Mark Reads ‘American Gods’: Chapter 16

In the sixteenth chapter of American Gods, Shadow is judged by the gods. That’s all I’m gonna say. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read American Gods.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Well, it really happened. Neil Gaiman killed off his main character with a quarter of the book remaining. And….what the hell?

I am unprepared for this book, but in a completely different way than I am used to. This is the “slowest” story I’ve tackled for Mark Reads, and one that defies any sort of anticipation on my part. Who kills off the main character with well over a hundred pages to go in their book?

But let’s just put aside this ridiculous (and intriguing) plot twist for a moment. Chapter sixteen is gorgeous, bewildering, and one gigantic chunk of this world’s mythology. I don’t want to ignore those things, because they’re important to the novel. I think it’s massively significant that one of the scenes of Shadow’s trek down the path of hard truths involves Wednesday dancing with his slightly-drunk mother. Because IS THAT INSINUATING THAT WEDNESDAY IS HIS FATHER. I can’t even deal with that right now.

It was difficult for me to read chapter sixteen and not think reflectively about what I do here on Mark Reads or over on Mark Watches. It brings to light a conversation I had recently with a close friend of mine who asked how it felt to know that hundreds of thousands of people I have not met, nor will I ever meet, know more about my life than anyone might imagine. It’s a strange sensation for a couple of reasons; first and foremost, I was raised to keep things to myself. I was taught by my angry mother and my stoic father that I should bottle up any emotions that I might have. It was not becoming of a young man to be so emotional or to feel so many things. I don’t do that anymore, and I find that even with absolute strangers I meet during the course of my day, I am much more prone to telling them things about me without the slightest hesitation. I don’t want to deny that it’s quite cathartic and liberating to me to be able to do this. Yet I know it feels weird. I spent the vast majority of my life being quiet, pensive, and shy for most things.

Shadow’s trip through his past made me think about the glimpses of my own past that I’ve shared with all of you. I suppose it’s strange that so many of you are able to assemble a timeline of my life, and you’ve never met me. Like the images we see here in chapter sixteen, they are fragmented memories and thoughts, pieces of scenes that break Shadow’s heart over and over again. And I know that what I’ve shared about myself isn’t always the brightest of thoughts, that in order to let go of my heartbreak and pain, I had to hand it off for other people to consume and experience in their own way.

I know it’s a tad ridiculous to compare the two, but it’s something that crept into my brain and wouldn’t dislodge itself. I am clearly not dead and looking at my own life, but I don’t really visit those old reviews where I tell stories of my life anymore. If I ever had to face all these memories again, I don’t know what it would be like. Would I hurt as much as Shadow? Or would I be numb towards the pain they should cause me?

I don’t know. And I think it’s okay that I don’t know. If there’s an afterlife and I have to face all these moments again, the best I can hope for is that I am at a point where I have accepted my life as mine and mine alone, where my past is not a weapon against my heart, but a path of stories that led me to the future. I think I’m on the right path, but who knows?

And I really love that Gaiman is getting me to think about these things, even as an atheist who genuinely believes in what Shadow ultimately asks for at the end of this chapter. I don’t think it makes me less of an atheist or more of a believer or anything. That doesn’t really matter to me anyway, because I don’t define my identity on being a godless sodomite. Well, actually, I am pretty damn gay, but that’s another topic for another day. I think that despite being a non-believer in pretty much everything, the images and events that Gaiman gives me throughout this chapter are still pretty awesome and fascinating to me, and I don’t think it is mutually exclusive with me being an atheist at all. Look, I just really like fantastical shit. I would be stoked if the gods were real, and all had physical bodies, and I could be judged based on which gods I made friends with. Isn’t that essentially what Shadow goes through? He visits all of these painful memories. We find out how his mother died, why Shadow was put into prison, why he stopped reading fiction (OH MY HEART), and how his father was both a mystery and a source of torment for Shadow and his mother.

Yet after this, he meets Bast once more, and she gives us one hell of an explanation of the gods when talking to Shadow:

“What are you?” he asked. “What are you people?”

