Mark Reads ‘American Gods’: Chapter 15

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?

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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91 Responses to Mark Reads ‘American Gods’: Chapter 15

  1. Saphling says:

    Welcome to the world of Neil Gaiman's stories, Mark! Your mind, it will be blown.

    And yes, they're all like that. ^_^

  2. cait0716 says:

    Five chapters left and the main character just died. Yup.

    Laura walked down the aisle to the Scooby Doo theme song at her wedding. That might be my favorite thing about her. Because that's kind of awesome. And it paints the image of this wonderful, silly love and people who don't take themselves too seriously and just want to have fun. I think Laura was alive enough for the both of them, which is maybe why she and Shadow seem to have worked so well.

    This chapter really is something else. The hallucinations and Shadow's deteriorating state are captured really well. And of course he doesn't survive. Who could survive being tied to a tree without food or water for nine days?

    "vg'f va gur gehax" ununun. Lrf, lbh jvyy haqrefgnaq guvf Znex. Naq vg jvyy oybj lbhe zvaq.

  3. @amyalices says:

    A+ use of David Mitchell GIF!

    …Yes, that is all I have, lest I start getting spoilery.

  4. pica_scribit says:

    Oh, Mark! I hope you didn't think you were prepared.

    Wikipedia sez: "In Norse mythology, Ratatoskr is a squirrel who runs up and down the world tree Yggdrasil."

  5. BattleSheep says:

    Oh, right, his friend is a squirrel. Is the squirrel a god? Probably not.

    I don't know if he counts as a god or not, but that's Ratatosk, the squirrel who lives in the world tree. Wikipedia says he carries messages up and down the tree, but he doesn't seem to have any bigger role than that.

    • xpanasonicyouthx says:

      Whoa! That's awesome.

      • Daemon8666 says:

        Most of even the smaller beings Shadow has met along the way tie into a mythology, whether they're religious or cultural in basis.

        Being raised Catholic, the closest I can come to an analogy for what a lot of the imagery in AG does is the Sacrament of Transubstantiation – the belief that when the priest blesses the wine and bread it becomes the body and blood of Jesus. It doesn't literally change into flesh and blood, but the belief the congregation carries in their mind combined with the blessing and the physical presence of a stand-in make it so. It's also the same as in the story that was told where the king's lot was chosen, and when they tried to hang him in false effigy it became a reality at the completion of the ceremony. In the same way, being Odin's vigil, the tree he is bound to becomes Yggdrasil, the world tree, where Odin himself hung, Ratatosk and all associated features included.

        Gaiman and a few other writers I have read subscribe to a saying: "All stories are true." Was Iraq trying to build weapons of mass destruction? Maybe not, but the BELIEF that they were was enough to unite a people to make war on them. All stories told are true in the minds of those who read them, even if it's only while those pages are being turned, and enough belief in any idea can change individuals, groups, cultures…what you take into yourself changes you, for better or for worse, and so do the things you reject.

        I don't know if any of that made sense, and I went a little far afield, but literally EVERYTHING in this story is happening on at least two levels, even when you think it's not.

  6. Ryan Lohner says:

    I'm guessing the elephant head guy is Ganesh. I don't know a thing about Hindi gods besides a few names, though. Hey, we've already met Kali, so why not?

  7. knut_knut says:

    Spoilery question:
    Jnf gurer nal cnegvphyne ernfba jul vg unq gb or Funqbj jub uryq Jrqarfqnl’f ivtvy, bgure guna gur snpg gung ur nterrq gb qb vg? Jbhyq vg unir orra bx vs bar bs gur qjneirf uryq uvf ivtvy be vs Funqbj qvqa’g qvr?

    • bearshorty says:

      Vg jvyy or rkcynvarq yngre. Gur arkg puncgref ner bar erirny nsgre nabgure, chggvat gur jubyr obbx va pbagrkg.

    • cait0716 says:

      V guvax ng yrnfg cneg bs vg vf whfg gung Funqbj vf Jrqarfqnl'f fba. Fb vg genpxf onpx gb Jrqarfqnl'f fnpevsvpr bs uvzfrys gb uvzfrys. Ohg fvapr Jrqarfqnl pna'g fnpevsvpr uvzfrys va guvf pnfr, ur znavchyngrf uvf fba vagb cresbezvat gur fnpevsvpr. Gur oybbq pbaarpgvba cebonoyl znxrf guvf zber cbjreshy gung n fnpevsvpr bs n qjnes jbhyq unir orra. Ng yrnfg, gung'f zl thrff

      • knut_knut says:

        BBBB, gunax lbh! V pbhyqa'g erzrzore vs Jrqarfqnl'f cyna jbhyq unir orra frevbhfyl frg onpx vs Funqbj jnfa'g gur bar jub uryq gur ivtvy.

