In the thirteenth chapter of American Gods, Shadow’s life begins to spiral into weirdness when his identity in Lakeside starts to fall apart. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read American Gods.
what just happened
how am i supposed to deal with this
I can’t see a single bit of foreshadowing or clever warning from Gaiman as I think back to what leads up to that thing in this chapter. Sure, things were progressing much faster than before, but…but…WHY. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS. I think it’s even worse when you think about how adorable the opening of this chapter is. Shadow is so awkward and uncertain about dinner with his neighbor and I find it endearing. It’s satisfying to see Gaiman admit through the narration that Shadow’s own awkwardness is magnified by the fact that he spent three years in prison. As Shadow describes it:
This would be his first real social interaction with other people–normal people, not people in jail, not gods or culture heroes or dreams–since he was first arrested, over three years ago. He would have to make conversation, as Mike Ainsel.
I don’t even think that has to do with a possible attraction to Marguerite. I think Shadow is just so used to the strangeness of his life for the last three years that the prospect of normalcy is frightening to him. He has a date! Well, okay, it’s not really a date, I suppose. It’s a dinner party with Marguerite and Leon! And I don’t care: I love that he is soconcerned about what wine to bring, whether flowers are okay, and whether he’s presentable or not. He times his day around dinner! I JUST WANT TO HUG SHADOW BECAUSE THIS IS SO CUTE.
Leave it up to Wednesday to RUIN THIS MOMENT. You know, he’s rude. I’m okay saying that. I know he’s rather occupied, too. That’s sort of the point of his phone call to Shadow: he is overwhelmed by trying to wrangle up gods to his side.
In a moment of frustration, Wednesday suggests the gods should just slit their own throats, and Shadow tries to diffuse things by making a joke about it. It’s here that Wednesday finally talks about how the gods exist in the world of humans: while in the “material” world, all the same effects of human life exist for gods. He even confirms that gods can be replaced by new versions if their believers change details of what they believe in. What this does is make the plight of the old gods that much more serious. This is not simply a matter of being forgotten. This brings death. It brings depression and despair. It brings desolation.
“I just keep thinking about Thor. You never knew him. Big guy, like you. Good hearted. Not bright, but he’d give you the goddamned shirt off his back if you asked him. And he killed himself. He put a gun in his mouth and blew his head off in Philadelphia in 1932. What kind of way is that for a god to die?”
HOLY SHIT. Oh my god, that’s why Thor hasn’t been around. In this one moment, Gaiman has just changed how I view these characters. It seems they are less like gods over time and they become more like humans. That’s sort of what this book has been doing anyway, and this revelation makes me stop to acknowledge that. The world that Gaiman has built has shown us that the gods we believe in are physical beings that have their own agendas and motivations. It’s only in this world that an author can write about a negotiation meeting between gods. No, the gods are going to negotiate. I didn’t expect things to just end peacefully, but I was still excited about the prospect!
I was worried about two conflicting things at this point, though: I wanted Wednesday to go, but that would mean missing out on dinner with Marguerite. But if he stays for dinner, that means I’d miss out on the negotiation, and I want to know more about this war. Which do I want: character development or plot updates? WHY MUST I MAKE THIS DECISION?
Well, it turns out that I don’t really have to. Wednesday, first of all, orders Shadow to stay put, and he’s honestly quite pleased to do so. We do get dinner time with Marguerite! I’m not at all surprised that Shadow is good with children; Leon takes an instant liking to him, though his ability to do magic tricks certainly helps. I began to anticipate an awkward evening between the two adults (but one I would enjoy). I expected that Gaiman would take a chance to help build on the characterization of these two people. Basically, I expected pretty much everything except Sam showing up. And in an instant, things are still awkward, but now for an entirely new reason: Sam has not told her sister that she’s already met Mike Ainsel, though he told her he had a much different name back then.
Thankfully, things aren’t too bad during dinner, though I can’t deny that a fascinating dynamic passes over things. I sensed that Marguerite suspected some unspoken connection between Shadow and Sam, but never bothered to vocalize it. Of course, Sam stating that she’s going to get Shadow to take her out to a local bar and hinting that they have “lots to talk about” certainly doesn’t help. You’re not very inconspicuous, dear!
But I didn’t realize what a frightening thing this would be for Sam. There’s a man living next door to her sister who has a fake name. And she met him while hitchhiking. And she now suspects he’s some out-of-control serial killer; turns out that Shadow is wanted for the murder of the men who captured him earlier in the book. So…YEAH. That is more awkward than anything else in this chapter. Can you really blame her, either? Especially given what we learn about her characterization and her propensity to entertain nearly any idea that makes even the slightest bit of sense. And this one makes a lot of sense!
That’s the beautiful thing about Sam, though. I don’t find it at all annoying, irritating, or unrealistic that she is the way she is. It’s fantastic to me that her mind and her heart have the capacity to believe so many things at once. I might have a huge dash of cynicism in me, but I enjoyed reading her massive monologue to Shadow to prove to him that whatever he tells her about his life is something she’ll be inclined to believe. She’s not being ironic and I read this as nothing but all the literal things she believes in. Also:
“I believe that…light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead)…..”
I LOVE SCHRODINGER’S CAT REFERENCES. That is all.
The best part is that after all of this, Shadow genuinely tries to explain what’s been happening, why the FBI is coming after him, and who actually killed those two men. And when he spells it out like this, it really highlights how fucking bizarre this all is. I haven’t even personally stepped back from this story to think about it this way:
“Why would they have a war?” asked Sam. “It seems kind of redundant. What is there to win?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Shadow.
I MEAN RIGHT. Sam, you are wonderful. You distill this whole war down to a single question and it is genuinely insightful. I wanted to spend more time with this, to see what else Sam might pick up, but the two make it to the bar and very shortly…FUCK. I don’t know how it’s possible, but Audrey Burton, the widow of the man that Laura cheated with, is in that bar. She recognizes Shadow, and in an instant, his entire life in Lakeside falls apart. As soon as this happened, it felt wrong to me. What are the sheer odds that Audrey Burton is in this tiny bar in Wisconsin? How? How did she end up here? Why was it so conveniently timed as well?
Chad Mulligan–bless his heart–handles this remarkably well, and I’m reminded why he’s such a good character in the first place. He’s a man who runs a small town, and he’s prone towards trusting folks. He trusts Mike Ainsel, too, even if that is a fabricated identity in one sense. But Shadow is Mike; the only disparity between the two is the name and a somewhat-false personal history. Chad really does trust Shadow, and even when this all falls apart, I think he’s willing to acknowledge that. It’s a really mature thing for a character to do. But the way he treats Shadow throughout all of this shows that he respects the man. I mean, he takes the guy out of the bar to discuss things, rather than let the drama swell to an uncontrollable level in the bar. He gives Shadow the benefit of the doubt at the police station as well, right up until it’s confirmed that his identity is fake and he’s violated his parole.
In a way, Sam treats him the same way; perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but her passionate kiss not only visually portrays her as being #TeamShadow, obviously, but it’s a similar feeling. She intrinsically trusts him without knowing very much about him at all. What is it about Shadow’s persona that makes him this way? Is he like a gentle giant to others? Does he give off an aura of trust? Appearances only go so far, though; I think Shadow treats others with respect even if he doesn’t know them, and the favor is returned to him.
Yet things still don’t go the way Shadow would like them, and when he realizes that he’ll be in deep shit soon, he places a call to Mr. Ibis in Cairo, Illinois, and the two speak in an impromptu code to communicate the problem Shadow’s in. (Is the female voice the cat? WHO IS THAT.) I had little hope, though, that people all the way in Cairo, Illinois would be able to help Shadow in Lakeside. Even if they could contact any of the old gods nearby, what could they do?
The other shoe drops when Chad discovers that Shadow has broken the terms of his parole. What I really adore about what Gaiman does with this section is how he utilizes the culture of this small town to extend a sense of courtesy to Shadow. No one acts as if they fear Shadow, though it does help that he is cooperative and understanding to Chad and Officer Liz. The police station is a tiny affair and they generally only deal in tiny affairs as well. So it’s very realistic to me that Officer Liz is so friendly and talkative with Shadow. He poses no real threat to her, and she’s eager to speak with him and share with him the banal minutia of the Lakeside police station.
