I have no idea what your “joke” is referring to.
I don’t expect you to. Poll a thousand people and maybe three of them will know Creatures of Light and Darkness.
Yet you’re snarking about it.
One of those three people would be Neil Gaiman. He dedicated the book "For absent friends – Kathy Acker and Roger Zelazny and all points in between”. Stripped down to the shit that matters, American Gods is CL&D beat for beat. It certainly isn’t accidental.
So you’re too hip for Neil Gaiman. Got it.
Not exactly. My relationship to Neil Gaiman’s works is… complex. As is my relationship to Zelazny’s.
How hipster of you.
Neil and I agree on one thing: James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks is “probably the best book in the world.” Only one of us got to write the introduction to the reprint, though, so I doubt I can hurt him much. And he gets $45k for an hour of public speaking, which he has justified in such an awesomely unassailable way that I suggest you go read up on it. Truly. It’s some spectacular thinking and prose.
And the dude is a dreamer. That’s cool. I dig it. The world needs more dreamers. And everyone I know who has ever met him says he’s a totally awesome guy. I believe it.
It’s not a big but. I haven’t read Neil Gaiman before, sort of.
So like most men on the periphery of goth culture, I’ve dated girls who are obsessive over Mr. Gaiman to the point of scalpel-cut “Neil”s in their arms. I dated a girl who searched eBay every day for signed Neil Gaiman memorabilia and owned multiple copies of every single Sandman comic. And I had a girl who really wanted to date me who would routinely drive six hours or more to see him speak. My introduction to Neil Gaiman was not “here’s this author, he’s pretty good” it was “here is a living legend, you are not worthy to read his writ.”
Not sure how that’s Mr. Gaiman’s fault.
Totally isn’t. Like I said, my relationship is complex. There was a lot of weight on me the first time I read a Sandman comic and I was like, “eh.” Wasn’t brilliant, wasn’t life-changing. Certainly wasn’t worthy of lace-ringed portraits of the man on the bedroom wall.
You’re making that up.
I totally am. Call it a metaphor to communicate the Gaiman-crazy I’ve encountered. Anyway. Never finished any of the comics ‘cuz I just couldn’t give a shit. Wanted to - but couldn't. Saw Stardust and for the life of me can’t remember what it was about. Saw Coraline and remember it pleasantly but it made exactly zero impression on me. Wasn’t boring, wasn’t exciting, was kind of a test pattern.
Those are movies, not books.
Right. Anyway. Put it this way. I want to be heavily into Neil Gaiman. Seems like the dude deserves it. But I just can’t get into his stuff. There’s no point for me. It's bland.
Unlike a book that nobody’s heard of written by that dude with a funny name that’s oh-so-much better than American Gods, which won a Hugo, a Nebula, has been translated into 22 languages and sold a million copies.
Like I said. “complex.” Roger Zelazny wrote some of the books that blew off the top of my head when I was younger. Doesn’t mean they’re good - means that Zelazny wrote keys that precisely fit my lock. They might not fit yours. They didn’t fit a lot of people’s. But holy shit, when they fit.
He was also a family friend. Next door neighbor to people my parents have known for 50 years. I never met him - too young for the parties - but he’s always been a hero. And he’s never been easy to categorize. Bastard put guns in fantasy. Ancient Egyptian gods on space ships -
So that’s your problem! There aren’t enough space ships in American Gods!
Hardly. Zelazny wrote Creatures of Light and Darkness as an exercise in 1968. He never intended anybody to so much as read it, let alone get someone to publish it. He was talking about it at a party though and Lester Del Rey got wind of it and demanded to read it. Del Rey published it. That was one of three printings since 1969 - it’s a book that nobody’s read, nobody will read and that was never intended to be read by anyone. It’s fuckin’ weird. And he airballed the last chapter. But it’s a goddamn masterpiece.
No, shut up. CL&D is, at base level, a tale about deities so old they cease to be deities who end up on opposing sides when one of them gets uppity which leads to war and ruminations on the nature of divinity and mortality. So's American Gods. Beat for goddamn beat. There are plenty of characters in common. All (ALL) of the major spoilers are the same. There’s a dead wife that isn’t quite dead in both of them. Without getting spoillerific I can’t really get into it, but seriously. It’s the same goddamn book, except one of them is set on a Tattoine analog (7 years before Star Wars) and the other one is set in Wisconsin.
I’d much rather read about Wisconsin. At least it exists.
Sure. Most people would. The minute you go to another planet you cut your audience by 90 percent. CL&D has cyborgs and dimensional portals and shit in it, too. Some of it is written in verse. The last chapter is a stage play. It’s been suggested that Zelazny was amped up on speed when he wrote the thing - he could well have been, just one long meth-fueled blast at the Underwood. It’s stupid short. You can read it in an afternoon.
If you cut all the extraneous bullshit out of American Gods, you could read it in an afternoon, too.
A million copies, chief. 22 languages.
And I’m not gonna hurt those figures one iota so pass the mic.