    • pica_scribit says:

      Jryy, vg jnf cneg bs gur nterrzrag ur znqr jvgu Jrqarfqnl jura ur gbbx gur wbo, naq Funqbj vfa'g n zna gb tb onpx ba uvf jbeq. Nyfb, nf ur fnlf, ur'f qbvat vg orpnhfr vg'f fbzrguvat n yvivat crefba jbhyq qb. Ynhen'f pbzzrag nobhg ubj ur jnfa'g ernyyl yvir fghat uvz. Naq gura gurer'f gur snpg gung Funqbj vf, l'xabj, Bqva'f fba, fb gung'f tbg gb unir fbzr xvaq bs fcrpvny cbjre. Oybbq zntvp naq nyy gung. Funqbj vf zrnag gb ercerfrag Onyqe va gur Abefr cnagurba, naq Onyqe'f qrngu vf fhccbfrq gb or bar bs gur xrl riragf yrnqvat gb Entanebx.

      • knut_knut says:

        gunax lbh! V qba'g xabj zhpu nobhg Abefr zlgubybtl fb V qvqa'g xabj vs guvf rirag cnenyyryf fbzrguvat gung unccraf gb Onyqe.

        • pica_scribit says:

          Vagrerfgvatyl (sbe trrxf yvxr zr) fbzr fpubynef cbvag gb n cnenyyry orgjrra Onyqe na Wrfhf. N lbhat, orybirq tbq jub vf xvyyrq guebhtu gernpurel naq jvyy erghea ng gur raq bs gur jbeyq.

    • Elexus Calcearius says:

      Qvqa'g vg unir gb qb jvgu gur snpr gung ur jnf Bqva'f fba?

  8. Surely he's only mostly dead! To blaaaaaaave.

  9. Elexus Calcearius says:

    David Mitchell speaks your confusion.

    Bu, zl, Tbq, V qvqa'g haqrefgnaq gur fvtavsvpnapr bs "vgf va gur gehax" ng nyy gur svefg gvzr. V gubhtug vg zrnag fbzrguvat gb qb jvgu vg orvat vafvqr Tnarfu'f gehax, fbzr flzobyvfz bs vg orvat rnfvre guna vg ybbxrq be fbzrguvat…ohg vg znxrf cresrpg frafr gung bs nyy gur tbqf gb uryc uvz, vg jbhyq or Tnarfu. Gur erzbirq bs qvssvphygvrf, jub jnf perngrq jura uvf urnq jnf pubccrq bss nf n xvq jbhyq qrsvavgryl jnag gb uryc puvyqera.

    ….vf vg fcbvyre-l gb gryy Znex jub gur ryrcunag Tbq vf?

    • pica_scribit says:

      V qba'g guvax vg'f fcbvyrel. Rvgure ur xabjf jub gur tbq vf be ur qbrfa'g, ohg V qba'g guvax xabjvat vf tbvat gb uryc uvz chg nalguvat gbtrgure ng guvf cbvag.

  10. roguebelle says:

    I flipping love Neil Gaiman's prose. He has such a deft felicity with language. It's why he's the (currently living) writer I most admire and most aspire to be like. There's just something so compelling about his facile use of words.

  11. pennylane27 says:

    Beautiful chapter though. Gaiman is a genius.

  12. arctic_hare says:

    This is exactly why I told you that you still weren't prepared. 😀 Which isn't over, btw. Not till the novel ends. Because you're never prepared.

    More godly cameos! Hi, Ganesh! Hey, Ratatosk, who's a cute little messenger squirrel? *scritches* HI HORUS! <3 Glad we finally got to meetcha!

    Frevbhfyl pnpxyvat bire gur yvar nobhg vg orvat va gur gehax. Tnvzna, lbh gevpxfgre. Oevyyvnagyl cynlrq. Znex'f tbvat gb whfg SYVC jura vg nyy pbzrf gbtrgure.

    Naq gb zvfdhbgr gur Ryriragu Qbpgbe, gbzbeebj'f nabgure penpxre, vs V znl fnl fb. Uvf zvaq'f tbvat gb or oybja.

    Also, I love Laura. I don't care if this is an unpopular opinion, I think she is awesome. <3

  13. chichichimaera says:

    Jung, ab zragvba bs uvz zrrgvat Wrfhf (jub pna’g dhvgr trg gur jvar evtug, yby)?

    • cait0716 says:

      Funqbj zrrgf Wrfhf va n qryrgrq fprar gung vf npghnyyl vapyhqrq nsgre gur npxabjyrqtzragf va gur rkgraqrq rqvgvba (ng yrnfg ba gur xvaqyr). Fb Znex jba'g trg gb gung fprar hagvy gur irel raq bs gur obbx.

    • echinodermata says:

      Not your fault, but see caito716's comment. I put your comment in rot13 for that reason.

  14. notemily says:

    Okay so what can I even say about this chapter. SHADOW IZ DED?! WHAT.

