In the eighteenth chapter of American Gods, the storm arrives and my preparedness level was actually higher than usual AND I WAS STILL UNPREPARED. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read American Gods.
WELL. WELL. I can’t imagine how much some of you must have squirmed with delight and laughter when I said that thing about cons early in my reviews and then laughed even harder when I didn’t connect the dots RIGHT IN FRONT OF MY FACE.
We’ll get to that later. But seriously, Gaiman takes so much of what he’s given us over the course of seventeen chapters and essentially punches my face with awesome. I started to feel a bit of dismay, though, at the opening of the chapter, where Gaiman states:
None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as metaphor.
It seemed so blatant, spelling out what was apparent, but what I didn’t want to say. Okay, dude, I know this can’t happen, but I am suspending my disbelief to enjoy it. I was so confused by the inclusion of this section until this:
So, none of this is happening. Such things could not occur in this day and age. Never a word of it is literally true, although it all happened, and the next thing that happened, happened like this:
Oh, you. You were just toying with me, because of course this didn’t happen! It just happened, that’s all. It’s not literal, just actual. GAIMAN HOW DO YOU CONTROL WORDS LIKE THIS AND HOW CAN I TAP INTO THAT POWER OF YOURS
We jump right into the moments before the storm, and in terms of setting up the tension, Gaiman is a master. The sentences become shorter, more abrupt, and the narration is matter-of-fact, almost containing a list-like quality: This is happening. These gods are there. This is what it looks like. There is no attempt at grandeur, despite that this is a grand occurrence. There are so many gods assembling on this place that it is impossible to list them if one tried. There are so many gods that Gaiman just provides us with succinct visual descriptions of them, leaving all of the actual work to us to find out who they are. Do you know how much I love that he does this? We are not reading a passage littered with names. These are creatures and gods and demigods, probably some angels, too, and I’m sure the devil is around here somewhere.
And they are all here for war.
There was no way Gaiman was going to write the war of the gods without Shadow being involved in it somehow, so the issue became how he was going to pull this off. Shadow is in his form of eternity, having chosen to exist in nothingness forever; it’s not like he’s playing hide-and-go-seek. OR…well I guess he is? Only no one is supposed to find him.
Yet of all the characters we’d been introduced to who ends up showing up in Shadow’s version of the “afterlife,” I was pleasantly surprised that it was Whiskey Jack. I was pleased that all it took to get Shadow out of that place was a beer. (And the reasoning for that is explained later in the chapter, too.) I was pleased that Whiskey Jack takes him back to his place, and his home has changed; there’s a waterfall now, fresh snow patched on the ground, the water running by in a furious trickle.
“Where are we?” asked Shadow. “Am I on the tree? Am I dead? Am I here? I thought everything was finished. What’s real?”
“Yes,” said Whiskey Jack.
“Yes? What kind of answer is Yes?”
“It’s a good answer. True answer, too.”
This is not just wordplay. I mean, YES, it is a play on words, which Gaiman is quite good at, but at the end of the chapter, I realized the answer to every question Shadow just asked: It’s Yes. So Whiskey Jack isn’t even lying to Shadow. It really is a good answer and a true one as well.
I think that there are multiple moments where different characters elaborate on the many questions I (and Shadow) had at this point in the story, and they finally do sodirectly. It’s a good thing that it does feel like the gods are finally done hiding any secrets from Shadow because I think a lot of the info-dumping could have come off as a bit blatant without it. In the first case of it, Whiskey Jack waxes about the idea that gods simply don’t have it good in the United States. He uses the fact that America possesses a wide array of natural foods and plants that only seem to grow in one part of the country. You can find fresh avocados in southern California, but they’re a rarity in Bangor, Maine. And it doesn’t mean that this is a bad place; it’s just that it’s not as simple to just grow things wherever one wants them to grow:
“What I’m trying to say is that America is like that. It’s not good growing country for gods. They don’t grow well here. They’re like avocados trying to grow in wild rice country.”
And it proves to be a shockingly astute observation about the history of this place. There were plenty of indigenous people who lived in America long before white men came to bring disease and genocide, and I think that’s what he’s referring to. We are a nation built on imperialism and immigration, and what gods we did have that were grown here were lost in the genocide against the Native peoples. (Obviously not entirely, because there are still Native Americans living all over this country, many who still believe in the same gods, some who believe in new ones, and some who don’t believe in any at all. I’m not a fan of language about Native peoples that paints them as if they just up and ~disappeared~.) Our gods are the result of imperialist white men and women, of those of diaspora, of the slave trade, of those seeking the American Dream, of international business and education. The majority came from somewhere else.
This proves to be integral to what is to come.
“It’s a two-man con,” said Shadow. “It’s not a war at all, is it?”
Whiskey Jack patted Shadow’s arm. “You’re not so dumb,” he said.