She yawned, showing a perfect, dark-pink tongue. “Think of us as symbols–we’re the dream that humanity creates to make sense of the shadows on the cave wall.”

It’s a succinct statement, but it’s one that beautifully describes how these gods function. It doesn’t posit that gods are some silly flight of fancy to humanity. They are real because they are believed in, and we’ve seen over and over in this book how important that belief is. Even as a non-believer, I understand how important belief is to other people. I don’t question it, and, as I’ve said before, there are days when I do feel pangs of jealousy for not being able to experience it myself. So why can’t I entertain this notion that the physical manifestation of a bunch of gods who have existed as long as humans live in some backstage area on earth and they’re going to lead me to my “death,” which, by the way, is not an ending.

Unconnected to this: Shadow chooses from three paths, one that will make him wise, one that will make him whole, and one that will kill him. Um, so WHAT IS THE DISNEYLAND ONE. Clearly the one that makes a person whole because I always feel whole at that place of wonder. Are these three paths already known in fandom? Or is it up for interpretation. DON’T SPOIL ME IF IT IS A SPOILER.

My guess is that Shadow took the road that would kill him. He is met by Ibis in his true/god form, a guide to the world of the dead. Shadow is ready to accept his death, and I don’t find this shocking at all. It’s very in-character for him at this point, and he knew that vigil on the tree could lead to his death, and he did it anyway. What does confuse him, though, is why Ibis is the one to take him to his death. Why not gods from a religion he believed in?

“It doesn’t matter that you didn’t believe in us,” said Mr. Ibis. “We believed in you.”

Wow, why does this hit me so hard? This is a man who simply did what he was told. Well, that’s not really true; he chose to fight against the new gods with impossible odds, and he followed through with his promise to act as the vigil for Wednesday after he died. I think these gods are happy to have anyone as dedicated and loyal as Shadow. So it’s rather poetic to me that Mister Ibis and Mister Jacquel, as well as Norya, are the ones to greet Shadow in this world.

It really was difficult, though, to read about Shadow being judged by Anubis/Mister Jacquel. It’s true what Gaiman writes here: we really don’t remember all the terrible, horrible, and shitty things we’ve done to people. I can’t imagine the pain, shame, guilt, and regret that would come with being forced to remember them all at once, and I think Gaiman does a fine job of showing us how horrific this is for Shadow. But the moment passes, and it comes time to judge Shadow’s heart, just like we were always told: it is weighed against a feather by Thoth. And if his heart balances, he gets to choose where he ends up. I wasn’t surprised that it balanced, but this was unexpected:

“Well?” roared Anubis.

“I want to rest now,” said Shadow. “That’s what I want. I want nothing. No heaven, no hell, no anything. Just let it end.”

“You’re certain?” asked Thoth.

“Yes,” said Shadow.

But….didn’t we just learn that there is no ending? Is this possible?

Mr. Jacquel opened the last door for Shadow, and behind that door there was nothing. Not darkness. Not even oblivion. Only nothing.

Shadow accepted it, completely and without reservation, and he walked though the door into nothing with a strange fierce joy.

I can’t help that my mind went straight to Albert Camus’s The Stranger, and I’m wondering if this is a reference to that, of a character accepting the nothingness of the world with a ferocious happiness. But this can’t be the end for Shadow, can it?

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since ’09.

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75 Responses to Mark Reads ‘American Gods’: Chapter 16

  1. Ryan Lohner says:

    So, I'm assuming the remaining few chapters feature Sam and Hinzelman teaming up to kick some New God ass. I mean, what else is left?

  2. chrisjpardo says:

    Well American Gods has taken me a while to get into properly, and I'm still not even sure that I am fully into it, but I have been thoroughly intrigued and continually surprised over the last few chapters. There's definitely an excitement (and confusion) about just where the final few chapters are going to go.

    Mark, what are the chances that you'd review two books, back-to-back, both featuring a 'suburb' of, boat-crossing to, and world of the dead? At least Shadow didn't have to worry about having a daemon torn away :p

    • Elexus Calcearius says:

      I find its a somewhat common theme, at least in books which deal with belief and religion, in some form. Maybe because when we get down to it, the thing we wonder the most about is what happens after we die….

