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It's better in a FORD Tonight, my bookclub is discussing American Gods by Neil Gaiman. It's a bit of departure from a club that in the past couple of years has looked at Moby Dick, Children of the Alley (Naguib Mahfouz) and Gilead (Marilynne Robinson) - those of you who are genre-jumpers like me know that "departure" is an understatement.

I like Gaiman's work, but I don't love it. American Gods doesn't have the deep resonance of a book like Gilead – though, that is really like comparing apples to Winnebagos. But I admire his storytelling ability, in the same way that I admire (but don't love) Stephen King.

It got me thinking about plot and story, and specifically, how much happens in a story. Gaiman has people tied up in trees sitting vigil for Odin as other gods swoop down on thunderbirds and the true god of Easter makes dead plants live and wives come back from the dead, and mystic moon goddesses produce golden coins and magic, and blood and, and, and....
Yes, it is a sort of breathless fiction.

Then I read this from the other book on my bedside.

"The train flashed through a small Montana town without stopping – two crossing gates with bells and red lanterns, a row of darkened stores, an empty rodeo corral with two cows standing alone under a bright floodlight. A single car was waiting to cross, its parking lights shining. It all disappeared. Sims could hear a train whistle far off."

On man, how I LOVE Richard Ford. The above is from his story, "Empire", from Rock Springs. I came across that paragrah and I immediately wanted to slow down, to read it again, to be there on that train, seeing the cows, the lights, hearing the whistle. It is so evocative of mood and place and full of resonance. But why? Isn't it just a couple of cows in a nowhere town? Where the hell is Odin and that crazy moon goddess? Could somebody please blow something up?

And that's the strange thing. Gaiman's work moves at a breakneck speed across the page, in my brain and right out again. Nothing sticks. Don't get me wrong, I am NOT a book snob - I say if you love it, hell, even if you just like it, then READ IT! (Notable exception: Any book by Dan Brown - which should be banned in schools, not for content, but for promoting horrible, shallow writing) I digress.

Richard Ford stories get into my head and they stay there. That's why I read and re-read his work. And Gaiman, yeah, I'll read another one, because like a ice-cold Coors Light on a blazing summer day, it tastes good - but it goes right through ya.
I guess I try to place my own fiction somewhere between these two. I strive to create moments of resonance like Ford can, but once in a while I want to blow something up – to create something that will make the reader go, "Hey, that's cool." Because I know cows under streetlights doesn't do it for everyone.

Link to interview with Richard Ford on publication of, "A Multitude of Sins" - another book I am re-reading.

Gaiman's official site.

Reader Comments (5)

Gaiman once said in an interview (about American Gods) that he had attempted to write it in an "American Style", which might explain your beer simile. Neverwhere, again, is different, and I've heard that Stardust is almost Tolkien-esque, perhaps even before that time.

February 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterEli

I think it's an unfair comparison, since both writers are going for different things. I think your critique works best if you're stating a personal preference (which of course you are); but I had the feeling you were also suggesting that one writer was superier to the other. Sure, what story wouldn't be improved by an exploding cow? But I think your observation says more about your fondness for the prairie and flatlands, and writers who write with the same spare line, than it does for Gaiman's fondness for gods in trees.

I agree with you that American Gods could have been better, but I didn't find the characters inadequate, the passages untelling. I just wanted the story to go further, be bigger, in its implications. Either that, or make the novel shorter.

Some of the things you might find distracting and non-starters in a fantasy novel are prime attractions for the fan. Making gods literal in a story is a kick. Exploding cows would be a definite draw. I mention this to suggest that where you thought Gaiman was going wrong or spinning his wheels, perhaps he was actually delivering the goods for a fantasy fan.

By the way, have you visited Gaiman's blog? It's another good example of a writer using the internet to good effect.

February 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commentermark heath

Sorry for not being more keen-eyed. I see that you linked to Gaiman's site, which also includes his blog/journal.

By the way, not every writer does this, of course, but have you noticed that Gaiman markets his physical image as much as his work? Within the fan community, he's as famous for his mop of hair and dark clothing, as he is for his stories. I'd love to see a good picture of Terlson on your site. Not just any picture, but one that captures how you see your stories. Gaiman's stories are often dark and mysterious, and the image he presents amplifies this.

February 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commentermark heath

Agreed, Mark - the comparison is unfair - as I said, apples and Winnebagos. Don't get me wrong I do like what Gaiman is doing, and after last night's bookclub even more so. There were a lot of interesting insights into what Gaiman is saying about America, as a Brit. Now, in interviews Gaiman often denies that it is anything but a good story (which I think is a cop out). No, I think I judged too quickly and there is more than meets the eye here.

And Ford? No, it's not just his landscape (though that is a draw), I just think he writes beautifully about anything he chooses to write. His fiction is tight tight tight, not a word wasted. I just get the sense of an amazing attention to craft - and the deep emotion that comes out of it.

Not to say he couldn't stand to blow up a cow or two.

February 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

and keep in mind that I'm talking out of my hat when I talk about Ford because I've never read him. Clearly, I should.

As for the exploding cows, I've actually read a good book by Charles Stross -- the Atrocity Archives -- that features an exploded cow. It's a mix of Lovecraft and Len Deighton.

February 11, 2007 | Unregistered Commentermark heath

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