with its own sense of logic.” And while I might have figured things out just a bit more than he has, I’m still in the same boat. Did Zorya really steal the moon from the sky? I don’t know enough about Slavic myths to make any sort of conclusion, but it’s all just so bizarre to me. I like that. It’s keeping me on my toes because not only am I unprepared, this all feels so new to me, to read a book so unlike everything else I’ve ever read.
“Oh. You’re up,” said Wednesday, putting his head around the door. “That’s good. You want coffee? We’re going to rob a bank.”
Oh, Gaiman. Well, now you completely have my attention.
Coming to America
I don’t know who Mr. Ibis is or why this part of chapter four is framed through his writing, but I wanted to avoid a full-on summary of the story that he gives us because there’s a lot at work here that helps build this world. The history of Essie Tregowan is beautifully written and I’m beginning to hone in on Gaiman’s style, his constant play-on-words, and the way he uses language to weave these complicated stories. Essie’s story almost reads like a fairy tale, and it just might be. But I’m inclined to believe that it’s purpose here is to further demonstrate this idea that gods are real beings with physical bodies as long as one believes in them. Throughout her eventful (and kind of hilarious life, because Essie is a goddamn BAMF), she believes in spirits and creatures that seem entirely made up to us. In particular, she believes in the “red-headed, snub-nosed piskies,” and she follows the rituals of leaving out the first fish catch or a loaf of bread or a saucer of milk. Even through hardships and periods where it seems she might forget, she still takes time to remember and to believe.
This is important because at the end of her tale, a piskie shows up at her house. He says that her belief brought the piskies with her, which seems to me to mean that the people in England forgot the piskies, so they had to travel to America in order to survive. And then:
“Will you take my hand, Essie Tregowan?” And he reached out a hand to her. Freckled it was, and although Essie’s eyesight was going she could see each orange hair on the back of his hand, glowing golden in the afternoon sunlight. She bit her lip. Then, hesitantly, she placed her blue-knotted hand in his.
She was still warm when they found her, although the life had fled her body and only half the peas were shelled.
Yeah, WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED.