American Gods and patterns in stories.
I finally got through the American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. He’s a terrific writer. He’s not the best writer out there or anything (he won’t be winning any Nobel prizes anytime soon, but then does it really matter anymore?), but he’s certainly above the fray in bringing his ideas to life through words. His characters feel genuine and endearing, even the villains. None of the plot elements feel like a cop-out from a hairy situation of an author having to create unique situations for living, something I’ve seen a lot of writers succumb to.
Through the end of the book I was embroiled in some very mixed-up emotions. I wanted to see the story progress, but I didn’t want the story to end. I wanted to see the story between shadow and crow to its possible happy conclusions. I wanted to see shadow grow old and meet someone and I wanted to read what he would have been thinking at the moment. I wanted to see if he’d get to meet any other gods, and I wanted to know if it would be as humorous and wonderful as most of his other encounters with the gods of the world, past and future. As I read on to sate my curiosities, I couldn’t avoid finishing the book, and that’s the biggest gripe I have with the American Gods.
There are all sorts of heavy stuff that people trained in such arts can debate and write about all days and nights in American Gods. Some would like the feeling of America as a collection of old, used-up ideas and modern god like ideas struggling for control, afraid to be forgotten. Some would call it an old and washed out idea just like the gods of old, since it’s an archetypal picture of the American that journalists and novelists and anyone else who can write and has good enough eyes to see things around them had been writing for past half a century or so, maybe even longer. I don’t think it matters. Neil Gaiman didn’t write this novel so he can have grand disposition on the fate of the American ideas (if that were the case the future of America would lie in somewhere around Iceland, and that would be funny, not serious). He wrote this novel to write a good story with good people living in it and he did one heck of a job. I don’t think I’ll be forgetting about the three sisters, Mr. Wednesday, shadow, Laura, crow, and etc etc anytime soon. It would be great if I don’t forget about them for the rest of my life, but no one knows what will happen in the future, and hopefully I might be able to experience something even more intense.
I’d love to write about some elements in the story, but I don’t think I should. I made a blood oath never to write down spoilers when ‘reviewing’ a book in a public place. Let’s just say that I really enjoyed the book, and I never wanted it to end. I think I spent about four or five days reading this book. I would have finished earlier, but then I had sudden burst of workload on me this week so I had to pull a few late nights. I mostly read this book in the subways, and in the bed with the reading light on. I would frequently curse at myself for reading past three AM on a work day, just hoping that I would be fresh enough to not look like a zombie by the time I wake up a few hours later. I would actually anticipate the ride on the subways since it was pretty much the only time during the day that I could sit down and read for close to an hour or so. The crowd didn’t bother me but I might have bothered some nice old ladies for making weird faces while reading the book, from deadly seriousness to strange smile (the kind you get when you suppress an even bigger smile because it would be weird laughing out of the blue). But then I guess there were even weirder things on New York City subways at eleven in the night, so I probably didn’t stand out too much… Which reminds me, I’ve never seen people reading on subway who change their facial expressions before. Is it that everyone else is so well trained in managing their faces or are the books just really boring? I would say it’s the training issue, since I also become excited when I’m reading through particularly illuminating passages on a physics book, and most normal people probably don’t do that.
As I read through the American Gods, I was reminded of just how much I like reading, and sometimes even writing, creative stories. With my official status as a student I usually have to dig through a lot of journals and data, where they usually deal with diagrams and numbers without much creative license (I think I remember one of my teachers telling me that use of creative license in any scientific writing is a single ticket to ending your career. Or did I read it in a story somewhere? I can’t quite recall). Reading those dry, albeit enlightening, academic scripts seem to have taken its toll on me, and sometimes I feel like I’m a dry person myself. It’s like the case with Marge Simpson. I only think of crazy jokes or stories only after I leave the party and start my car. It drives me crazy.
That being the case, reading through the American Gods and some other fictional works before that was a cathartic experience for me. I wonder what kind of trait drives us to enjoy and seek out well-made stories involving fictional people and places? Was there some strange need for living organisms to be able to tell fantasies to each other in order to survive? The kind of fantasy where both the storyteller and the audience knows it’s fantasy but indulge in it anyway? That would be an interesting venue of research, something I sadly cannot seem to be able to find anywhere.
The American Gods also had me thinking about the archetype of stories. Whether we like it or not, elements of the ideas composing stories from various authors end up being similar to each other. Usually the difference is only made up through the skills of the writer/storyteller in masterful use of the language the story is transmitted to their audience. C.G. Jung built up a whole sub-discipline of psychology based on those archetypes found throughout human culture and even dreams, and it’s almost as if human beings are capable of only telling certain types of creative stories with varying degrees of proficiency. What would that imply in understanding human creativity? Maybe the trait of creativity isn’t as limitless as we tend to believe. Maybe creativity is just like most other mathematically derived abstract act, based off of some type of pattern that circles around itself. If that were the case, we would be able to make a machine capable of creating stories not by linking relevant words together but through linking relevant ideas together, into a preset pattern. An idea of conflict, an idea of resolution. The individual set of vocabulary and the storyline composing that single idea would be irrelevant as long as it can lead to the next part, and the transition won’t even have to be singular. It can be polyphonic like Bach’s composition, each event happening with another in ceaseless pattern. However while I’m sure it would be interesting to create such a program/machine, I’m not sure how I would be able to handle the task of making a machine capable of creating a character. Will characters simply emerge out of the polyphonic storyline? Will their personalities simply emerge out of the series of events that the characters are subjected to, each of them simply beginning with a name?
The first thing I tend to do when I want a deeper understanding of a writer’s work is to look up information on the life of writer him/herself. The research can be illuminating in a lot of cases, which is funny when you think about it since most writers I know of make their living by creating stories that are considered very unique compared to the rest of the ‘writer population.’ Would that imply that the trait of creativity is inseparable from memories of the individual? And what should writers do when they are so prolific that they are faced with the possibility of patterns and familiar ideas appearing again and again within their works? Do they embrace the patterns and ideas and try to refine them? Or do they try to break free, staying away from such patterns and ideas appearing in their works altogether?