In the fifth chapter of American Gods, Shadow and Wednesday orchestrate the most non-violent bank robbery of all time and make their way to a meeting place of the gods. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read American Gods.
I love living in the United States. I’ll come back to that in a second because it doesn’t mean what you think it might mean, but Gaiman is helping me to remember what really is so awesome about this sprawling country.
First, though, let’s talk about the bank robbery. I knew Shadow would have reservations about this because…well, what’s a pretty much guaranteed way to get sent back to prison? Trying to rob a bank. Wednesday had promised that Shadow wouldn’t return to that place and part of me is inclined to believe him. The man hides a lot from us and from Shadow, and most of his actions in chapter five prove that to us.
Wednesday is man full of opinions when he does decide to speak up, though he doesn’t necessarily do that often. He prefers to be silent, and I think he senses the fact that he knows Shadow finds some of his opinions to be a bit…archaic? I mean, the entire bit about Liberty needed to be fucked is bizarre to me. I think I understand what he’s saying? Actually….no, I don’t know what he’s getting at. Is he saying the American notion of liberty is a lot more flawed than we let on? Surely he could say this without it sounding like…rape?
To be fair, I did like this:
“So you aren’t American?” asked Shadow.
“Nobody’s American,” said Wednesday. “Not originally. That’s my point.”
a;kdlfja;fdk YES. I LOVE THIS.
So let’s get to the bank robbery. Until it actually started happening, I could not figure out what it was that Wednesday was trying to do. The man has complicated plans and through the process of pulling this off, we see just how charming Wednesday can be. Look at the way he speaks to the teller in the bank, or how he treats any number of people throughout chapter five. Even if he is a con man of sorts, I was pleasantly shocked at how genuine he seemed in his interactions with other people.
We’re also introduced to another facet of this idea that belief has a real, tangible effect on the world. Wednesday announces to Shadow that what they truly need to pull this off is snow. Snow.
“Think ‘snow’ for me, will you?”
“Concentrate on making those clouds–the ones over there, in the west–making them bigger and darker. Think gray skies and driving winds coming down from the arctic. Think snow.”
We’ve been introduced the idea to belief in this world means more than just some sort of whimsical action. Shadow, unquestioning Wednesday at this point, obeys, running through a rather poetic recitation of snow, imagining just as Wednesday told him. He concentrates so hard that he is unaware they’ve made it to their next destination. And even there, he continues to think about snow while Wednesday makes copies and signs.
“I think that’s enough, don’t you?”
“Enough snow. Don’t want to immobilize the city, do we?
The sky was a uniform battleship gray. Snow was coming. Yes.
So how does this work? Does it work through Wednesday? Or can Shadow do this on his own? Why don’t I possess this power? Wait…don’t give me this power. I would make it snow in like…Palm Springs. Why do I specifically operate through annoying people? I AM AN ADULT.
So Shadow willed snow into existence through the sheer act of belief. Kind of amazing, and a new twist to the story. There’s another one to be found later, but what Gaiman takes us through from here until the final scene in chapter five is representative of what it is like to travel through the United States.
I mentioned in the introduction that I love living in the United States. I don’t really consider myself a nationalistic person in any way and I don’t think that I have ever referred to myself as a patriot or anything. But there’s something to this country that I came to love only in the last few years. I grew up in a remarkably poor household and aside from an occasional trip to Hawaii to visit my father’s side of the family and one camping expedition, we didn’t travel. We stayed in Southern California the entire time, and mixed in with my desire to escape, I longed to see the world. I wanted to see anything outside of Riverside.
A few years back, I had the privilege of find the means to start traveling, and the vast majority of that was through my job. I got sent on the road a lot to cover music and other events, and in the process, I got to see parts of the United States I may never have otherwise seen, and my mind starting wandering to these memories as I read this chapter. At first, the Clearance Depot reminded me of something that probably exists in other countries to an extent, but I know that we here in the U.S. have this obsession with things, with knickknacks and antiques, things that are owned before, that have little monetary value a second time around, but might give us thoughts of a time before or a specific memory.
There’s a nostalgic part of me that buys into this, so I’m not setting up any sort of criticism of American society. Just a few weeks ago, I was on a road trip to Los Angeles for the Labor Day weekend and I made the party stop at a second-hand store along the 5. To be fair, it’s not just a fascination with such things, but when I was younger, the only way I could possibly afford some “new” clothes was through thrift stores. (I still have some of those shirts, incidentally!)
When I got the chance to start to see more of the United States, I was enamored with how much of it was not only so different from what I was used to, but how I could find that same social obsession almost anywhere I went. I don’t mean to skip over the actual bank robbery as if it isn’t a huge moment in the chapter. It’s not only entertaining, but shows Wednesday’s ingenuity that–again–relies on kindness and charm. But American Gods is reminding me what travel across the United States is like and how this gave me a new insight into what this country is like. Wednesday says:
“This is the only country in the world,” said Wednesday, into the stillness, “that worries about what it is.”
“The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.”
