Darkly stunning novel illustrates that psychic energy has real, lasting power
When we pray, or preach, or share stories about our gods, where does all that mental energy go? That’s the fascinating premise of “American Gods.” Part road trip, part nightmare, Neil Gaiman’s 2003 literary novel is a biting examination of the American spirit. His narrative style and precision plot deliver an epic journey that illustrates a deep spiritual truth: Psychic energy has real and lasting power.
Story: Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down. His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job. But Mr. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming — a battle for the very soul of America . . . and they are in its direct path.
One of the most talked-about books of the new millennium, American Gods is a kaleidoscopic journey deep into myth and across an American landscape at once eerily familiar and utterly alien. It is, quite simply, a contemporary masterpiece. (from Amazon)
Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. When explorers and settlers came to America, they brought their gods with them. From Thor to Ganesh to Anansi, the pantheon journeyed across the seas to join the native American gods who had already taken root. The true believers passed on and left their gods, diminished but not completely forgotten, to fend for themselves as best they could in the New World.
“[Gods] exist because everybody know they must exist,” says Gaiman. They feed on belief, on prayers, on love; the older ones feed on blood sacrifice. “People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.” Many spiritual practitioners believe that our thoughts create our physical reality. If true, could all that psychic energy create a god that has physical form? Do those gods walk among us? “American Gods” explores what the United States might be like if that were true.
And new gods are constantly emerging, Gaiman continues, “clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit card and freeway, the Internet, . . . hospital and television.” Note the god of “hospital”: Where once we turned to shamans and herbal remedies to cure our ails, now we place our faith–and invest our psychic energy–in doctors and modern medicine. In doing so, have we diminished the power of traditional cures and strengthened the efficacy of pills and procedures? Studies measuring the Placebo and Nocebo Effect (Time Magazine, 2011) tend to support that assertion. Whether you believe that or not, it makes for fascinating reading.
Many in the metaphysical community believe that anything we pay attention to, give our psychic energy to, grows in strength and power–not just the gods. One of Gaiman’s more colorful characters proclaims “I’m a culture hero. We do the same shit gods do, we just screw up more and nobody worships us. They tell stories about us.” What happens to all the energy we focus on our cultural celebrities?
“Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world,” Gaiman says. However, he takes a pass (mostly) on injecting America’s most deeply held religious figures into the story. Perhaps that’s a tale best told another day.
My take: It took me a few chapters to warm up to the story line and characters– Gaiman’s worldview typically isn’t very sunny. However, the final third of the book left me with but one conclusion: American Gods is a perfect weave of theme, and plot, and character, and place–an intricate tapestry in which no image overwhelms another, and in which all colors merge and blend and morph into a vivid portrait of the American spirit, albeit an ugly and violent one. A novelist interested in writing spiritual/metaphysical fiction would do well to study Gaiman’s American epic.
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
William Morrow Paperbacks, 2003
Paperback, 624 pages
Buy at Amazon