I recently polished off Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys—and enjoyed both immensely. As a humorous side note, I’ve also come to find myself troubled by spiders. Each day since finishing the last page of Anansi Boys, I have encountered one of the eight-legged fiends. I am sure each experience has been as unpleasant for the arachnid as it has been for me. The first encounter was too intimate to share and, frankly, too hilarious not to. Dropping my shorts at my feet to take a shower, I noticed an odd skittering back and forth beneath folds of cloth. I screamed and leapt across the width of the bathroom. (Don’t bother marveling at my athleticism. It’s a tiny bathroom.) Sure enough, a medium-sized brown spider darted out from the terry cloth and high-tailed it for the radiator. I was horrified. The occasional spider in the bathroom isn’t a catastrophe—but what if he had been carried from my bed? Needless to say, I ceded the bathroom to the arthropod and sheets were immediately stripped. Thankfully, no bites. Having endured a spider bite right on the small of my back, I can accurately state that they are (1) painful as hell and (2) do not bless one with Spidey sense. Or even common sense.
The second spider came a day later, hovering in the middle of the hallway at work, diligently spinning a web as if a check would be collected upon its completion. Huge. Black. Dare I say it? Muscular. He looked at me. I looked at him. Coolly, he pulled himself up to the ceiling and settled in the crevice of a light fixture. We both decided to pretend the moment never happened.
By day three it had come to be an expected annoyance. Nestled in a notch in my bathroom door frame was a tiny, almost translucent spider. Too small to cause fear and too remote to reach, I allowed him his rent-free existence.
Annoyance morphed to anger on day four when a thin, tan spider dropped down right before my face, and arrogantly plopped down on my computer screen. By this time, I had taken their appearances as some sort of sign. I roughly nudged him with a piece of paper, hoping he would hop on so I could carry him to the hallway. He refused. While I warned him not to make me kill him, he was slain by a coworker. Oh, well. I had given him options. If I’m being sent a sign from a higher power, I’d prefer one of the non-arachnid variety. In the meantime, let’s talk books, shall we?
American Gods is fantastic, though emotionally draining. I love the casual, easy way Neil Gaiman builds worlds and Gaiman’s ability to play with various shades of gray—both in terms of color and in terms of varying degrees of good and evil. I found myself charmed and repelled by both black hats and white. Sympathies were extended to chief villains; heroes were occasionally off-putting. However, I think my favorite aspect of the book is its ability to pull American readers away from America, forcing us to look at this bizarre and glorious circus we call a country from an outsider’s perspective. The title’s lead character, Shadow Moon, receives his first metaphorical death early on in the novel, as he is stripped of both the life he knew as well as the life he expected. His circumstances making him a blank slate and his grief leaving him completely numb, he is able to view the country’s quirks and rituals sans preconceived notions, something no American is able to do. Shadow simply accepts this country—the hate, the adoration, the violence, the customs—for what it is, refusing to edit what he sees to create the America that “should be.” It makes for an America that is chaotic and horrible, disjointed and extraordinary.
I followed Shadow as he recovered from a devastating loss; at the same time, I dealt with a personal loss of my own. Like grieving, it made the reading of American Gods a difficult, but essential experience. However, Anansi Boys is light-hearted and cathartic—a return to joy after a great deal of pain. Set in the springtime, both literal and metaphorical, of the world established in American Gods, Anansi Boys presents a world that is comfortable and familiar. Though Fat Charlie and Spider are beset by consistent bumbling, as a reader I never felt out of step with the world presented. With American Gods I had to relearn. Nothing could be taken at face value. The visible world was an egg shell and one false step could pull the main character and the reader down into a quagmire of yolk—a world beyond the world. The world of Anansi Boys is solid, comfortable. Perhaps it is because, unlike Shadow, the lead character is such a known figure. A black, hyphen-American with a pink collar job, struggling to make ends meet and saddled with a legion of older relatives who seem ancient and magical and completely ridiculous? It is as familiar as the reflection in the mirror—a foundation in which one can be sure.
However, just because it is familiar does not mean that it is mundane. There are stories and there are songs; some of them are true and some of them are not. In our world, a world without magic, we simply accept that and continue to enjoy the tales told. For Fat Charlie, this is not the case. Fat Charlie’s world is magical, and that means all of his songs are true. Everything is as it seems. A man can be a spider and a god, and still be a man—just as we’ve been told by our fairy tales and folk songs. All Charlie must do is accept this—and keep singing. And yet, that is not as easy as it sounds. But that’s what makes the tale all the more fun.