But in time, the conversation stops, and Liz falls asleep while the TV runs in the background. Never would I have thought that a television could be used to convey this kind of tension! (Well, aside from Poltergeist, because…YEAH HOLY SHIT.) Shadow had been avoiding television since his last run-in with Lucy in that hotel. Now, there’s a lone TV in a room with a sleeping police officer and Shadow can’t do anything to either turn it off or notify Liz about what’s going on. UNBEARABLE.
I just expected the gods in the TV to taunt Shadow like they did before. And they certainly start off that way, teasing Shadow with the option to switch to the “winning side.” But this time, the characters in Cheers don’t just stand around and yap about Shadow’s futile work for Wednesday. This time, the broadcast actually changes to a live feed. Or so it says, I thought. Maybe they were lying. But Shadow soon recognizes the voice of Mr. Town, and the camera cuts to an interior scene:
Two men sat at a table at the far end of the room. One of them had his back to the camera. The camera zoomed in to them awkwardly, in a series of jagged movements. For a moment they were out of focus, and then they became sharp once more. The man facing the camera got up and began to pace, like a bear on a chain. It was Wednesday. He looked as if, on some level, he was enjoying this. As they came into focus the sound came on with a pop.
It’s the negotiation meeting. Holy shit, this is real. This is actually live. Why are they showing Shadow this? Whatever, I thought. At least I get to see the meeting! And it does appear that the other side is offering some sort of truce, though Wednesday is quick to reject it, mainly out of an extreme distrust for the new gods. Shadow also notices something strange: a red “glint” on Wednesday’s glass eye. My first thought? Perhaps he was about to transform into his god form. Hadn’t we seen that before in the book?
“It’s a big country,” said Wednesday, marshaling his thoughts. He moved his head and the scarlet glitter-blur slipped to his cheek, a red laser-pointer dot.
WAIT. WAIT. WHAT??????
There was a bang, muted by the television speakers, and the side of Wednesday’s head exploded. His body tumbled backward.
NO THAT DID NOT JUST HAPPEN. It’s an illusion, right? You can’t just kill Odin like that, can you? I mean, Wednesday did say in this chapter that the gods were susceptible to the laws of human biology and….oh. oh my god. Oh my god. Wednesday is dead.
HOW CAN YOU DO THAT. Oh my god, GAIMAN. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE.
Shadow, LIKE MYSELF, just slips straight into shock and he’s numb when some man in a suit comes to take him away. He’s now an interest of “national security”! Oh, he is proper fucked, isn’t he? But this does give us another moment from Chad that shows us his quiet moral fortitude: he softly objects to what they’re doing to Shadow, stating that he’s uncomfortable with the way this is happening. There’s no cop car to take Shadow away; it’s a black town car. Oh god, it’s the opposition, isn’t it? And with Wednesday gone, they’ll just torture him, right? What use could they possibly have for him?
YEAH EXCEPT THEY’RE NOT. I breathed a gracious sigh of relief when the men change in the car, and Shadows knows they’re the men sent by Ibis. IT’S CZERNOBOG AND MR. NANCY!!! But that relief is short-lived. Wednesday is gone. He’s dead.
“Wednesday,” said Shadow. “Is he really dead? This isn’t some kind of trick is it?”
He realized that he had been holding on to some kind of hope, foolish though it was. But the expression on Nancy’s face told him all he needed to know, and the hope was gone.
Goddamn. What do they do now?
Coming to America
Humankind has a history that is cyclical in nature. The story of Atsula, the holy woman of the tribe who crossed the land bridge in north America many thousands of years ago, is fiction. But it’s fiction with a point: Humankind is cyclical. We believe, we fall out of that belief, we move on to the next thing. We gain power, we exert that power over those who are powerless, we dominate, we fall. If you look at the story of Atsula, there’s a great parallel to Wednesday as well, especially in the fact that both fought for what they believed to be true, and they both died because of it.
Everything about this is part of a greater narrative, and now I’m wondering if that is what this book is ultimately going to be about. We see how Atsula stands up against Nynyunnini, defying the god’s order, but is proven wrong, and dies because of this. Is Wednesday wrong, too? Are we wrong for choosing to worship the gods of convenience? What do we leave behind as a society that becomes forgotten just like Nunyunnini?