OKAY. As soon as I read, I thought back to the past. That was a huge part of the beginning of the novel, but what did this mean for the war? I hadn’t quite put this all together yet, but I knew that my suspicion earlier was ACTUALLY RIGHT. OH MY GOD, I WAS TOTALLY RIGHT ABOUT SOMETHING FOR ONCE. “I’m prepared!” I thought.
And then Gaiman promptly slapped me in the face for even suggesting such a thing.
Because I forgot that Shadow was still dead. So Easter and Horus arrive to resurrect him. Should I type that again? Easter resurrects Shadow. This is the best thing ever. But I’m not clear on one thing. Is he backstage? Or, I should say, is this tree backstage? Because he’s only been “dead” for maybe a day or two and there is this:
The wet ropes that held Shadow to the tree had long ago weathered and rotted, and they parted easily as the two people pulled on them.
So….this isn’t happening on our side, right? It would also explain Mister Town’s flashes of the three sisters in the barn as well. It’s also a neat reference to how this chapter opens: This cannot happen, but it is happening.
And as fantastical as this all is, I can’t ignore the beauty of it all, that these gods treat Shadow this way, that Horus burns away the clouds above to heat up this man’s body, that Easter gives Shadow a literal kiss of life, that this kiss is one of spring:
Her kiss was gentle, and it tasted of spring rains and meadow flowers.
Which, to me, seems quite fitting for the god of Easter. Despite the beauty, though, Shadow isn’t exactly ready to be resurrected from death, especially since…well, death seemed like a pretty awesome place for him. I love what Gaiman does with this moment, too; Shadow has just come from pure nothingness, and he takes time to show us how this man has to re-adjust to the concept of existence, to apologies, to flowers, to a farmhouse, to the weather. These are things we take for granted, that we are so accustomed to that we cannot even comprehend the act of having to acclimate ourselves to the conceptual idea of them.
Gaiman contrasts this with the war of the gods, switching rapidly at this point between the battle, Shadow’s journey their, and Laura’s perspective. We are handed the suspense of the moment sentence after sentence, and I tried as best as I could to savor all of this. Not only did I know this was going to end soon, but I also knew if I wasn’t paying attention, I might miss the crucial details. The gods head up the mountain and it’s a surreal image to be given by an author, but it’s not played that way. It’s a march to war that just happens to include snow foxes and cyclops. Seriously, this book has allowed me to type sentences I never would in any other context!
But that’s half the charm of American Gods. This might technically be a fantasy novel, but it rarely feels fantastic. It feels like the very best history lesson I could ask for, or perhaps a fireside story told with sincerity and heart, or maybe even a tale handed down over the centuries. It’s comforting even if it is disturbing at times, and I found myself feeling like this was all being shared with me out of respect for me as a person. It’s not often that I feel that way about a book; it’s like Gaiman is a close friend who trusts you, so he hands you this as a gesture that he thinks you’re an all right person, that he feels safe in saying that you deserve this.
It feels even more like this as the characters introduced over the course of this novel begin to converge. It’s one of those things I enjoy about a book that’s sprawling. I like using that word to describe fiction because it gives me a sense of a much larger fictional world than most authors are comfortable writing. Even if we are honing in on the action occurring in just one place, American Gods really does feel quite expansive as a whole. It helps that we’ve gotten so many character perspectives as well, as if this is a gigantic, asymmetric chessboard, and the final pieces are moving in for the kill.
One of those pieces (and a character that has been transformed wonderfully into the most intriguing of the bunch) is Laura, who is now riding in a car down to Rock City with Mister Town. I am so happy that we’ve been able to see her experience dealing with being the walking dead. (I know that phrase heavily implies that she is merely a zombie, but technically she is dead and she can walk around!) Her post-life existence has been one of confusion and guilt, but we get to see how she is able to move beyond these to do what’s necessary to heal herself and to help her husband. (And both of those are equally as important.)
I felt it was pretty obvious that Mister Town was being played, that Laura was preying on both his loneliness and willingness to be around her as they headed down to Rock City. At this point, having ingested the water of time, I imagine she knows everything about what is going on. Did the three sisters do this on purpose? Did they want a wild card in the war? Whatever the reason (as it’s entirely unspoken), she plays the part well. This made me laugh:
“Well,” confided Laura, “I hated the idea of getting stale. I was just rotting away where I was.”
LOL GET IT SHE WAS DEAD. Oh, Mister Town, you fool. You have no idea what’s going to happen, do you? No, of course he doesn’t, and he falls right into her con:
“Mack…I keep thinking. You must really want to know what happened to those friends of yours,” she said. “Woody and Stone. Do you?”
“Yeah, he said, moving his lips down to hers, for their first kiss. “Sure I do.”
So she showed him.
