In the fifteenth chapter of American Gods, Shadow tries to survive the nine-day vigil for Wednesday. and sweet baby jesus what is going on. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read American Gods.
Wow. That’s my first reaction to this chapter. And I say that because Neil Gaiman’s poetic prose is enthralling. Maybe I haven’t been commenting on it that much, but this man’s talent for grabbing words and taking their malleable form and twisting them into this haunting, emotive portrait is unreal to me. Because there’s very little dialogue and a whole lot of living in the moment, it allows Gaiman to stretch out and expand what he’s clearly very good at.
A lot of American Gods weighs on images, on creating parallels between the various myths of the world and what’s happening in this book to Shadow. There’s a lot of emotional power in Shadow’s vigil and the images that Gaiman give us are steeped in a suffering that is spiritual in nature. So many religions of the world are based on a noble being suffering for the greater good. I won’t pretend that I know of any greater good that Shadow is working towards in this moment, but it’s easy to assert that he’s working towards the goodness of Wednesday. The two didn’t really know each other for that long, but it’s clear Wednesday made a striking impact on this man’s life, so much so that his own sense of duty will inspire him to TIE HIMSELF UP IN A TREE FOR NINE DAYS WITHOUT FOOD AND WATER.
I appreciate that while this is utterly ridiculous, something you and I might never be able to conceive of, Gaiman doesn’t ignore a lot of the logistical problems of this. Within just a few hours, Shadow begins to experience extremely negative side effects of his choice, from pain in his arms and legs, to “bursts of color” appearing his vision, and then on to thirst, hunger, exhaustion, and more pain. Again. The entire time, Gaiman makes sure to show us that this is a miserable endeavor that hurts Shadow, even if he does gain some insight and make a new friend.
Oh, right, his friend is a squirrel. Is the squirrel a god? Probably not. Who cares? He makes friends with a squirrel! What if he’s imagining it? Again, WHO CARES. It’s a talking squirrel that feeds him water IN AN ACORN HUSK. how is this not the cutest thing imaginable. OH, IT IS. IT IS.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s focus on just how beautifully written chapter fifteen is:
It pulled him from a dark dream in which dead children rose and came to him, their eyes peeling, swollen pearls, and they reproached him for failing them and it pulled him from another dream, in which he was staring up at a mammoth, hairy and dark, asi tlumbered toward him from the mist, but–awake for a moment, a spider edging across his face, and he shook his head, dislodging or frightening it–now the mammoth was an elephant-headed man, pot-bellied, one tusk broken, and he was riding toward Shadow on the back of a huge mouse.
That is one fucking sentence. In just a single sentence (albeit a lengthy one), Gaiman is able to show is this dream state that Shadow is in, give us the hallucinatory, non-sensical imagery, and show us how this man’s mind is affected by his decision to give Wednesday his vigil. Well…I say that knowing this is probably half hallucinations, and half legit visions of gods. The elephant-headed god visits him, playing some sort of trick with a mouse, telling Shadow not to “lose” this one thing: “It’s in the trunk.”
Do I know what this means? No, I don’t. I don’t know what half the visions or dreams in this book truly mean yet, but I think they’ll retroactively make sense when I finish the book. For now, though, this is about the experience of the vigil, and Gaiman immerses us in the uncomfortable nature of it all, from the shivering and unending pain, to the thirst that follows. But even amidst this, there is something to be found and experienced by Shadow:
A strange joy rose within Shadow then, and he started laughing, as the rain washed his naked skin and the lightning flashed and thunder rumbled so loudly that he could barely hear himself. He laughed and exulted.
He was alive. He had never felt like this. Ever.
It harkens back to Shadow’s conversation with his wife in the cemetery. He knows she was right, that he had never truly been alive before, that he drifted through his own life in a bizarre way, and that gives this epiphany so much more power. So when Shadow starts calling to the storm, telling him that he is here, here in this moment, I can’t help but smile at the implication of this. I don’t think that this is the storm that the gods have all been speaking about, but I won’t ignore the poetic brilliance of Shadow begging the storm to come to him, laughing in the face of it until he is exhausted.
Still the joy doesn’t necessarily last very long. The pain and the exhaustion continues to overwhelm Shadow. I still sort of can’t believe he actually went through with this, but it’s disbelief based not in credibility, but awe. Shadow is a man of dedication, even if that dedication is what caused Laura to feel distant from him. It’s why his vision of her is so sad to me. He truly does love her; he always has, but now he knows why she drifted away from him while he was in prison. This act, this vigil, feels like Shadow facing every aspect of his life, his persona, and his behavior, as if he is allowing the earth and the gods to see into him, to judge him and to celebrate him at exactly the same time. At one point, he becomes part of the world by becoming the tree itself. I acknowledge that this is all fairly bizarre; perhaps there is no other meaning aside from Shadow’s mental and physical exhaustion. But there’s a message of acceptance here, that he’s transforming to become a part of the gods and the world. Is that wishful thinking? Probably, but maybe it’s not.
Maybe this is why Horus visits him. Maybe it’s an act of respect. Mr. Nancy and Czernobog had basically begged Shadow not to do this. What day is he on at this point? Four? Five? Who thought he would last this long all by himself? Why else would he arrive to tell Shadow that the gods will fight soon?
Laura arrives next. It’s heartbreaking. Let me just open with that.
“How did you find me?” he asked.
She was silent, for a while, in the moonlight. Then she said, “You are the nearest thing I have to life. You are the only thing I have left, the only thing that isn’t bleak and flat and gray. I could be blindfolded and dropped into the deepest ocean and I would know where to find you. I could be buried a hundred miles underground and I would know where you are.”
I know that this might be morbid, but I find this romantic. Yes, Laura is a dead woman, speaking to her dying husband who is hung in a tree to honor a dead god. Death surrounds this, yet I cannot ignore how I feel about this all. Shadow’s love for his wife is all-encompassing. Even in this moment, when he may never see her again, he asks her to stay. He does not care that she is dead and rotting. (Or…spitting up something white that is sentient??? WTF WAS THAT) Maybe he is, too. Or is about to die. In this moment, he is alive, and he wants her there.
“I’ll stop a while,” she said. And then, like a mother to a child she said, “Nothing’s gonna hurt you when I’m here. You know that?”
Shadow coughed once more. He closed his eyes–only for a moment, he thought, but when he opened them again the moon had set and he was alone.
Absolutely one of the most haunting scenes of the entire novel. I love this dynamic where Shadow almost feels like a child, that he looks to his wife for the most basic comfort and love imaginable, but the reality is that she cannot be there for him the way he needs her. There’s such a frightening loneliness to that final sentence, too. He was alone. In every way.
The pounding eased. Everything slowed. There was nothing left to make him keep breathing. His heart ceased to beat in his chest.
The darkness that he entered this time was deep, and lit by a single star, and it was final.
Wait. But….wait. Did. Wait. Did Neil Gaiman just……
Did Neil Gaiman just kill off the main character?