Neil Gaiman
Anansi Boys : Breaking Character Cliches Through Ambiguity
( essay June 10, 2011) In this critique A.F. will discuss the author’s use of dynamic and ambiguous characters to break clichés and form a compelling and unique plot.

Neil Gaiman is by no means a man who writes about mice who pull thorns from lion’s paws but his fables that are cleverly intertwined within his novel Anansi Boys recreate a strong feeling of ancient stories that could only ever be told by the jabbering of a mythical spider. Nor is he a man who writes of beating hearts in walls but yet he still manages to instill the same fright in his work as any one of Poe’s master pieces. He does all this while being extraordinarily funny and witty. This combination of grotesque humor and wildly famous stories create characters that are at the same time both classic and a vast contradiction.

I feel it would be best to describe this classical contradiction by explaining several main characters in Anansi Boys and how their fate and actions defy the norm while being entirely honest and believable. The multitude of characters within Anansi Boys seems daunting at first but once examined closer they begin to condense into three different categories. These categories include the truly good characters, the truly evil characters, and an amazingly ambiguous third category that seems to emulate real humans to a tee.

The main character in Anansi Boys is Charlie Nancy, fat Charlie Nancy to be more precise. He just happens to fall into this human like third category previously explained. He is by no means fat and prefers to go by the name Charles but thanks to his god of a father and a rather cleverly coined nickname he is forever branded as fat Charlie. For the son of a god Charlie is astoundingly human. Gaiman’s purpose for making him unremarkable is to be able to contrast him with the very remarkable people and creatures around him. Had Gaiman made Charlie a completely pure and kind soul with a genuine smile a great job and luck with the ladies he would have had to make his father and brother (both endowed with gifts of charm and manipulation) into super heroes destroying the fragile sense of reality Gaiman has artfully created with his understated miracles.

Fat Charlie Nancy has a brother named spider. Spider didn’t exist until Charlie’s father died and Charlie finds out about his existence. Up until the moment Charlie had been living a remarkably unassuming life. He has a cruel boss and a mediocre job he doesn’t care for and a fiancé who won’t sleep with him and a small London flat where he occasionally splurges on a nice steak dinner. Needless to say Gaiman has created in Charlie a comfortable norm that just about any twenty-something can relate to. When he finds his brother has taken over his life and made changes for the worse he wants to get rid of him. Naturally this would be a logical reaction but the evilness in Charlie becomes more evident by his complete disregard for his fiancée Rosie’s feelings. She has fallen in love with spider. She is happy. Truly happy. But Charlie wants to destroy her happiness and drag her back to mediocrity with him. All of Charlie’s actions accurately and honestly portray a human’s true character. Gaiman has not created some glossy hero who is suave and understanding but a human being who is greedy and jealous and afraid of embarrassment. And unlike most characters now days he suffers frequent and normal everyday embarrassments.

I feel it pertinent to discuss the matter of Charlie’s brother. Debonair to the point of superstardom he is everything one would require in a true hero. He has women who he goes through like paper towels and he could charm a cobra into tap dancing with a single smile. To be frank Gaiman has created a strong foil of Charlie. Oh and he just happens to be a god. But unlike the general idea of a god he is not some benevolent benefactor. He is a bum who uses surreptitious miracles to get what he wants and keep his carnal and frivolous desires satisfied. One would think that an average person would be totally repulsed by his gluttonies and debauchery but Gaiman has weakened his character with just enough human vices to make him almost endearing. Spider’s true and honest love for Rosie and his tongue tied manner of honesty he tries to use with her creates the image of a selfish child growing up and keeps his godlike behavior grounded and realistic.

Spider would be in most senses the antagonist and therefore the “villain” of the story, but so often with Gaiman’s writing this is not true. Spider is just a hero behaving badly. Despite all his ambiguity Gaiman has created some truly evil characters. But those evil characters are never truly punished defying another common cliché in most writing. Take for instance Graham Coats, a shrewd man who has remorselessly swindled hundreds of well meaning but stupid people out of billions of dollars. Quickly and efficiently he murders a woman with a hammer when she starts to get to close and almost giggles at his actions and how clever he is. This soullessness and heartlessness contrasts him vividly from the misbehaving gods and ill tempered mortals. Gaiman creates supernatural evilness in a mortal. Instead of some all mighty condemnation from the gods he lets coats escape destroying another cliché but with all the contradictions in this story it is only logical that he should escape. In the end coats is trapped in a mythological cave with the old god of evil, Tiger. Evil wallowing amongst evil only seems like a present to creatures of no morality but Gaiman’s solution is only logical to his writing. Evil will exist and it must exist the only way to handle such nuisances by partitioning them away from those creatures with a scrap of morality. It is only practical.

And finally those clever and truly good characters that are so rare in Gaiman’s writing serve a very clear and powerful purpose. He uses them to show that even in this obscure world of moral turpentine true goodness exists. Honesty and nobility are not non-existent but rare and under appreciated. Daisy day is one of these rare pinnacles of justice. He instills in her actions and pursuit of justice and old fashioned desire to do good for goodness sake and she contrasts not only the selfishness of the gods but the weakness and injustice of her fellow mortals. Gaiman makes her simple actions of pursuing a cause seem like a miraculous feat of diligence contrasting the “ miracle” spider created of preventing his brother from returning home in a taxi.