  3. cait0716 says:

    I love Shadow's journey through the underworld and all the painful memories. And the reveal that Wednesday is his dad is pretty great. Do you think Wednesday knew?

  4. pennylane27 says:

    Wait, was it only insinuating Wednesday was Shadow's father? Because I had a pretty huge capslock keysmashing moment there, along the lines of WAIT IS HE A DEMI-GOD DOES IT EVEN WORK LIKE THAT WHAT IS THIS OMG KASJGASJGIREIANAJFASJF

    Anyway, I don't know what else to say. I loved this chapter, even though it was so heartbreaking. I think it's amazing that Shadow chooses nothingness, because that's what scares me the most about death. Since I can't believe in an afterlife, dying for me is exactly that. The end of consciousness or awareness, just nothing at all. I'm not sure how he can rest if he can't feel. He'll just stop existing. My thoughts aren't making any sense, are they?

    Oh, I'm still holding on the hope that Shadow will return somehow, with Wednesday.

    • cait0716 says:

      I think it was more than insinuating. It mentions Shadow not wanting to witness his own conception when he doesn't follow Wednesday and his mother off the dance floor. That's like a big, flashing neon sign.

      I also believe that I'll just cease to exist after death, but, like Shadow, I find comfort in that idea. I don't really want to just go on forever (and what is forever, anyway). If I had no concept of self or feeling or anything before I was born, why should I after I die?

      • Ryan Lohner says:

        I'm just thankful I'll miss out on the Sun expanding and destroying the planet.

        • cait0716 says:

          No kidding. When I was eight, I had this conversation with my uncle after he showed me Andromeda.

          Him: You know the Milky Way and Andromeda are on a collision course? And when they collide it's going to destroy everything in both galaxies
          Me: But I'll be dead before that, right?
          Him: Yeah, we'll probably get struck with an asteroid before that and it will wipe out any life on the planet
          Me: But I'll be dead before that, right?
          Him: Sure, because before that happens, our sun will expand and consume everything inside the asteroid belt
          Me: But I'll be dead before that, right?
          Him: Probably. Every so often our planet gets zapped by gamma rays that kill off 95% of the life. I doubt humans could survive that
          Me: But I'll be dead before that, right? This isn't going to happen in my lifetime?
          Him: Oh yeah, your grandchildren's grandchildren will be dead before any of this happens. Probably.

          This may be why I have issues with concepts like eternity. Nothing lasts forever.

          • notemily says:

            It continues to terrify me that our planet could be hit by an asteroid or comet that wipes out all life. Most other things, I think humans are resilient enough to withstand–but how do you protect yourself from SPACE.

          • pennylane27 says:

            The Sun expanding may be the most terrifying thing my dad ever explained to me. I think my sister actually cried.

            And I'd never thought about it like that, what you said about having no feeling or awareness before being born. It's a nice way to look at it. I guess I'm not actually afraid of dying, more like I'm scared of dying without having accomplished things, and never getting to see other things or more importantly, never getting to read everything I want to read. But I don't want immortality either. No way.

    • John Small Berries says:

      Wait, was it only insinuating Wednesday was Shadow's father?

      I took it as a pretty solid fact when I came to the sentence, "Shadow buried his head in his hands, and did not follow them, unable or unwilling to witness his own conception."

      • Kmz says:

        I think pennylane’s point is that not only is it implying Wednesday is Shadow’s father, but that that has further implications.

      • Mary Sue says:

        Ahahahahaa. Sorry. I'm not laughing at your comment. I just noticed your user name, and as a Blue Blaze Iregular, I salute you.

    • monkeybutter says:

      Haha, yeah, it's insinuating with a smack upside the head. Gotta wait until they go on Maury to be sure, though.

  5. Ryan Lohner says:

    What if after Thor killed himself, Odin set out to have another kid his "soul" or whatever could go into? That could make for a pretty interesting climax, and a way for Shadow himself to be born again at the end.

