Sunday, November 9, 2008

Postmodern Gods

Once again, as with I Am Legend, I find myself with ambivalent feelings towards yet another book. This time it's Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which still felt like a letdown, despite its historical and philosophical depth, in addition to its totally awesome title. I guess I was expecting something more postmodernist, I mean in the literary sense. Maybe I'm being a snob, but I felt that the novel was, I don't know – too tangible?

There were definitely some interesting possibilities there. On the first page of the Epilogue there's a quote from an imaginary book by the character Mr. Ibis (originally an Egyptian deity) that strongly recalls the some of the theories of Jean Baudrillard, particularly his seminal 1985 book Simulacra and Simulation.
One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless.

The tale is the map that is the territory.

You must remember this.

Now I'm not too familiar with Baudrillard's works, but this sounds like some pretty fascinating stuff. Simulacra and Simulation draws from Jorge Luis Borges's short story "On Exactitude in Science," in which a great Empire creates a map so detailed that it is as large as the object it was made to represent (the Empire). After the Empire has disintegrated, all that remains is the map, shreds of still sheltering some beggar in the deserts. Baudrillard argues that reality is today undergoing a similar breakdown as the "transition from signs which dissimulate something to signs which dissimulate that there is nothing" is inexorably ushering in the age of "hyperreality," an era "of simulacra and simulation, in which there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgment to separate truth from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since everything is already dead and risen in advance." (In case you haven't guessed, this was a huge influence on The Matrix.) America is a bad place for gods, Gaiman's protagonist Shadow is repeatedly told.

Or is it? Gaiman's fictional America seems to get Baudrillard backwards. Baudrillard asserted that there exist three levels of simulacra associated with three distinct historical periods (kind of like the Enlightenment belief, held by many of the Founding Fathers, in the progress of civilization from barbaric infancy to the decadence and dissolution of old age). The first is the prehistoric use of symbols to represent a concrete identifiable piece of reality. Yet Gaiman's gods, many of whom date from prehistory, insist that they were more or less born of human belief.
"You got to understand the god thing. It's not magic. It's about being you, but the you that people believe in. It's about being the concentrated, magnified, essence of you. It's about becoming thunder, or the power of a running horse, or wisdom. You crystallize." He paused. "And then one day they forget about you, and they don’t believe in you, and they don't sacrifice, and they don't care, and the next thing you know you're running a three-card monte game on the corner of Broadway and Forty-third."
And later:
People believe, thought Shadow. It's what people do. They believe. And then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.
In other words, humans experienced aspects of reality that they could not comprehend and, out of the impenetrable void that was the material universe (anyone familiar with ancient myths and the literature of centuries past – i.e. Beowulf – knows that nature was once seen as the threatening, external "other"), they formed divine truths that gave meaning to the cosmos and the sublime actions of nature. Religious symbols, then, are a primordial human expression that do not represent reality – only one culture's interpretation of it, which then goes on, as I've discussed elsewhere, to shape how the individual perceives the external world. So arguably, humans have always created reality through symbolism, and it is the death of this paradigm and the birth of the age of pure, cold, unrelenting science that is mourned by Joseph Wood Krutch in his 1929 book The Modern Temper: ". . . [W]e cannot deny that life is made paler and that we are carried one step nearer to that state in which existence is seen as a vast emptiness which the imagination can no longer people with fascinating illusions." Of course, those old illusions can always slug it out with the new ones (Freeway, Credit Card, Tech, Television) on some metaphysical battlefield, as nearly occurs in American Gods. But if America is not a good land for gods, then the reader has to wonder what the winners intend to do or why the whole bloody thing is even the slightest bit significant. Plot hole there, Mr. Gaiman.

Philosophizing aside, the whole thing, in the end, merely read like a fantasy adventure novel. I wasn't even too impressed with Gaiman's depictions of the American Midwest, which just came off as generic USA. However, I will say that, unlike Salman Rushdie in Fury, Gaiman, a British transplant, does exhibit a full grasp of American English. I don't think I could ever write even a short story about Brits and pull it off. And there's also quite a lot of history here. In some instances, this manifests itself as an awkward recitation of facts that gives the novel a decidedly non-fiction or didactic tone, kind of like Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (a socioeconomic treatise thinly disguised as science fiction) or my essay/short story "Temperance is Fun." Consider this exchange:
Easter put her slim hand on the back of Wednesday's square gray hand. "I'm telling you," she said, "I'm doing fine. On my festival days they still feast on eggs and rabbits, on candy and on flesh, to represent rebirth and copulation. They wear flowers in their bonnets and give each other flowers. They do it in my name. . ."

"And you wax fat and affluent on their worship and their love?" he said dryly.

"Don't be an asshole." Suddenly she sounded very tired. She sipped her mochaccino.

"Serious question, m'dear. Certainly I would agree that millions upon millions of them give each other tokens in your name, and that they still practice all the rites of your festival, even down to hunting for hidden eggs. But how many of them know who you are?"

But then again, maybe framing history as narrative isn't such a bad idea after all. According to those pesky postmodernists, history itself is essentially a narrative, which makes it either meaningless or simply describes the manner by which humans perceive the world. (Of course, this refers back to that discussion of symbolism, simulacra, and cultural paradigms, with The Matrix thrown in for good measure.) All that aside, however, there was still something missing from American Gods, or maybe it just didn't fit the image I had formed of it prior to actually reading it.

Oh well. As I said about I Am Legend, you'll have to read it yourself.


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