It is Gaiman’s practical and logical view of fantasy and gods that lends his writing such superb poignancy. He takes the abstract idea of god’s and miracles and to make them logical and believable he makes his characters ordinary in the most unusual ways. This unbearable reality that common fantasy writers avoid like the black plague is embraced in Gaiman’s writing making the conventional obscure and the mundane into miracles. “There was reality and there was reality; and some things were more real than others.” Gaiman creates and destroys boundaries deciding what is real and having us believe just as whole heartedly.

( June 10, 2011) A.F.




American Gods : A Mystery Of A Mystery

( essay June 10, 2011) In this critique A.F. explores the use of contrasting narrative voice, a fast paced and diverse plot, and realistic but unexpected plot twists to mask the underlying mystery of the novel.

Gaiman is the voice of English eloquence for his era and it constantly shows through with his specific and high brow choice of words. This style of writing lends a very specific tone to his characters whose speech is always extremely precise and efficient. This efficiency entices a strong sense of education and modern intellectuality often overlooked in modern writing. The diction is not so excessive that it becomes unbelievable and it also serves a strong purpose. This purpose is to contrast the archaic and almost primal speech of the gods that are rife within Gaiman’s novel American Gods.
Fables and parables and myths run rampant through American Gods. This theology is only apropos due to the subject matter of the novel. Gods amongst mortals and mortals acting like gods seems like it would be a stretch but because of the concept of belief defining reality it is not a far leap of the imagination to consider how gods could surreptitiously make there way amongst mortals everyday.
“All we have to believe with is our senses, the tools we use to perceive the world: our sight, our touch, our memory. If they lie to us, then nothing can be trusted. And even if we do not believe, then still we cannot travel in any other way than the road our senses show us; and we must walk that road to the end.”
This quote shows how the very senses are fooled by Gaiman’s writing. He uses sensory images and describes the gods into life. One begins to believe this great man in a suit could in fact be an incarnation of Odin even though he is referred to as Mr. Wednesday. Gaiman does not sugar coat his imagery with glowing halos of light but describes with reality with pain staking accuracy, down to the very stubble on the old man’s chin. It is this ability to poetically but not romantically describe reality that allows for Gaiman to manipulate and suspend the readers’ reality and beliefs.

It is this suspension that allows for the god’s speech to be almost primal in nature.
“People believe, thought Shadow. It's what people do. They believe. And then they will 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.”

Shadow’s clear and eloquent speech can directly be contrasted to the speech of Zorya Polunochnaya who is a god.
"Which path should I take?" he asked. "Which one is safe?"

"Take one, and you cannot take the other," she said. "But neither path is safe. Which way would you walk — the way of hard truths or the way of fine lies?"

"Truths," he said. "I've come too far for more lies."

She looked sad. "There will be a price, then," she said.

This clearly shows the realistic imbalance of eloquence and speech patterns of the two characters but it also imparts the wisdom and boundless knowledge the gods contain. This allows for every character to be absolutely believable. There are no wizards spouting spells that make the bad guys go away they are simply creatures trying to stay alive in a waning age of faith.

The characters are only accessories to the plot, which is one of the wildest yet subtle plots I have ever read. Every plot twist is created with an artist’s care to astound the reader but not to the point where they wake up from the dream world Gaiman has created. Minor unfortunate events such as the discovery of his wife cheating on the main character, shadow, with his best friend rob only begin the long chain that constitutes the plot. Cheating leads to his wife coming back from the dead after a chance run in with a leprechaun and becoming the body guard to Odin while being simultaneously getting kidnapped by a snot nosed new age god of technology. When stated together in such a manner it seems absolutely ridiculous but the understatement of every event allows for everything to seem plausible even real distracting the reader from the larger events just going on beneath the surface.

The line between myth and reality is blurred by Gaiman’s habit of constantly referring to well known and obscure myth’s of the gods he is trying to create. With in the story the gods are real and there for their history must be as well, right? He frequently breaks from the main action to draw the reader into a sideshow of mythological history. Instead of detracting from the focus of the novel it only intensifies it and the allusions allow for a broader understanding of the gods. This understanding creates a richer and more believable reality only adding to the vivacity of the world.

All of these factors only disguise the fact that this novel is in fact a mystery. I will be the first person to condemn all mystery novels as contrived and predictable but Gaiman kept the reader so entertained and sufficiently distracted with the prospect of a war amongst old and new gods and minor miracles that manage miraculous feats that the pill of a murder mystery was easy to swallow. Constant clues were dropped within the myths and the speeches of the gods and the answer was evident by the middle of the novel but there was no compulsion to seek out this answer. Only after shadow opened up the car trunk to see the small frozen body did Gaiman cause his audience to gasp in surprise at the fact that in this perfect town where gods behave themselves and humans are kind there was hundreds of year’s worth of murder.

This underlying mystery is the key to a truly well written novel. When the author has the capability to keep his audience completely unaware through hundreds of pages of words and simply and creatively say “oh you didn’t notice the dead bodies in the trunk of the car? Well I pretty much explained it a hundred pages ago...” it is a mark of true genius. All this is accomplished through the creation of reality with unrealistic ideas. This weaving of fantasy and fact is spindled together through creative use of narrative voice and diction and a marvelous amount of tasteful understatement.
(June 10, 2011) A.F.