    • Patrick721 says:

      Except that in a short story in Gaiman's Fragile Things, Shadow's real name is revealed, and it's Onyqre Zbba (Rot13ed for spoilers)

  6. monkeybutter says:

    “It doesn’t matter that you didn’t believe in us,” said Mr. Ibis. “We believed in you.”

    That line is really moving. I'm happy we got to see Mr Ibis and Mr Jacquel again, just as promised (and Bast has been there all along!). The time Shadow spends with them is still my favorite part of the journey.

  7. Elexus Calcearius says:

    This really is such a poignant chapter. You're right, Mark, that ending is somewhat reminiscent of the Stranger; doing what you want, even though its unexpected. Both the main characters do have striking similarities, now that you mention it. Neither really seem all that emotionally engaged with the world around them.

    Sometimes I wonder, if confronted with the same choice, which road I would take. Probably not death. More and more recently I've been coming to believe that there's not life after death, although I dearly wish it were so. (If it was like the Egyptian thing, I don't think I mind much, but being judged for all the horrible things you do and then push out of your mind would suck). I hope I would take the one which makes you whole- that's probably the best, when you think about it, being true to yourself, but the Ravenclaw in me is highly tempted by wisedom. Funny, since being whole is probably wiser….

    (oh, hai, Plato reference).

    • clodia_risa says:

      (oh, hai, Plato reference

      I was coming her to make the same comment! I swear, I’ve never noticed her saying that before. Bad Classics Major!

  8. Zoli says:

    Who kills off the main character with well over a hundred pages to go in their book?

    Neil Gaiman. He goes there.

    • Mary Sue says:

      Neil Gaiman doesn't just go there. He owns property there. I heard he's going to run for mayor of there next election cycle.

      • pica_scribit says:

        Is he running against Umberto Eco? His main characters only have about a 50/50 chance of making it out of his books alive.

        • cait0716 says:

          This reminds me of Mary Doria Russel, who actually flipped a coin to decide whether several of her characters would live or die in her novel A Thread of Grace. Strangely, that detail makes me want to read it even more.

      • Zoli says:

        And would 'there' be the land of Anyone Can Die, or Nightmare Fuel Land? Because Gaiman definitely owns property in the latter, although this book has been less upsetting than usual for him. (Obviously Moffat is the king of the latter. GRRM is the king of the first. Gaiman travels between both.)

    • jaccairn says:

      Guy Gavriel Kay is also one.

    • Patrick721 says:

      Jim Butcher doesn't just kill off the main character, he kills him off when he still has about 12 more books in the series planned.

  9. I don’t think it is mutually exclusive with me being an atheist at all.

    In an interesting moment of timing, this is the sort of thing I ended up discussing at my tutorial session on Monday night – we got talking about the Enlightenment and how it paved the way for the possibility of not believing in God and how religion got into every single part of a person's/society's life then and how in some ways it still does now but that ultimately, it doesn't really matter what you believe or don't believe in – it's how the belief or non-belief of various groups affects their interactions with each other and what that means for all of us as a whole. And stuff. It was long evening and I'm sure I've forgotten the really interesting bits.

  10. Mary Sue says:

    Um, so WHAT IS THE DISNEYLAND ONE. Clearly the one that makes a person whole because I always feel whole at that place of wonder.

    Yes. This.

    Damnit, now I want to go to Disneyland, and I live 1000 miles away.

    • Zoli says:

      Disney World, maybe? Quite honestly, when I did eventually visit Disneyland, after vising Disney World several times… I was kinda disappointed.

      • Mary Sue says:

        When I visited Disney World after practically growing up at Disneyland, I was quite disappoint. The Pirates of the Carribbean only has ONE drop in Florida!

        I think it's a childhood imprinting thing.

        • Zoli says:

          For me, it was just that, you know… compared to Cinderella's castle in Disney World, the castle at Disneyland (…sleeping beauty's?) was… all small and stuff. Like, there just felt like much less to do at Disneyland. I mean, there's only one park!

          I don't really have any attachment to the rides at either park; the one time I went as a kid I was too scared to go on most of the rides.

