In the fourteenth chapter of American Gods, Shadow travels with Ibis and Czernobog to retrieve Wednesday’s body, and then…look, I don’t even know how to talk about this. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read American Gods.
This book is so strange, both in its content and in its pacing. I’ll be honest: I don’t know how Gaiman is going to pull this all together in the six chapters that follow this. He’s set up a whole lot, explained very little of it, and just KILLED OFF THE OTHER MAIN CHARACTER. Just the composition of this book is strange, but it also intrigues me. Perhaps I actually know more about this than I think I do, and the endgame of American Gods will help me figure this out.
For now, though, I am enjoying the bizarre nature of the retrieval of Wednesday’s body and the vigil that Shadow agrees to. It’s apparent now that the death of Wednesday truly is shocking to the gods; they are all more than willing to help out in the upcoming war, though it’s unfortunate it took the god’s death to do it. In a rapid-fire procession, Gaiman starts introducing us to more and more gods as Ibis, Czernobog, and Shadow make their way to the spot where they’ll retrieve Wednesday’s body. (More on that in a bit.) Along the way, gods assert their allegiance. They meet the large humming man from early in the book, who is actually Alviss son of Vindalf: the king of the dwarfs. UM THIS IS AWESOME. Like holy shit, I am glad he is on the right side because I would not want to fuck with him.
There are a lot of small things dropped by the characters in this chapter that either make little sense by themselves, or later are given their full context. The first of these is Alviss’s bizarre message to Shadow: that he offers his support and sympathy for Wednesday’s vigil. Well, okay. What does that mean? I sort of assumed that he felt sorry for Shadow, perhaps, that it was just an awkward way of expressing grief, since he knew Shadow had been sort of close to the man.
I also find out I was wrong in stating that the gods suffer from the same physical limitations as human, and now that I think about it, it was hinted all along the way, even by Wednesday himself:
Nancy spoke. “Folk like us don’t get cancer. We don’t get arteriosclerosis or Parkinson’s disease or syphilis. We’re kind of hard to kill.”
“They killed Wednesday,” said Shadow.
Well…touche. So how did this kill Wednesday? But disease doesn’t affect the gods? Perhaps this is unimportant, but I’m fascinated by the mechanics of this. That’s nothing new; I’ve spoken at length that I love imagined worlds and I just want to know everything about how they function. So when I’m introduced to the concept of neutral ground existing in this book, I’m perplexed in the best way imaginable. There’s an area that’s neutral in this universe?
Czernobog said, “There is no such neutral place.”
“There’s one,” said Mr. Nancy. “It’s the center.”
Czernobog shook his head abruptly. “No. They would not meet us there. They can do nothing to us, there. It is a bad place for all of us.”
“That’s just why they’ve proposed to make the handover at the center.”
WHAT IS THE CENTER??? The center of earth? The center of the backstage? What the hell does this mean?
Oh. It’s the geographical center of the United States. Well, the supposed one. I’ve never been there! I’ve driven near it on a tour bus, but never stopped there. So what makes this place so special to the gods? How is it neutral?
I think it’s a matter of figuring out how the gods get their power. We know it’s from belief, but Gaiman adds a new twist to that when Czernobog makes a brief stop: blood-sacrifice is much more powerful than everyday belief. It’s an act made out of belief, and that act makes it stronger. So is the opposite true? Is a complete lack of belief what might cause a place to be neutral?
“But the center,” said Czernobog. “The center is worst. Is like a minefield. We all tread too carefully there to dare break the truce.”
THIS IS PRETTY MUCH GIBBERISH TO ME. Why? Why is it like this? Oh god IT’S GOING TO BE A DISASTER, ISN’T IT?
I don’t know that it’s a disaster, but it’s fucking awkward. The old gods and Shadow are forced to spend hours with the new gods who killed Wednesday and want all of them exterminated. We meet a new god, Media:
She was perfectly made-up, perfectly coiffed. She reminded him of every newscaster he’d ever seen on morning television sitting in a studio that didn’t really resemble a living room, smiling at the good morning crowd.
I’m so totally onboard with this idea that everyday things we’ve come to “worship” can have gods as well; I also like that the gods we meet all have elements of their belief tied in with their actual personality. The god of Internet is whiny and entitled and REALLY, ISN’T THAT JUST PERFECT. Oh, god of Internet, your accuracy is stunning.
What’s striking about this whole meeting in “the center” is that Gaiman positions it all so that it flows through Shadow. More than ever before, we are aware of how ridiculous this is for him, especially after the death of Wednesday. I think that explains why he’s so harsh with Town when he finally meets him, making that offhand comment about Wood’s widow. He’s fed up. He is more aware than ever that he’s a pawn to these people. To be fair, I think that some of the older gods he has met don’t feel this casually about him, and that helps Shadow to at least feel he’s on the right side throughout all of this.
It’s also clear from Shadow’s dream just how much he misses having Wednesday around, even if the man was evasive or irritating. I know that there is a greater point to the dream; it sets up the vigil at the end. But Wednesday is in Shadow’s thoughts. How could he not be, after all that had happened between the two of them? Yet I can’t ignore that the dream also imparts an important message on Shadow: “gestures mean everything.”