Laura, you lovable badass.
I adore that Laura is busy murdering gods while Shadow is figuring out what a tree is. I understand that he is reacquainting himself with life again, but it made me smile at the contrast when we switch perspective again. After an extended ceremony of sorts where he learns how to put clothes on again, appreciating the very feel of them, Shadow gets to ride a thunderbird. There are real thunderbirds in this novel. This is fantastic. And I don’t care how clever it is that it’s described as like “riding the lightning,” because now I want to listen to one of the best thrash records of all time while riding a giant condor-like bird that flies me to Georgia. Which will never happen, but WHATEVER.
And while Shadow is on his way to Georgia, Laura knows exactly what she needs to do at Rock City. We don’t know what that is, but I could tell she had a very distinct purpose. Why else would she know to grab the stick that Mister Town was bringing? How else would she know to go straight to Mister World? That water gave her a special kind of knowledge; I don’t understand it, but it has to be the only explanation.
That’s when I became confused:
“Of course. The lovely Laura,” he said. “I should have recognized you. He had several photographs of you up above his bed, in the cell that once we shared.”
But. But this is Mister World? I went back and read the passage before this, and no nameis ever used. There’s just a man sitting in the room, so it’s Loki, not Mister World.
“It won’t last,” said Mr. World. “The Norns gave you a little taste of the past.”
But. But you just said that they shared cells, Neil Gaiman. That was Loki. Now you’re saying it’s Mr. World? Is this a mistake?
“Why did you want him?”
“Patterns, and distraction,” said Mr. World. “When this is all done with, I guess I’ll sharped a stick of mistletoe and go down to the ash tree, and ram it through his eye. That’s what those morons fighting out there have never been able to grasp. It’s never a matter of old and new. It’s only about patterns. Now. My stick, please.”
WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON. Shadow was set up? But I don’t get this! He sat that vigil entirely on his own. IT WAS HIS CHOICE. What the fuck I DON’T UNDERSTAND THIS.
But Laura does. And even if this water runs out soon and the present catches up with her and she does rot away, this very moment is important. She knows that the symbol doesmatter, that there are no sides, and that this stick is much more than a souvenir. And she plans to use this stick to kill Mr. World.
“Please. My stick,” he said, in her ears.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s yours.” And then, not knowing if it would mean anything, she said, “I dedicate this death to Shadow, and she stabbed the stick into her chest, just below the breastbone, felt it writhe and change in her hands as the stick became a spear.
WHAT THE FUCK HAVE YOU DONE?!?!?!? Oh my god, WHAT JUST HAPPENED. SHE JUST STABBED MR. WORLD THROUGH HERSELF.
He now had a knife in one hand, she saw, and he stabbed her chest and breasts randomly and wildly with the knife, unable to see what he was doing.
She did not care. What are knife-cuts to a corpse?
She brought her fist down, hard, on his waving wrist, and the knife went flying to the floor of the cavern. She kicked it away.
I CAN’T. I CAN’T DEAL WITH THIS. LAURA, YOU ARE MAKING ME FEEL PRIDE AND TERROR AT THE EXACT SAME MOMENT. WHAT HAS THIS BOOK TURNED INTO?
And now he was crying and wailing. She could feel him pushing against her, his hands fumbling at her back, his hot tears on her neck. His blood was soaking her back, spurting down the back of her legs.
“This must look so undignified,” she said, in a dead whisper which was not without a certain dark amusement.
I just have this rush of respect and admiration for Laura, and this sense of inescapable horror at what has just happened. How is this going to affect the war? What has sheactually done? I know that Mr. World wanted to dedicate the battle to Odin with that spear, but now it’s been dedicated to Shadow, so…OH GOD.
The convergence happens. Right here, when it has become utter chaos, Shadow finally arrives at Rock City. And much to my surprise, it’s empty. There is a car in the lot with Mr. Town in it, but there are no gods. As Shadow makes his way up into the gardens, he comes across no battles. He sees no snipers, no gods dying at his side, no fights. Nothing. I started to panic: Did Shadow arrive too late? Did the war already happen? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?
A voice from behind him, in the shadows, said, very quietly, “You have never disappointed me.”
Shadow did not turn. “That’s weird,” he said. “I disappointed myself all the way. Every time.”
what. what. what the fuck. what is happening.
“It was crooked,” said Shadow. “All of it. None of it was for real. It was just a set-up for a massacre.”
“Exactly,” said Wednesday’s voice from the shadows. “It was crooked. But it was the only game in town.”
WHAT THE HOLY FUCK IS GOING ON. Wednesday is dead. How is this a set-up? A set-up for what???