My country is impossibly big, a mammoth chunk of land that is so diverse that it’s hard to even imagine the scope of it all. Sometimes, our states feel like countries in and of themselves. The people from California seem so different from the people I’ve met in New York, in Arizona, in Oregon, or in Nebraska. And while we are currently in a political climate where a specific group of loud, shrill people are trying to define this country by a very strict, erasing standard, I can only think about all the places I’ve been to across this country. And I accept Wednesday’s assertion, but it’s not an insult to me. Our country is too varied to ever fit one national identity, and I love that about this place.
And it’s here that we visit the House on the Rock and Gaiman expands on the American condition that deals with our fascinating with things, with themes, with the ever-expanding road between our feet. I have friends who live in Europe who have visited me and are astounded by the idea that driving across the U.S. takes days. Or that cities in my state are a half day’s drive apart. Or that we specifically plan vacations based on how long we must drive. (Actually, our reliance on cars in general seems to mystify people.)
I love road trips and traveling because my country has so much weirdness to offer, so many quirks built up as entire stops off the highway. If you’ve ever driven from southern California to Las Vegas, which is a common weekend trip for a lot of people who live in the lower half of my state, the House on the Rock is real to each and every one of us. We have all never been there. (I believe Gaiman is making this up, right?) But that does not matter. Our thoughts wander to Zzyzx Road off of the 15. Or the Alien Jerky shop in Baker, California, where you can also take time to see the World’s Largest Thermometer. Or drive to the gateway for Death Valley.
In the southern part of Oregon, you can visit It’s A Burl, a “store” near no large cities out in the forest off the Redwood Highway in Kerby, Oregon. It’s not easy to get to and it’s always out of the way on most major trips. There’s the Trees of Mystery roadside attraction in Klamath, California, not far from the Oregon border, guarded by a gigantic Paul Bunyon and his mighty blue ox. You can see a redwood tree shaped like a bolt of lightning. There’s the Calico Ghost Town. Or the Rock-A-Hoola waterpark, now abandoned, a part of American culture left to rot and rust by the roadside.
We do this thing here in America, and we all fall for it every time. It’s not an ironic thing for me. I love these places and I love that America is home to “attractions” that feel like they could not exist anywhere else in the world. (Which is not to imply that people aren’t obsessive or creative in other parts of the world, or that tourist “traps” don’t exist elsewhere. Also, I hate that they’re called traps. They’re treats as far as I am concerned.) I was simply blown away by Gaiman’s explanation of it, given by Wednesday:
“No, in the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat-house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”
Didn’t Gaiman just move to the United States when he wrote this book? How was he able to distill this phenomenon so brilliantly in very little time? As Wednesday and Shadow walk though the House on the Rock, there’s not a bit of it that feels foreign, forced, or unnatural to me. I’ve been in that house so many times on trips, on tour, while I’m on the road. I am the traveler who wants to stop constantly to enrich the journey to the ultimate destination, to peek into stores selling wares I might never need in my life, to obey the roadside signs that tell me that this is the World’s Largest Thing or perhaps The Only 50s Diner In The Entire Mojave Desert or maybe There Is No Place Like This On Earth.
Bless you, Gaiman. This is absolutely fantastic.
Even if every one of these places is not an Important Place as distinguished by Wednesday, Gaiman has tapped into a phenomenon that’s familiar to me as an American, about our obsession with places and the things that attract us there. Yet he turns it into the fantasy plot piece and it just works. I don’t understand a lot of the terms that Gaiman uses (“So let us designate this Sybil our Urd, eh?”), nor do I know how Czernobog knew to come to this exact place. There’s a lot at work here under the surface that’s still being kept from me. The gods appear to have an underground society built around they way they operate and the House on the Rock is merely one of the known meeting places. Characters share eternal truths with Shadow, though he still hasn’t figured out what the hell is going on. Are these truths relative to the person telling them? Is Czernobog correct in stating that “The Drunkard’s Dream” clock is indeed the “real world”?
We’re also introduced to Mister Nancy, who is…I don’t know. I don’t know who he represents. He’s West Indian, and that’s all I know. I was wondering…what exactly constitutes a god in this series? Does it require religious worship or worship in general? If Shadow can believe in snow so fiercely that it becomes real, can this be done with more abstract concepts like love or hatred? I AM JUST THINKING OUT LOUD, OKAY.
All of the strangeness and the theorizing leads us to the Carousel. The Carousel. Is it the biggest one in the world? I suppose it doesn’t matter at all, because there’s not a carousel in the world that can do this:
It was as if the last thirty-six hours had never happened, as if the last three years had not happened, as if his life had evaporated into the daydream of a small child, riding the carousel in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, on his first trip back to the States, a marathon journey by ship and by car, his mother standing there, watching him proudly, and himself sucking his melting Popsicle, holding on tightly, hoping that the music would never stop, the carousel would never slow, the ride would never end. He was going around and around and around again…
Then the lights went out, and Shadow saw the gods.
This book. This book.