In the postscript of American Gods, we learn about life for Shadow post-war, and Gaiman shares more about the process of writing American Gods. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to finish American Gods.
I wanted to do a proper finale for American Gods, both because there is more information given to us beyond the end of the book, and because I have a lot of ~feelings~ about the very first Neil Gaiman book that I have ever read! I have no idea how it took me this long to finally do this, but I’m glad to have not only read this man’s words, but chosen American Gods to do so.
I get the sense that Gaiman could write about this universe in any number of volumes. He wouldn’t even have to come back to Shadow’s story either; the world of the gods is expansive, detailed, and fascinating; it’s like American Gods is just the tip of the iceberg for this fantasy world. (Is it okay to call it that?) The postscript feels both like a traditional epilogue and a deleted scene from a movie. It fits well in the universe, but I don’t know that it would have worked in the novel proper.
I don’t think we really get a timeline here; Shadow could be in Reykjavík the July after the battle at Rock City, or it could be years into the future. I suppose it doesn’t matter. The man has given up the idea of settling down and now travels the globe. Is he getting the most from life? Running from something? I’m not quite sure yet:
He sat down on a grassy bank and looked at the city that surrounded him, and thought, one day he would have to go home. And one day he would have to make a home to go back to. He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while, or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough.
I love this section because I don’t know if I can answer this question. I had a single home for many years, but after running away from home at sixteen, I’ve never found that sensation again. Part of it is due to the fact that I moved between twenty and thirty times from age sixteen to age twenty-six. I stopped becoming attached to physical locations because I thought it was a way to prevent myself from getting to comfortable. There was a point where I thought I’d become a professional couch surfer for a while, but things have been a bit more stable the last few years. Still, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt like I was home. I have made my last few apartments feel as homely as possible, but even when I went on tour or long trips, I don’t feel homesick. I enjoy the sensation of being in a new place every day, of constant motion, of being in unfamiliar situations. Will I build a home for myself someday? Perhaps! I’m not opposed to it. But I still have a desire to go out and see the world, too, and I think I’d rather do that while I still can.
Anyway, here in this postscript, we finally get about as much confirmation as we’re going to get that gods have different versions of themselves in different places. Shadow knows that he is being followed, and it turns out to be Odin. Not Wednesday, but Odin. This is a different version than the god in America, which makes me wonder: was this whole book supposed to be about how American changes people, even those who are not born here? The version of Odin who lives in America turns into someone who is manipulative, crass, and cunning. It’s certainly not the case for other gods, but I wonder how Gaiman came up with the way to portray “human” versions of the gods.
But it is clear that he chose to make Shadow into a character whose behavior would always lead to this moment. We’ve seen over the course of American Gods how his stoic nature was both used against him, and how it was used by him to his own advantage. He was never too cynical or too hopeful. What’s fascinating to me is how this character always seemed to straddle the middle of everything, yet he was able to cast it aside at the end to do something foolish and brash to save the gods. And why? Even if he really is a god himself, he’s not aware of it. It doesn’t really benefit him, does it?
It might be a small thing here, but I think the gesture of returning Odin’s eye is indicative of who Shadow is. He is a nice guy. Not that creepy Nice Guy trope of a dude who believes he is forever victimized by evil women who won’t give him a chance. He is genuinely a nice person, and his sense of nobility is quiet and personal. That sense of duty that he is what Wednesday manipulated, sure. I can’t deny that. But it’s also what undid that god’s entire plan as well; Shadow felt a duty to travel to Rock City to tear apart the long con that Wednesday had set up.
We also get a scene here at the end of American Gods between Shadow and Jesus. I’m glad that Gaiman felt strange not including Jesus in much of this; how can you write about gods in America without Jesus? But I also understand the pressure of writing a scene with a representation of Jesus in it. He’s intricately tied to so much of our history and our modern cultural landscape.
Reading this “apocryphal” scene with Jesus shows me just how weird it might have been in the book. It’s clever, that’s for sure, especially the line that Jesus gives about suffering being a “cleansing” thing. But what I was ultimately drawn to was how well Gaiman explained the concept of identity and gods:
“Have you thought about what it means to be a god?” asked the man. He had a beard and a baseball cap. “It means you give up your mortal existence to become a meme: something that lives forever in people’s minds, like the tune of a nursery rhyme. It means that everyone gets to re-create you in their own minds. You barely have your own identity any more. Instead, you’re a thousand aspects of what people need you to be. And everyone wants something different from you. Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable.”
This is so genuinely fascinating to me! And it’s something I struggled with when I was Christian: was I creating a version of Jesus that was different from what others believed? Was it incompatible with the Jesus in the Bible? I think we all make gods personal in our way, which doesn’t mean that the god isn’t real or that they’re immutable. But, let’s use Jesus as an example: what Jesus means to you means something different to me. Even if you take my beliefs during my Christian years, I know Jesus wasn’t what your Jesus was.
I don’t think it’s really an issue of religion having a fault. I just think that religion is such a deeply intimate experience that there’s no way to talk about it without acknowledging such a thing. What becomes interesting is when people are able to share a specific version of a god in both a social and theological sense. Many of the Christians who surrounded me in high school believed that God was a combination of this all-loving being who was also incredibly vindictive and intimately interested in the day-to-day minutia of their lives. How does that happen? Do we seek out visions of the gods that are the same as others, or was this just how they portrayed it?
I still must admit that there’s something strangely comforting about the idea that Jesus sits in a Spanish-style home, drinking wine, wearing baseball caps, and just wants to sit and have a conversation with you.
I think what most impresses me about American Gods (and there’s a lot here that does impress me) is the fact that Neil Gaiman, an immigrant to this country, was able to distill parts of this nation down to the essential elements that allowed me to recognize exactly what he meant. It’s really hard to distill this country down to anything. There are so many states in this union, all so varied and different from one another, full of metropolitan cities and minuscule towns, packed with people from all over the world, that any attempt to break down and simplify it all is probably going to be met with failure. But I don’t feel that way about American Gods. I don’t know how Gaiman did it, but he did it. This feels like America.
It’s impressive to read a book with such a bizarre narrative flow. It’s impressive to read a book that you know took an absurd amount of research time to make. And it’s entertaining, above all of that. It takes the idea of a road trip and combines it with a surreal fantasy element to give one the sensation that perhaps this is actually what America is truly like. I mean that in the sense that none of this ever feels too fantastical. If it was revealed that all of this was actually non-fiction, I wouldn’t bat an eye.
What American Gods feels like is a close friend, one you’ve known for many years, one that you can return to over a cup of coffee, catch up, share the new things you’ve discovered, laugh at the absurdity of it all, and know that even if you don’t see each other for another year, you’ll both be there for each other. I already want to re-read this book, not just to catch new clues, but to find out what I’ve missed. Just like a good friend, you’ve always missed something each time you return to them.
Is this the best book I’ve ever read? No. It’s still too new to me, and that distinction is rarely one based on anything but emotional attachment. But most things I read are not the best books. They’re the good ones, the ones I want to keep around for a long time. This is as good of an introduction as I can get to Neil Gaiman’s style and his heart. Next year, I’m going to try and tackle the Sandman series, and I couldn’t be more excited about the prospect. The man’s grasp for language, for the meaning of words and how that differs for each one of us, is probably what I’m most excited for. And we saw in “The Doctor’s Wife” how powerful and damning language can be, and I think that plays into American Gods as well. The words and the symbols are what give power, and that same power can be taken away by the same things.
I am very, very happy that I read American Gods.