The protagonist of American Gods, Shadow, is big on coin tricks. Sleight of hand so that the audience doesn’t see your subterfuge. The author of American Gods, Neil Gaiman, is also big on sleight of hand. The structure of AG relies on two simultaneous stories interspersed with “interludes” that mean fuckall to the story but exist mostly for atmosphere. Zelazny did that, too; the difference is, Zelazny wrote the shit down and then put it in a drawer because it didn’t fucking matter to the story he was telling. Gaiman shuffles it back into the deck so you don’t notice that
Story 1 is about an ex-con who hooks up with a grifter, sits on his ass and does what everyone else tells him. There’s a vague murder mystery in there that doesn’t matter. Any time the plot is advanced it’s advanced by sheer dumb luck that gets a wave-off at the end, a basic “fuck you” to anyone in the audience who might have noticed that if it weren’t for serendipity the plot would be a flatline from beginning to end.
Story 2 is about a bunch of gods that decide to go to war.
Story 1 is front and center. For ever. Story 2 is implied. It’s the “off-screen story.” We never get to see any of it happen. Instead, we get to watch the most passive protagonist in the history of protagonism.
Shadow is the most fucking inert lump of shit I have ever seen featured in a book. Fuckin’ Bella Swann does more to advance her own fate than Shadow ever does. The sum total of his positive actions - things he does on his own, without being pointed there by someone else, are as follows:
- learns coin tricks while in prison
- bets his life in a game of checkers for no goddamn reason
- buys a library book
- a really passively spoillerific thing in the epilogue (not to be confused with the postscript - this thing is so vegematic’d that the book has both)
At least in CL&D you follow the people who are actually doing something. And they’re fucking badass. Check it:
- Its rider was once a man. He is the one who is called the Steel General. That is not a suit of armor that he is wearing; it is his body. He has turned off most of his humanity for the duration of the trip, and he stares straight ahead past the scales like bronze oak leaves on the side of his mount’s neck. He holds four reins, each as thick as a strand of silk, on the fingertips of his left hand. He wears a ring of tanned human flesh on his little finger, because it would be senseless and noisy for him to wear metal jewelry. The flesh was once his; at least, it helped to surround him at one time long ago.
See, and that’s why it matters. Neil Gaiman read that and came up with American Gods. No, scratch that, ‘cuz the audiobook had an hour-long interview about American Gods after American Gods. Which started with the idea for two guys on a plane, one of which knew the other one but not the other way ‘round, and a mystery involving a car on a frozen lake. So Neil Gaiman took that trite piece of Lake Wobegon bullshit and interspersed it with CL&D happening off screen so that the audience didn’t even get to read it.
It’d be one thing if he’d just taken the ball and run with it - and actually write about “American Gods.” But he didn’t. He wrote about a boring mutherfucker with no initiative, no personality, no drive, no fucking hobbies who was off playing Rosencrantz & Gildenstern while CL&D was happening somewhere else.
But CL&D was out of print from 1992 until 2010 while HBO is in talks to turn American Gods into a TV show.
You are an angry, bitter person.
I'm disappointed. Deeply, aggressively disappointed. This shit is squarely in Gaiman's wheelhouse. The man walks on water. We have a common love of precisely this sort of material. He's written what amounts to an homage of one of my favorite books of all time. And the result is deeply, deeply mediocre.
I want to say that if I hadn't read CL&D 20-odd years ago and a number of times in between I'd have liked the book better. Thing is, I still wouldn't like it. Shadow would still be inert. The real story would still happen off-screen. And I'd still be reading several hundred pages of Wisconsin tedium that gets abruptly cancelled not by anything foreshadowed, not by anything related to what came before, but by sheer dumb out-of-the-blue misfortune.
It makes me hurt. It illustrates that you can get a lot farther in the literary world by paying lip service to something than you can by actually investigating it. And it illustrates that you'll get a lot further in the world by pandering than you will by swinging for the fences.
And the worst part is I don't think Neil Gaiman even knows he's pandering. He wrote this thing and thought "good enough" and the rest of the world lined up to congratulate him on his masterpiece when in fact, it's a pale echo of something pure that, outside of this snarky-ass review, will never be noticed by anyone. As far as most of the world is concerned, the only thing Zelazny ever added to the pantheon is the fact that one of his books was the basis of the script used to launch Argo, and even that's only known to true aggro nerds. Shit, the only book of his that got a movie treatment ended up starring Jan Michael Vincent.
Stay on target, gold leader.
Right. So this is a book that's kind of okay that everyone thinks is fucking brilliant when, in my opinion, it's a pale imitation of the book it could have been. Should have been. Could easily have been. Written by a guy who should have been able to get the touchdown and the extra point. And nobody seems to have noticed that he fumbled the ball at his own 20, which fundamentally challenges my understanding of football (and stretches the definition of "metaphor").
Say something nice.
I’m delighted to find out that my ex-girlfriend-driven aversion to Neil Gaiman has not deprived me of much lo these many years.
good question. Maybe the Poisonwood Bible - probably be a good lead-in to Fordlandia, which I've been meaning to read for years. I really wanted to do Godel Escher Bach but you can’t even get that shit on kindle. I cranked through half this book on audio today, just doin’ my thing. Sitting down and reading paper? Hell, I barely have time to do that on the crapper anymore.