          It may also have had to do with my general uneasiness being in California; we drove up to Disneyland from San Diego where we were staying, and the desert environment really weirded me out. I mean, overall I enjoyed the vacation (we hit ComiCon as well) but it's not an area of the country that I really want to visit again. Too hot, too expensive, no trees at all (palm trees totally do not count). Clearly I am not made to live in the southwest. Although I hear northern California is completely different, so maybe I'll visit there sometime.

  11. Unconnected to this: Shadow chooses from three paths, one that will make him wise
    What is your name?

    one that will make him whole
    What is your quest?

    and one that will kill him.
    What is your favorite color?

    • notemily says:

      Blue. No, yel–AAAUGH!!!

    • Shiroikami says:

      Yes, I'm pretty sure the three paths WERE meant as an homage to that. Because Neil Gaiman is just that kind of writer who will drop these little nods to everything that is and was ever awesome, and then just sit back and wait to see if anyone notices. 😀

  12. arctic_hare says:

    Insinuating, nothing. Dude doesn't want to stick around to watch them conceive him. xD And in all fairness, I wouldn't want to watch that either in his position. No, just… no. I don't think anyone wants to watch their own conception. DNW.

    I love this chapter just for more Thoth, Anubis, and Bast. <3 Love you, Bast.

    I think that despite being a non-believer in pretty much everything, the images and events that Gaiman gives me throughout this chapter are still pretty awesome and fascinating to me, and I don’t think it is mutually exclusive with me being an atheist at all. Look, I just really like fantastical shit.

    YES YES YES. That is me in those sentences, you are describing me too. I know exactly how you feel. 😀 Also I have no clue which one is which of those paths. I'm okay wondering.

    AAAAAH DON'T GO INTO THE NOTHING, SHADOW, YOU'LL COME OUT ON THE OTHER SIDE AS A LIE

  13. The three paths are…interesting. I heard someone compare them to the three Hallows, but I don't think so. I think the paths are a truer version of the temptation of Paris kind of trope where you get to choose what really, truly matters to you.

    I would choose the one that makes you whole, if only because I think that's the end result all humans actually desire, under all the other things we talk about and pray for and dream of. I know all of my most fleeting and most desperate desires are, in the end, about being made whole. The Mirror of Erised would probably show me the best possible, most complete and unbroken version of myself, smiling.

  14. nanceoir says:

    …the best I can hope for is that I am at a point where I have accepted my life as mine and mine alone, where my past is not a weapon against my heart, but a path of stories that led me to the future.

    So say we all.

  15. ChronicReader91 says:

    It seemed pretty clear that it was doing more than implying that Wednesday is Shadow’s father. Soooo… he’s half-god then? Some things are making sense in the light of this. Is that how he was able to make it snow with just his mind? I definitely think Wednesday knew, and that’s why he sought Shadow out. Maybe there’s something special about having your child hold your vigil? There are several chapters left to sort this out, and I STILL have no idea how Gaiman is going to do it.

  16. clodia_risa says:

    It’s been very timely that you’re reading this book at this time, when I’ve just started a new RPG game: Scion. In it, you play a child of one of the more famous pantheons – Greek, Tuath de Danaan, a child of one of the Loa, the Japanese set, etc. It’s got a bit of the same feel as the book too. It’s been fun, even though we don’t have any Norse Scions running around right now. A lovely bit of serendipity.

    As for Shadow’s godhood, I don’t know about Norse mythology, but in Greek myths, while the children of gods were more than human, it took an act of will (and recognition from their parents) and a variety of other things before they became demigods or gods themselves. Therefore, I doubt Shadow is a demigod. He might, however, have powers that mere mortal could not. Creuncf, yrg’f fnl, punatr jrngure cnggreaf? Fhzzba fabj?

    • Zoli says:

      Scion was apparently directly inspired by this book, so… that IS appropriate. 🙂 I do want to check that game out sometime, it looks fun.

    • Shiroikami says:

      Norse mythology doesn't really talk much about the children of the Aesir with mere mortals. Whether this was because those children were simply mortal themselves, or because they just didn't happen isn't made clear.

