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.
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?