In the eighth chapter of American Gods, Shadow begins to work with a group of Egyptian gods in a funeral home before two gods from his recent past come back into his life. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read American Gods.
I don’t think that the plot moves forward much in chapter eight, but Shadow spends time with the Egyptian gods who run a funeral home and it helps us to understand the mechanics of this alternate fictional world. Reading American Gods is like getting a clever Cliff Notes on world theology in a way, so even if Wednesday’s quest to fight the modern gods doesn’t really change, I am enjoying the experience that comes along with it.
First of all, Gaiman’s not operating out of irony here, and I think I’d be annoyed if he was. The fact that Ibis and Jacquel (Thoth and Anubis, respectively) work in a funeral home is not Gaiman giggling and thinking he’s merely being clever. Where is a better place for Ibis to create his stories? Where else could Jacquel continue to perform the duties he was familiar with? Plus, every god we come across doesn’t still survive doing what they used to do. What we’re given here is a large, sprawling, disconnected group of beings spread across the United States. Some still derive joy from being able to things they love, but many are not. (Mad Sweeney is a great example of that in chapter eight itself.)
For now, though, Gaiman drops us into life with Ibis and Jacquel. Shadow joins them with no reluctance on his part, waiting for Mr. Wednesday to return. (As a side thought, I think it’s incredibly weird that this happens and in any other context, I might call busllhit. But Shadow really doesn’t have anything else to do and he’s prone to doing as he is told with this job, so at least that makes sense. But seriously, pretty weird that Mr. Wednesday just disappears for a week, right?) Ibis and Jacquel run a local funeral parlor in Cairo, and more so than any god we’ve seen before, the two have fully and completely integrated themselves into life in this town. Now I’m not even sure my previous theories about how the logistics of life as a god work anymore. While Ibis does bring up the fact that they barely subsist on any belief, they also seem to be getting on just fine with their business. So how do gods “die” then? Mr. Sweeney seems to have died from a combination of a poor decision of falling asleep drunk in the snow and giving away that specific coin to Shadow. They have physical bodies that act as human bodies do. OMG THE GODS ARE CYLONS. Okay, but seriously, I still haven’t figured this out!
I also think that there are versions of the gods. How could the ancient Egyptians bring Thoth, Anubis, and the other gods with them to America thousands of years before and leave them there? Weren’t there still folks in Egypt who believed in them? Do they fracture off in order to follow those who believe them? I understand the notion that America “has been Grand Central Station for ten thousand years or more.” That makes sense. That’s why there are so many scattered gods in America, too. Even if Gaiman meant it in a fictional sense, I also think it’s entirely plausible that many people “discovered” and traveled to the “New World” than what we were told in history books. As Ibis says here, he pities those who discard the impossible, referring to any anomalies in standard thought.
Though I suppose this is all “impossible” anyway, though I must admit the concept of gods living and walking amongst us is pretty awesome. I do adore that Gaiman gives us a portrait of their lives that is everything but supernatural. Jacquel does autopsies for the county medical examiner. Oh, and he feeds on bits of the body:
From the heart, the liver, and from one of the kidneys, he cut an additional slice. These pieces he chewed, slowly, making them last, and ate while he worked.
Somehow it seemed to Shadow a good thing for him to do: respectful, not obscene.
I’m reminded of a certain scene involving Iorek Byrnison in The Amber Spyglass here. Anyway, I was intrigued by Jacquel’s confusion when Shadow makes an offhand comment about the dead coming back to life. Jacquel is slightly bewildered by this; of course, he doesn’t know about about Laura, but Ibis makes it seem like the dead coming back is a fairly difficult and rare thing. SO. SO. How is Laura able to come back? Is she not what we think she is?
From Ibis, we find out about how the Egyptian gods have all spread out. It’s an interesting idea because I imagine it’s been a long time since they were all believed in, so why else would they stay together? Set hasn’t been heard from in OVER A HUNDRED YEARS. That is such a bizarre sentence just to type and I love that. And what happened to Horus? What does he do now? I WANT TO KNOW ALL THE THINGS.
And so Shadow, after being shown all of this, agrees to stay and earn his keep in the funeral parlor. Jacquel and Ibis have more than enough room and certainly have work to give him, too. But after taking a moment to clean himself up, observing the physical evidence of the violence he’s been subjected to on his “coffee-colored skin” (Is Shadow a black man? That seems like a rather dark color), he puts a straight razor to his throat and briefly considers slicing himself from ear to ear and just ending this all. And it’s not even necessarily because he’s depressed. Shadow seems tired. After everything that has happened in the past couple weeks, he knows now he’s in far over his head. It’ll be a long while before he has a “normal” life, and he may never get that at all. However, the strange cat from earlier somehow manages to open the door to the bathroom, interrupting the process. Given what happens later in the story with him, this cat clearly knew he was going to do this and stopped him. Who is this cat? I feel like the answer is just sitting there waiting for me to figure it out, but it hasn’t happened yet. On top of that…why do the clothes laid out for him fit so well? It’s kind of unsettling to me. WHAT IS GOING ON.