    Jub jnf gur zna Funqbj jnyxrq naq gnyxrq jvgu va uvf qernz? V guvax gur ryrcunag thl vf Tnarfun, ohg V zrna gur bgure bar. Jvgu gur orneq naq onfronyy pnc. (Nccneragyl guvf vfa’g va gur bevtvany rqvgvba.) Vf vg fhccbfrq gb or Wrfhf? Gur jnl ur gnyxf nobhg rirelbar oynzvat rirelbar ba uvz znxrf zr guvax fb. Naq gur jngre-vagb-jvar wbxr. Jung’f jrveq vf gung ur frrzf ubaberq gb unir zrg Funqbj, sbe fbzr ernfba. Znlor orpnhfr gurl obgu fnpevsvprq gurzfryirf ol unatvat fbzrjurer sbe n srj qnlf. (rot-13’d because apparently this scene isn’t until the very end of the book in the Kindle edition. Weird.)

    I like that different entities try to help Shadow out a bit. He won’t let Laura cut him down, because he knows he has to stay up there for nine days, but the squirrel brings him water, so at least he doesn’t die of thirst quite AS quickly. And Horus offers him food, although he doesn’t take him up on it. Naq V’z abg fher gur fcvqre vf whfg n fcvqre… (Speculation, but rot-13’d just in case. I have read this book before, and then forgotten most of it, so my speculations might actually be spoilers and I just don’t know it.)

    I love the passage where he talks about how alive he feels. Death and life are two sides of the same coin; Shadow’s never felt more alive than when he’s facing death. I also like the part where he becomes the tree and draws water up from his roots. Even if that was just a hallucination, it’s a pretty awesome one.

    I think the white thing that Laura coughs up is a bunch of maggots. Gross.

    • cait0716 says:

      Weird. In the kindle edition the scene with the guy with the beard and baseball cap doesn't appear in the text proper. It's included after the acknowledgments section at the very end of the book. Given that, I don't think Mark has gotten there yet. Naq, lrf, vg vf fhccbfrq gb or Wrfhf

      • notemily says:

        Oh dude, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to spoil anyone. I assumed the 10th anniversary text was the same everywhere.

        • cait0716 says:

          I would have made the same assumption. I'm not sure why the publishers organized the two editions differently (and feel free to edit/delete my comment if it comes off as spoilery, too)

        • echinodermata says:

          So your 10th anniversary edition does include that bit in this chapter? Hmm…this makes for an interesting application of the spoiler policy. You might want to put that part of your original comment in rot13 to be safe, but it's weird that it's only a spoiler for some versions and not others.

      • pica_scribit says:

        OK, that's just bizarre. I want to read this scene in context. WTF, Kindle?!

      • knut_knut says:

        late but I stopped by a bookstore on my way home and found the Anniversary Edition. It didn't have the baseball cap guy bit until the very end o_O weird

        • notemily says:

          For some reason when I bought the 10th Anniversary edition used, I ended up with the British paperback instead of the American one – this link should work. I can tell it's British because the price on the back is in pounds, heh. So maybe the American edition has it at the back? I don't know why there would be two versions of the "author's preferred text," though. Weird.

          (Instead of this scene, the post-Acknowledgments bit of my book has an interview with Neil Gaiman, "Reading-group discussion questions," and Neil's "How Dare You" essay about being a British person writing about America.)

        • notemily says:

          Oh dude, I just got an idea–what if it's that gurl qba'g jnag gb hcfrg Nzrevpna ernqref ol gnyxvat nobhg Wrfhf? Whfg yvxr gurl (jubrire "gurl" ner) gbbx bhg gubfr gjb enaqbz cnffntrf va Uvf Qnex Zngrevnyf gb nibvq bssraqvat bhe qryvpngr Nzrevpna frafvovyvgvrf. NETU.

  15. @sab39 says:

    Random thought that occurred to me…

    Someone really ought to organize a Flash Mob in which they render Sam's "I believe" speech in the style of a Catholic mass.

  16. pennylane27 says:

    WHY ARE THERE SO MANY ROT13'D COMMENTS? FRUSTRATION. Why is it so haaaaaard? I hate you all a little bit, because you know more than I do. Ok, no, I love you, but still.

    • cait0716 says:

      Because Neil Gaiman is a master craftsman and his foreshadowing is impeccable. You have to re-read this book after you finish it. And come back to the rot13 comments because they're all awesome.

    • ChronicReader91 says:

      I'm with you. I feel so out of the loop. 🙁 But I always like going back and decoding them after I've finished the book/series- I did that with a lot of posts after I finished HDM.

  17. ChronicReader91 says:

    Even with everything Shadow goes through here, I can still get excited about appearances from new gods. Hi Ganesh! Hi Horus! Hi Ratatosk!

    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.

    🙁 🙁 🙁 Whyyyyyy.

    That was just…. I have no words for it. I don’t see myself recovering from this book anytime soon.

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