|I read the "author's preferred text".|
Gaiman's view of the United States is not one that the American government would like. His America is one that is more than the superficial niceness of shopping malls, or the repetitive nature of identikit roadside restaurants. Gaiman peers through this to the uneven, dirty America beneath. One of poverty and shallowness, of kindness and hope mixed with despair. For most people, hope has been replaced by the short-term desire for objects and feelings that will numb the over-riding feeling of pointlessness.
Gods arise out of belief. When the first farmers gave thanks for their crops, or the hunters turned to the skies and praised those that had given them an easy kill, Gods were created. They drew strength from their followers. The more that made sacrifice or prayers the more powerful they were. America, a land populated by immigrants from the time of the last ice-age has many imported Gods. Those who arrived on the shores and gave thanks to the old Gods, created new versions of them on the new continent. The vikings (and other more fantastical visitors such as the Egyptians) brought Odin and Loki and numerous others. But the worship dwindled with the failure of those communities. Later immigrants brought Gods from Ireland and elsewhere. Some prospered, some are reduced to poverty, themselves praying for followers and urging worships.
But new Gods prosper and grow strong. The Gods of commodification and short-term pleasure. Gods of money and electricity, of railways and engineering. These might be seen as an analogy for capitalism itself, its dynamism throwing up new objects of worship, which are rapidly eclipsed like steam power gives way to electricity. The Gods engage in a final battle for supremacy, and Shadow, the hero of the piece is drawn in. As bodyguard and then as a central piece in the chess game itself. The battle between old and new is a metaphor for America itself. The backdrop is the very development of the continent and the lives of the people who made it.
The idea of Gods having strength from worship is not new. Nor is the mortality of Gods who lose their followers. Pratchett did it in Small Gods and Douglas Adams also played it for laughs in Dirk Gently. Gaiman creates a many-layered world of belief and magic, parallel to, but not separate from our own world. The differences between good and bad are blurred here. The unity of the Gods, old versus new, obscures the fact that both sides have their own divisions. For most of the Gods, humans worship them, but are also objects to satisfy their own base desires. People to be seduced, laughed at and scorned. You could if you want, employ a further metaphor here, human life generates the religious value that the Gods crave and need to continue their blind, irrational lives. The further accumulation of belief requires the further use and abuse of humans, even if some Gods enjoy the exploitation less than others.
I will avoid the temptation to draw out the detail of the story. The climatic battle between old and new here does not necessarily herald a change in the human world, though one is left with the feeling that a world were the only Gods that exist are ones that represent Internet shopping and machine guns would not be a good things for ordinary folk. Whether humanity ever ever throw off the Gods themselves is left to the imagination. His voyage through America as Shadow explores the other world that he has hitherto not observed, is a work of detail. From the small towns, with their delicious undercurrent of pain and suffering, to the rank, sterile life of shopping malls and banks, the book is part travelogue, part crime caper, part fantasy and in large part, a tale of retribution and revenge. It is a wonderful read that will suck you into an alternate world, but one that is strangely familiar.