Shadow heads out on his first job with Jacquel and Ibis, driving the hearse to pick up an elderly lady from her newly-widowed husband. There’s no real subtext here, no special metaphors, and the plain nature of it is a great way to suggest how “normal” and banal the lives of these gods are. This is what they do now. They are members of American society and their existence as gods means….well, they’re really nothing that special anymore. Unless you’re Jesus, and you’ve stolen Christmas from Mithras. Then, according to Jacquel, you might be a little special.
“So, yeah, Jesus does pretty good here. But I met a guy who said he saw him hitchhiking by the side of the road in Afghanistan and nobody was stopping to give him a ride. You know? It all depends on where you are.”
Which makes sense to me. Gods have more power and a better fortune where the belief is stronger. But Jesus can just…travel wherever? So does that destroy my theory that there are versions of various gods? AH, I CAN’T GET THIS. But we do find out the cat in the funeral parlor is actually Bast (or Basthet, the goddess of protection), which explains why she interrupts Shadow’s razor moment, and I think that’s also why she clearly has sex with him later. Does that protect him too? I suppose it does, maybe on an emotional level more than a physical one.
Given the bit of backstory of Shadow that Gaiman gives us here, it seems that Shadow learned at a young age to take care of his physical self. I entertained the same idea as Shadow did, but he made it a reality. There’s still a part of me that would love to be physically massive because I still feel so unassuming in my own body, but I think I’ve found other ways to stand up for myself these days. Given this, does Bast recognize that Shadow needs protection in some other way? That’s the only explanation I can come up with the sex “dream” that Shadow has. Why else would Bast do this and heal all of his wounds and injuries in the process? That’s my guess.
The next day is when he runs into Mad Sweeney. How did the aging leprechaun end up all the way out on the city limits of Cairo? I couldn’t figure out why until it was basically handed to me by Gaiman: the coin that he gave Shadow was going to get Mad Sweeney killed.
“I did it like he said. I did it all like he said, but I gave you the wrong coin. It wasn’t meant to be that coin. That’s for royalty. You see? I shouldn’t even have been able to take it. That’s the coin you’d give to the King of America himself. Not some pissant bastard like you or me. And now I’m in big trouble. Just give me the coin back, man.”
So, in the process of learning why Mad Sweeney is so upset, he confirms his suspicions that Mr. Wednesday set up the fight between him and the giant leprechaun as a test of sorts. But what is so special about that specific coin? What does he know about the “oncoming storm” that all these gods keep referencing?
I admit that Mad Sweeney’s distress is unsettling to me, and before Gaiman even stated that he would die, I got the sense that he knew his end was coming. It seems appropriate to stick that in the chapter that is about death, centered around a funeral parlor. Yet even given this, I was still a bit surprised when Shadow goes out on his first hearse trip alone a few days later to pick up a dead body, and it turns out to be Mad Sweeney. It was sad to see him go, but…well. Well.
The hearse was stopped at a traffic light–the same lights he’d fishtailed at, several nights earlier–when Shadow heard a voice croak, “And it’s a fine wake I’ll be wanting, with the best of everything, and beautiful women shedding tears and their clothes in their distress, and brave men lamenting and telling fine tales of me in my great days.”
“You’re dead, Mad Sweeney,” said Shadow. “You take what you’re given when you’re dead.”
HOW IS THIS HAPPENING. Does Shadow possess some weird power to resurrect those who die near him? Or is this a residual thing for gods? Either way, he orders Shadow to give him a good wake. While he’s dead. And Shadow does this that night, and he and Ibis tell stories of his life. While Sweeney is there. And dead. Mad Sweeney even teaches Shadow how to pull coins from “the hoard.” While dead. And what the fuck is going on in this book?
So Mad Sweeney’s “death” wasn’t all that sad to me because he got to participate in the post-death ceremonies. I was more sad to leave Jacquel and Ibis behind. Mr. Wednesday finally shows up to take Shadow away, and he does so without even giving Shadow a chance to say goodbye to his two new friends. I don’t know what Mr. Wednesday has planned, but I was struck by how accurate the sensation was that Gaiman describes at the end:
Shadow realized it had only been a temporary reprieve, his time in the house of the dead; and already it was beginning to feel like something that happened to somebody else, a long time ago.
And it’s true; this story is moving along rather quickly from where it started. Soon, the week Shadow spent with these two Egyptian gods will be the distant history.