Anansi Boys, Author Gaiman Tries Again
Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, is in many ways a minor spinoff of his 2001 book, American Gods. The best of his novels, American Gods meditates on what exactly happens to gods — and ideas as a whole — when no one believes in them anymore.
Anansi Boys follows this theme, but focuses on a much more specific figure: Anansi, the spider-god of African folklore. The novel’s protagonist is Anansi’s son, Fat Charlie, who must come to grips with his father’s legacy and the brother he did not realize he had.
Like all the great fantasy and science fiction writers, Gaiman is at his best when dealing with sweeping ideas at an epic scale.
When fantasies reach a critical mass of details and thematic elements, they tend to condense and form their own gravity, giving birth to an entire vibrant world. Gaiman’s magnum opus — his graphic novel series, The Sandman — achieves this point in the first volume and American Gods finds this moment with the arrival of Mr. Wednesday.
But Anansi Boys never really achieves the requisite state of mythological grandeur. Not all of Gaiman’s stories do (nor is it necessary for all stories), but Anansi Boys seems to be straining for the epic and never quite succeeding.
With the exception of the charming, devious, lemon yellow-gloved Anansi, the other characters (particularly the villains, a cold, sterile mother and a cliché-spouting boss) fall a little flat.
The dovetailing structure of the plot is a little reminiscent of The Sandman, but where in the ninth volume of The Sandman each plot thread suddenly weaves together to form an astonishing mesh of inevitability, in Anansi Boys, the effect is more like a mesh of convenient coincidences.
Anansi Boys is probably Gaiman’s weakest novel, which means that it is still spectacularly fun and absorbing, but will not change your life or burrow into your dreams. Gaiman is still asking his primary questions in Anansi Boys: what are stories, where do they come from and what do they mean.
One of the most unusual things about Gaiman is that while he continually probes similar themes, he does so using multiple voices. Most modern writers, consumed by the creed of “own personal voice” are content with writing the same protagonists (themselves) over and over.
The voice of American Gods, though told in the third person, is utterly the voice of the protagonist Shadow, in all his brooding, mysterious toughness.
Gaiman frequently writes from his own voice in his short stories, to great effect, but in Anansi Boys, he is on a strange, self-conscious middle ground. The voice of Anansi Boys is invasive, and long-winded, sometimes almost hyper, but it is often extremely funny.
Gaiman writes, “Each person who ever was or will be has a song...Take Daisy, for example. Her song, which had been somewhere in the back of her head for most of her life, had a reassuring, marching sort of beat, and words that were about protecting the weak, and it had a chorus that began, ‘Evildoers beware!’ and was thus much too silly ever to be sung out loud. She would hum it to herself sometimes though, in the shower, during the soapy bits.”
The rest of the book attempts to maintain the pace and pitch of this humor, but is not always as successful. The novel is generally strained—not only in its attempt to achieve epic or to be consistently amusing, but also in its labored and unrevealing physical descriptions.
Gaiman may simply be a terrific storyteller, but he is not a terrific novelist. He is at his best when his words are accompanied by art — those who have read the illustrated version of Stardust, for example, generally like it better than those who have only read the text.
The Sandman, likewise, is Gaiman’s best work by far — not only is
it musing and deeply profound, but the art carries his words to that epic world
and beyond. If Gaiman ever chooses to offer Anansi Boys in an illustrated
version, it will likely be a stronger, more relaxed book.