      Honestly though, the Aesir didn't spend much time outside of Asgard, and when they did travel to Midgard (Earth) it was usually just sort of them passing through on their way to somewhere else… usually Jotunheim (the realm of the frost giants) to do battle with them… or to trick Thor into dressing up as Freya in order to get his hammer back from the frost giants…

      The thing to keep in mind with the Norse gods is really that while they were gods, and were worshipped, their entire mythology basically painted them as humans. The first humans, maybe, but with a few exceptions, they didn't have any inherent mystical power of their own, it all came from tools (Thor's hammer is the best-known example of this, but I also count things like Sif's golden hair, Thor's goats, Odin's ravens and the magical ring Draupnir).

  17. I spent this whole chapter convinced that Shadow would come out of this place and come back to life. Only to reach the end and have him choose nothingness! I mean, I buy it as a character move and it definitely had emotional power, but COME ON GAIMAN!!! What are you doing to me and my brain!!!

    As a kid, Egyptian Mythology was my favorite, so I really loved that that's where Shadow ended up going. I have to wonder, though, why he didn't go anywhere else. Is Egyptian mythology the only true afterlife? Or did the egyptian gods specifically want Shadow to go to them? Could he have turned up in Valhalla or something instead? HOW DOES THIS WORK?

  18. notemily says:

    Yes. I would definitely choose to be whole.

  19. NopeJustMe says:

    "Shadows on the wall of the cave"

    OMG PLATO. <3 <3 <3

    Sorry. Philosophy student here to fangirl.

  20. I'm only now have seen that you are reading American Gods… HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE? I'm a terrible reader, hang me on a tree for 9 days and 9 nights! (Actually, don't do it!)

    I've just read through all 16 chapters of your review, and you made me loose all my night of sleep, but i'm thankful for that! I've read American Gods a couple of years ago, and reading your reviews made me remember exactly how the experience was! So strange, so different from everything i'm used to read, and so fascinating and catching that i just couldn't stop reading. Many times I've felt just like Shadow, just drifting on the story, and always realizing there was SO MUCH MEANING in every page that i just couldn't grasp… but the book was more then worth it, i dare say it was my favorite book, and it hit me like few others have.

    As a fellow atheist, i totally understand your feeling about this chapter, i feel the same. And reading Mr. Ibis. saying “We believed in you.” has literally made me fall into my chair! Gaiman has the talent, like you said yourself a few times, to in a few words express so much meaning in such an accurate way that it's amazing. Bast explaining what the gods are is just perfect… i can totally believe that even being an atheist. I don't believe a god or gods have created the universe and control it and judge people… but in American God's universe, it's the opposite! Man has created the gods through their belief and by their way to explain so much they couldn't understand about the world…. maybe that adds to the "there is just so much belief/worship available" that one of the new gods said a while ago, people don need to recur to gods so much anymore to explain how the world works (well, kind of). I suggest you read Gaiman's "Stardust" when you get the chance! It's short, amazingly beautiful and different from the movie (a lot more serious, but not totally). You would love it!

    Just a bit about the previous chapter, i loved reading you perspective, as an american, on how Gaiman describes USA and the road trips. As a Brazilian who has only gone to Disney at age 9, i had no idea how the countryside roads and small towns in US were, unless by a few movies, but you can't trust Hollywood, right? I was happy to see that it was accurate and reflected how things really are. Also, i LOVE Sam! She is just amazing, and her huge "i believe" speech made me literally clap hands to the book! I even got a T-shirt with the WHOLE speech from Neverwear (Neil Gaiman's official shop: http://www.neverwear.net/store/index.php?main_pag… Spoiler free, i rechecked for you!).

    Well, big post, so i'll sign off now! Thanks again for making me relieve the great experience of reading this book! And read on, you won't be disappointed! =)

  21. deb says:

    She yawned, showing a perfect, dark-pink tongue. “Think of us as symbols–we’re the dream that humanity creates to make sense of the shadows on the cave wall.”… So, does this mean that the monsters in the closet are also real? I can see another hundred stories spinning off from this premise.

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