Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”: Transnational “Thoughtforms” & Lost Faiths

If on the off chance a person has ever wondered “what happens to a deity deferred?” – that is to say, a God or religion abandoned over the course of time, ground to dust under the heel of conquest, or lost in the tumult of migration – they will find an interesting hypothesis in Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods. The answer Gaiman conjures to such an unorthodox question hinges on turning a transnational spotlight onto “religion” in the United States, and acknowledging that any definition of “American-ness” is built comparatively, leaning subconsciously or otherwise on the ideologies that have passed before, and eventually come bubbling up anew as steam radiating from “the melting pot”.

Gaiman writes a dark and fantastical tale, in which warring spiritual beings are brought to life, or back from the brink of complete irrelevance, on sheer belief emanating from any individual American consciousness (a concept known more colloquially as “thoughtform”, adapted from the Tibetan Buddhist theory of “tulpa”, which means “to build” or “to construct”). Upon their (re) awakening, the beings battle each other for supremacy on American soil, each divided by their status as either a “New” or “Old God”; the former a homegrown phantom manifestation of media and technological worship, the latter a figment of American re-imagination, somewhat distorted from its original form after transplantation in the US, occurring over several centuries through immigration, slave trade, and other reluctant migrations.

The narrative follows Shadow, a newly released and newly widowed convict, as he encounters various incarnations of “Old” and “New” Gods. His most notable encounter is with a “Mr. Wednesday”, a reincarnation of the Norse God Odin whose memory was trafficked into the United States through immigrant heritage. Wednesday offers Shadow a position as his bodyguard, and after initial reluctance, Shadow accepts, and becomes slowly folded into a larger and more complex universe of mythical politics. Together, they take a classic American roadtrip, where the typical roadside attraction becomes the Old God’s place of communion – a kind of transnational space where all the mash-ups from various religious orders, eras and geographies come together. In particular, “House on the Rock” (actually the very real site of the world’s largest ferris wheel), becomes comparable to a modern day United Nations, although less (or perhaps more?) cordial.

As a powerful space in the eyes of these beholders, “House on the Rock” elucidates what seems a central theme to the book as a whole: the power of perception, and essentially cultural imagination or re-invention, to construct “America”. Even a disheveled, innocuous or ignorable space to the typical US citizen, like the roadside attraction here deemed a suitable makeshift pantheon, can become a sentinel for foreign travelers, a marker of a – more or less splendid – “American” essence. Everything mundane has the power, through belief, to become spectacular, or at least intriguing, when viewed through an alternative cultural lens. Or through the lens of desperation, one which the “Old Gods”, and many real life migrants, consistently finds themselves staring through.

Gaiman takes the controversial American “melting pot” metaphor a step further in this novel, to include not only various ethnic bodies mingling into one cohesive mass, but their consciousnesses as well. The global comingling of faith based practices is here personified, as remnants of once powerful heeded Gods are brought into America like luggage or dirt lingering in the soles of their shoes. In a sense, this is a representation of its own kind of “Fuku americanus”, as increasing globalization highlights not only ethnoscapes shifting along the ground, or financescapes orbiting in an abstract monetary realm, but a higher dimension of religiosity, where spiritual beings transfer from continent to continent, molded and reshaped as they encounter new mentalities and other spiritual practices, bombarding one another like charged particles in a thundercloud. What results can certainly be categorized as chaos, although admittedly not as “historically grounded” in its effects as Diaz describes, but equally as destructive in the fantastical battle that takes place.

Overall in this work, collective idolization of media figures, the internet, popular entertainment, sports and so on, demonstrates itself to be a powerful force. Belief shows itself to be a powerful force. Capable of sucking even the most aloof or enlightened Americans into its vortex, and almost preying on the new migrant (at least the “happy-go-lucky, oh-so-hopeful” migrant stereotype we are used to seeing). Gaiman seems to be reflecting upon a somewhat unfortunate truth: That even the most ardent of beliefs brought into the US (sometimes themselves the driving forces for migration) will likely die in the US, losing fervor and eventually extinguishing altogether with the passing of time and the pressure to assimilate.

Tayryn Edwards

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