This revelation of the endgame is horrifying to me, because the information is given to the reader through violence and chaos. As I tried to figure out who these people actuallywere, I had to re-adjust everything I’d accepted as fact up until this point. I had to acknowledge an absurd truth: Mr. World was actually Loki. And if you had told me that earlier in the novel, I would have laughed in your face and told you that it made no sense at all. If you had told me that Mr. World dedicating a battle to Odin was a bad thing, I would have mentally punched you in the throat. STFU WEDNESDAY IS AWESOME HOW DARE YOU. And if you had told me that Wednesday and Loki were villains who set up the entire world of gods to annihilate one another in a bloodbath that would actually give the two some sort of monopoly of power, I would have–
No, I can’t tell you what I would do. Like my recent trip through the A Song of Ice and Fire series, this was one of those revelations that was so far from any frame of reference in my brain that I had to stop, put my book down, and just not read for ten minutes. I feltbetrayed for even remotely cheering for Wednesday, for mourning his death or even feeling a modicum of sadness at what happened to him. Which I imagine is a lot like what Shadow was going through, too, though his moment of revelation was before this precise moment.
As much as I wanted to deny that this was even possible, I fucking knew that this was true. I sensed that Wednesday’s talk of two-man cons was far too significant to just be a throwaway line. Gaiman has shown us how poorly the “old” gods fared in this country, and even how the new gods were desperate for a monopoly. He told us of the importance of symbols, of belief, of sacrifice. And he made it so goddamn clear that a war between the new gods and the old gods did not make a whole lot of sense. What’s the one question I kept asking this whole time?
Why did the new gods need to snuff out the old ones? Why not just let them fade away and disappear on their own? There was no need to actually go to war with them.
AND THAT ACTUALLY TURNED OUT TO BE THE FUCKING ANSWER oh my god w;klejr a;kj as;dklfh a;;lkasjdf Odin gains his power from have deaths dedicated to him. He tricked thousands upon thousands of gods to kill each other in his name. Loki tricked thousands of gods to go to war so he could feed on their chaos.
So it now became an issue of resolution: How would Shadow possibly find a way to stop this? Could he even stop it? When Wednesday confirms my suspicion from earlier, that he fathered Shadow himself, he makes a critical error: he pisses off Shadow. For all his talk of understanding his son, knowing what makes him tick, it’s a fault that he didn’t see how Shadow could get an idea in his head and stick with it, at least not in this context. He reveals too much before the battle has truly begun, and Shadow finds a way to exploit this.
I was reminded of the way that Lyra “read” the alethiometer in His Dark Materials, of how she was able to access a certain plane of concentration, when Shadow basically does the same thing to do the impossible: he accesses the “backstage” of the gods. Which explains why there was no battle going on around him. He was in the right place and the wrong place at the same time.
And really, now, how absolutely fantastic is the backstage battle scene? There is a streak of lightning sitting across the sky, lighting that place, because TIME HAS STOPPED HERE. One of those flashes of lightning from the storm in our world has been paused to light this “natural amphitheater.” And the scene that spills out below might be my favorite passage of all of American Gods. I’m not going to quote it here; it’s pages long, but Gaiman cycles through the unbelievable number of gods who are here, in this space, some of them dead, some of them bloodied, all of them awaiting the final rush of attack that will send it all into chaos, unknowingly feeding both Loki and Odin when the do.
I still don’t know how I feel about Shadow giving a speech to the gods to explain to them why they shouldn’t fight. After learning the endgame, it feels a bit repetitious to me. We already know everything that he is saying, so it’s weird to read it again. I did like this part, though:
“You know,” he said, “I think I would rather be a man than a god. We don’t need anyone to believe in us. We just keep going anyhow. It’s what we do.”
It’s a wistful statement, one that’s true in the moment, but kind of sad when you think about it. Human life can continue on without anyone believing in us, at least on an individual level. But it’s that individualism that can ultimately save us, too. A double-edged sword of existence.
To Shadow’s shock (and my own), his words work. The gods begin to leave, to dissipate, and Mr. Nancy himself (in his spider-form) help guides Shadow back to the “real” world. We don’t deal with the vast majority of the fallout of this war, though there’s mention of injured and maimed gods appearing all around. Shadow concerns himself with the last thing that matters in this place, the holiest spot in the southeastern United States.
His dying wife. Who is dying. A second time.
Knowing that Laura will be judged and might even choose where she can end up is a bit soothing, but I can’t deny that I was sad to see her go. But if she was going to truly die in this book, not to return again, I’m glad it was at the hands of a willing Shadow this time. He takes the golden coin that was mistakenly given to him by Mr. Sweeney away from his wife, using a final coin trick to make it disappear, his wife dying instantly. (THAT IS SO ROMANTICALLY POETIC IT HURTS.)
The storms had cleared. The air felt fresh and clean and new once more.
Tomorrow, he had no doubt, would be one hell of a beautiful day.
Goddamn. What a chapter.