Why a perusal? What follows is less analysis or discussion, and more introspective meandering. I am continually drawn back to Gaiman’s work because he has a special ability to provoke thought and poke at parts of the psyche often caged by the super-ego. Ironically, I’m not sure this is his goal for anyone but himself. This is a central trait that inhabits all his work from children’s chapter books to horror graphics, and is the marrow that draws me back time and again.
I was frustrated by my inability to corral my galloping thoughts about this novel, so I decided to visit Gaiman’s website. I rarely do this, as I’m easily distracted or derailed by other people’s thoughts and insights. I prefer to plumb my own depths before I introduce myself to another’s. It’s less hubris and more an acknowledgment of my inability to stay focused on any one thing for any length of time. Thoughts and impressions are ephemeral and it’s too easy to lose them to the onslaught of external stimuli.
On his site, a letter describing “a weird sprawling picaresque epic, which starts out relatively small and gets larger” provided the psychological implosion necessary to draw all my thoughts together so they could flow outward in an orderly way. And reminded me, not so coincidentally, we sometimes must stop throwing ourselves against the altar of singular perspective to unlock our minds.
Picaresque novels are epic, labyrinthine, satirical journeys of lowborn adventurers striving to survive as they move through the panoply of geographical and social settings. This is similar, in process, to a Bildungsroman, but more often viewed as the realistic counterpoint to medieval romances. Another way to sum it up is the journey of every/any man through the many truths of life. Viewing the picaresque in this way is how my mind was able to pull the idea of traveling from ignorance to wisdom from the jumble of my thoughts. From there I finally had a recognizable path.
I took me a while to connect with this novel. In retrospect, I think my sporadic yet enduring study of mythology, religion, and philosophy trapped me in existing paradigms. To understand the new paradigm, I had to place myself in the story in different roles. Shadow was the hardest character for me. Shadow’s frequent acquiescence put me off and confused me. His willingness to just “go with the flow” was aggravating in the extreme. I wanted him to be smarter and stronger than he seemed.
Then I finally began to perceive his journey. I realized in increments that he wasn’t acceding, he was flowing as he journeyed and became wiser. My patience was duly rewarded when Shadow performed the vigil for Wednesday and hung upon the world tree. Although his reasons are muddied by the contract he signed with Wednesday, Shadow ultimately performs this right of sacrifice for himself. And like Odin he is rewarded with knowledge and wisdom.
All the pieces of his journey flow through his trials as he hangs upon the tree. He realizes truths that were hidden by his apprehension; he finds answers to nagging questions; and faces the parts of himself buried in guilt and shame. In the end he lets it all go and embraces nothing. But as another character tells Shadow, there are no endings, not even for one who has given up everything and accepted nothing. Shadow is pulled back from nothing, he is resurrected and reborn. Rebirth means growth, and a shift in everything that was before.
Shadow insists he lost most of what he gained while hanging on the world tree, but he was “fertilized and became wiser” like Odin in Hávamál from the Poetic Edda. This richness and wisdom showed itself in the culminating moments of the novel. He is something and someone new. Unsure of his future, yet rejuvenated, he strikes out on a new path.
I know I am being achingly vague; but, I can’t really discuss more without inserting major spoilers for those who haven’t read the novel yet.
Life is labyrinthine in nature. We are born with only instinct, everything else is acquired through exposure to our environment, the people within it, and the paradigms that shape both. Much of our journey, in living, can be described as wandering interspersed with epochs of emotion or insight. And great successes are often bought with personal sacrifice of some sort. This process is even more tumultuous in American life, because we are an effervescent nation. We are unrepressed, elastic and transitory. We are always moving forward, always evolving. Like Shadow we journey, die and are reborn, a new incarnation of America.
Like the gods in Gaiman’s story, American generations are not always as elastic as our country as a whole. Older generations eschew the harried pace of the younger generations. The younger generations roll their eyes at the antiquated thinking and methodology of the older generations. Luckily there are always middle generations that referee and blend the generations together. Shadow is America as whole, but he is also the middle generation. Wonderfully, I also perceived that Shadow is not just any generation, he is Generation X.
A succinct Pew Research Center article conveyed, “Gen Xers are a low-slung, straight-line bridge between two noisy behemoths.” Now that isn’t terribly different of middle generations over the span of human history, as the article points out; but, Gen Xers are wedged between two generations revered and dissected. Like Shadow, Gen Xers are rarely celebrated, yet at the center of all the brouhaha. Perhaps Generation X, like Shadow, is the eye of the storm, the calm spot. This too fits with what the Pew article says about Generation X. When asked if our generation is more unique than others only half of us said yes. And we couldn’t quite sum up what made us different.
You’ve come this far with me, so let’s stretch just a little further. Generation X has hung upon the world tree, and we’ve absorbed the knowledge of the past and present. We can’t quite define how this makes us special, and we’re not sure we’ve kept everything we’ve learned, but we are definitely different. We’ve made sacrifices big and small to move forward. And even when we feel we’ve reached the end and have settled for nothing, we somehow keep coming back reinvigorated and ready to move forward.
Reading is so very invigorating! Look how far my brain went, how many connections I made after reading just one excellent novel. It led me back to mythology favorites and forward to internet articles. It took me from a war between gods to Generation X. And these are just the thoughts I managed to force into cohesion. There are countless other fermenting somewhere in my mind.
Speaking of fermenting, the STARZ network is brewing up a television series featuring Shadow in American Gods. The Nerdist reports that Neil Gaiman is working with producers and will be writing some of the episodes. I am both hopeful and fearful. I have high hopes that the series will be a hit and have a long run. But I’m always fearful when a book or series I love is put to screen. The casting alone is rife with possible missteps.
My personal vision of Shadow is a guy who is a blend of Omari Hardwick, Vin Diesel, and Jason Momoa. Because that’s not a tall order at all, right? In all seriousness though, I truly hope they find someone who isn’t already a big star. Shadow is a bit of a blank slate at the beginning of our story. It would be nice to have an actor who is as well.
As to blank slates, I think I’m blank for the moment. I seem to have reached the end of this picaresque perusal. I’ve even managed, like Shadow, to end with a beginning.
Ta ta for now!
Article by Angel, Bon Air Branch