I’ll come back to that in a moment; I think it’s crucial to understanding why Shadow agrees to the vigil. It’s in his mind as he wakes up and has “dinner” with the gods: lukewarm McDonald’s. EW NO. But think about the dream he has where “gestures mean everything,” where Shadow sees creatures and humans hung to death for Odin, and contrast that with the god of Internet’s unbelievably whiny persona. If gestures mean everything, then this kid’s gestures show that he is a total asshole. And even if the moment is brief, I feel like Shadow finally breaks out of frustration over this whole thing.
Shadow realized he wanted to hit the kid. He’d wanted to hit him since the kid had his goons hurt him in the limo, after Laura’s funeral. He knew it was not a wise thing to be thinking, not here, not now. “Can’t we just take Wednesday’s body and get out of here?” he asked.
“Midnight,” said Mr. Nancy and the fat kid, at the same time.
“These things must be done according to the rules,” said Czernobog. “All things have rules.”
“Yeah,” said Shadow. “But nobody tells me what they are. You keep talking about the goddamn rules, I don’t even know what game you people are playing.”
THANK YOU. I do find it a tad suspect that these characters are all so reluctant to just explain to Shadow what the fuck is going on, instead of shrouding it all in so much secrecy. Look, the guy just saw Odin murdered via a live television feed that was stolen by a bunch of living gods. I think he is willing to believe whatever else you tell him! Though, yes, I don’t think they doubt his capacity to believe them, so what other reason after all of this, do they have to constantly keep him in the dark?
I was more shocked, though, that various gods from the “other” side all came up to Shadow at different points to try and convince him to come to their side. I’m glad they’ve since disposed of the whole “good guys” schtick, though I can’t ignore how absurd it is that they killed a friend of Shadow’s and are now asking him to help them out. Yeah, y’all, he might be a tad bit biased. Just a bit! And for good reason! But these newer gods seem incredibly short-sighted, desperate, and rude. Media offers to make Shadow either famous or despised in the public eye. Which…once you think about it, neither are very strong offerings for a guy like Shadow. He doesn’t want to be recognized. He’d rather fall into the background. Hell, his name is SHADOW. None of these gods understand who he is at all!
Well…I have to take that back. One of them knows Shadow extremely well, and I admit to being shocked by the revelation that the driver of the limo is Shadow’s old cellmate, Low Key. Never did I think to stop and pronounce that name out loud. Yeah. He’s Loki. And he works for the other side.
OKAY. WHY. I had hoped that this might be an explanation for how Wednesday knew to set up things to intercept Shadow, that Loki was a secret agent for the old gods, but nope. It was pure coincidence that he shared the same cell, and Loki accepts that if he doesn’t change, he’ll die with all the other gods who refused to change, too. HOW CONVENIENT FOR YOU. What I don’t get is how the newer gods can even help the older ones to adapt. No one believes in them anymore. They can’t change the minds of society as a whole, can they?
Look, the gods can’t even get along long enough to give Wednesday a send-off that isn’t rife with insults, threats of murder, inane ramblings, and disagreement. I don’t understand why they had to wait until midnight, and I don’t understand what this whole thing was for. So I latched on to what I did understand: Shadow keeps his promises. If there’s anything I understand fully and completely, it’s that Shadow is a man of his word, that he agreed to stay with Wednesday to the end, and that he has accepted this without question.
Gestures mean everything, so when the group tries to convince Shadow to leave, he insists that he must be the one to give the god his vigil. At this point, we still don’t know what it is, but I was getting the sense that it was a lot worse than anyone was letting on. Mr. Nancy was set on the fact that Shadow could not help fight their war against the gods since it would take place in the “backstage,” but Shadow still persists on the vigil. Czernobog explains that the vigil means Shadow will have to stay with the body, and that it will kill him. Okay, what?
Nancy said, “The person on the vigil–gets tied to the tree. Just like Wednesday was. And then they hang there for nine days and nine nights. No food, no water. All alone. At the end they cut the person down, and if they lived…well, it could happen. And Wednesday will have had his vigil.”
Oh. Oh, okay, that’s much more serious than I expected. That’s….yes, Czernobog, you’re right. He could die from that. You are not exaggerating this.
So I think, “Well, they’ll convince him not to do it, or he’ll find someone to convince himself and maybe feel disappointed by the decision, but Gaiman wouldn’t actually go ahead and stick Shadow in a tree, tied up, for nine straight days, would he?
“Shadow,” he called. “You really don’t have to do this. We can find somebody more suited. You ain’t ready for this.”
“I’m doing it,” said Shadow, simply.
“You don’t have to,” said Mr. Nancy. “You don’t know what you’re lettin’ yourself in for.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Shadow.”
“And if you die?” asked Mr. Nancy. “If it kills you?”
“Then,” said Shadow, “it kills me.”
HEY SHADOW WHAT ARE YOU DOING. You’re not actually going to go through with this, are you?
But I sat in shock, reading as the three women undress him (YEAH HE’S NAKED THE WHOLE TIME), tie him to a tree FIVE FEET ABOVE THE GROUND, and then everyone leaves. They’re gone. And Shadow has to stay in the tree, naked, for nine days.
WHAT IS THIS BOOK DOING.