I worked my way through all of Neil Gaiman's American Gods even though, almost from page one, it felt a little bit off. Now, I'm pretty sure I'm not Gaiman's ideal reader. I liked most of the Sandman comic book series and I remember enjoying Good Omens when I read it years ago, but Stardust really turned me off Gaiman for a while--I thought that book suffered from forced whimsy and a half-baked concept. However, American Gods looked more promising:
-It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel. Yes, I know that these kinds of awards don't usually go to the actual best novel in any given year, but they do usually indicate a wide critical consensus that the novel is pretty good. And I've more or less liked every joint Hugo/Nebula award-winning novel that I've read—even though only one ranks among my favorite sci-fi/fantasy books (Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War).
-Critics have compared it to books by writers I do like a lot—namely Stephen King, John Crowley, and Roger Zelazny. (Actually, Gaiman himself compares it to Zelazny's stuff, but other people have picked up on it).
-While I’m not a huge fan of Tolkien-inspired fantasy, there are two fantasy sub-genres that I tend to enjoy: Conan-style Sword & Sorcery and Modern Dress Fantasy. American Gods is an example of the latter. One of the reasons I like Modern Dress Fantasy is that its authors spend more time on telling a story and less time on "world building". Also, the characters in Tolkien-derived fantasy tend to have more ridiculous names.
Now, I certainly didn't mind reading American Gods, but I kept at it not because I was inspired by the story but because I was mildly interested in figuring out why the book wasn't quite working for me (and because my plane was delayed—twice). To be fair, I enjoyed some of the book--the interludes that are there to provide some color and background are like some of the good stand-alone issues of Gaiman's Sandman comic--but the main part of the story has some major flaws.
One of my big problems with Gaiman's fiction is that his protagonists tend to be pretty boring. I assume this is because he sees them as archetypal Quest Figures, but the thing about those old stories and folktales featuring archetypal Quest Figures is that they were all pretty short. You could probably cram about 30 archetypal quest stories into a 600-page book (like American Gods). Shadow, the hero of American Gods, is no exception. Shadow, is one of those creations that only exist in genre fiction. He is a sensitive, vulnerable, ex-con bodybuilder—a tough guy with a heart of gold. Honestly, the only thing I dislike more than seeing skinny geeks like Gaiman making their heroes hulking men-of-action, is when they make their heroes cute and cuddly hulking men-of-action. He's extremely dull, although I suppose he might be appealing to sensitive teenage misfits.
Now, because Shadow is a Quest Figure, Gaiman doesn't really feel the need to make Shadow's actions and motivations either consistent or penetrable. Shadow is always doing and/or saying things that come out of left field and make no sense, and Gaiman tries to explain these anomalies by suggesting that Shadow just "felt" he had to do/say those things. This "feeling" is never given an actual explanation--i.e., Shadow doesn’t have ESP or a guardian angel or brain lesion--but, rather, we're just supposed to accept these incongruous actions because, hey, Shadow is a Quest Figure on a Quest and those things have their own logic. It's true that the characters in folktales and fables often behave contrary to real world logic, but, again, there's a big difference between a folktale set in a kind of never-never land and a 600-page novel set in some kind of variation on "the real world".
American Gods falls into the trap that so many other mediocre fantasy stories fall into: things happen for completely arbitrary reasons and Gaiman tries to excuse the arbitrariness by pleading: "Hey, this is fantasy! This is myth! This is a Quest!" The villain's evil scheme--which sets all the action in motion--is the most arbitrary thing in the book. It all seems needlessly complicated, or, rather, the complications Gaiman introduces all seem forced: they may make sense on a symbolic-mythical-hero-with-a-hundred-faces level, but as stuff happening in the story they just don’t fit. Worst of all, one of the book's final revelations is that most of the hero’s "quest" has been nothing more than a big red herring. In retrospect, the entire story comes to look like one huge needless and arbitrary complication.
As often happens when I'm reading something that doesn't quite work, I started thinking about similar kinds of books that do work. In a successful piece of Modern Dress Fantasy, say, for example, Jonathan Carroll's novel Bones of the Moon or James P. Blaylock's The Paper Grail, the story works, first, because it manages to distinguish its real world aspect from its fantasy aspect, and, second, because it is able to gradually reveal the connections between the two. The process of revelation is as suspenseful as the unraveling of a good mystery. But the revelation is only really successful if there's a genuine difference between the fantastic and the mundane and there is some kind of consistency or logic underlying their interaction. Because of this consistency, there’s nothing arbitrary about the events that happen in these novels or the choices their protagonists make. No one does anything just because they happen to be Quest Figures: their actions all make sense based on what we know of their motivations and what we know of the often fantastical situations in which they find themselves.