American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down. His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job. But Mr. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming — a battle for the very soul of America . . . and they are in its direct path.

My first Neil Gaiman novel! Hurrah! If you haven’t already, check out this stupendously awesome address! So for months, I’d been hearing about Neil Gaiman from my friends (yes, I know he’s prolific and I know he’s been around, but apparently I’ve been living under a rock. Sue me.) Next up, my list includes Neverwhere, Anansi Boys, and Fragile Things. Neil Gaiman also wrote Stardust, which just happens to have been turned into one of my favorite films (again, I realized this recently. Basically made me even more excited for my first Neil Gaiman experience). If you’ve never seen it, go watch it. It’s amazing. Seriously. Watch the whole thing.

I’m always impressed by people who have such an interest in and a command of mythology. It’s so vast that anyone who chooses to undertake projects that deal with it directly gets my vote. I find it interesting myself, but I confused/mixed-up too easily. At least for formal learning. I tend to learn more and more by default the older I get.

What I enjoyed most about this novel was how Gaiman played with reader conceptions. Some things that happen in the novel are very expected. But instead of seeming trite and cliched, they work. It’s almost as if, by giving the reader some givens, Gaiman can go further and do more with this crazy universe he’s creating. And as you read, in no place do you catch the tell-tale signs of a lazy author. Everything is methodical and thought-through. There are places where one sentence contains an unexpected detail that connects back elsewhere in the novel, without ever being directly dealt with. That probably didn’t make sense. But if you’ve read or when you readAmerican Gods, you’ll see what I mean.

One friend told me that one thing that bothered her about this novel was that Shadow isn’t really a character you can relate to or connect with. But I came away thinking that’s okay. I don’t think you’re supposed to connect with Shadow. It’s not really a book about Shadow. It’s a book about mythology and the intersection of old and new. It’s also about the clash of the rustic and the rural with the industrial and the city. In this way, I don’t think it matters whether we relate to Shadow or not. He’s there so that the story can exist, but he’s not the base of the story. If that makes sense. Shadow tends to go along with most things without really putting up much resistance. On the one hand, I see why, and on the other hand, I don’t. I think it’s this tendency in Shadow that makes him hard to relate to. People are kind of ornery and stubborn by nature. Shadow is extremely compliant. But, after all, he’s called Shadow. The general definition of a shadow is:

-A dark figure or image cast on the ground or some surface by a body intercepting light.

And that is Shadow, to the utmost extent. He’s somewhere between a person and a non-person, somewhere between death and life, always in between, trailing, on the margins.

You see what I mean about Gaiman being a careful writer?

Maus

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.

I first stumbled across this graphic novel while doing research for my paper on The Hobbit graphic novel. Mauswas the first “comic book” to win a Pultizer Prize. It is also credited as one of the first graphic novels. Maus is particularly hard to classify, sometimes called memoir, history, autobiography, fiction, or any mix of genres.

Maus recounts a history of the Holocaust in animal form. The Jews are depicted as mice, the Germans as cats, the Polish as pigs, and the Americans as dogs. As in Watchmen, Spielgelman makes full use of what you can do in a graphic novel that you can’t in a book. In one scene, Vladek and his wife Anja are trying to pass themselves off as Polish: Spielgelman depicts them as mice with pig masks on.

What I particularly liked about Maus was the way it dealt with the place of the Holocaust in today’s history. Spielgelman is himself a character in the novel. At one point, he goes on a tv show to talk about the first part of Maus (Maus was serialized between 1980 and 1991, and the novel is itself commonly divided into Part 1 and Part 2). In it, Spielgelman is asked the question, “Many younger Germans have had it up to here with Holocaust stories. These things happened before they were even born. Why shouldthey feel guilty?” Though this question is explicitly directed at Germans, I think it applies to much of the young generations. I’m not going to lie and say that I, as an American, don’t feel the same way. Often, the Holocaust is taught so much, but repetitively, without introducing anything new. I’m not going to lie and say that I wasn’t sick to death of it, reading the same books and watching the same films over and over. I wrestled with myself for awhile, feeling completely guilty and selfish for even daring to think such a thing. But it’s true.

Last year, I took a graduate film studies seminar on World War II, but more specifically the Holocaust. I was initially apprehensive, as I wasn’t particularly interested in studying it anymore. But I’m glad I took the class. Not only did we read things like Schindler’s List and Primo Levi, we watched films I’d never seen before (Schindler’s List, Inglorious Basterds, Valkyrie, The Reader). We also watched the documentary by Alain Resnais, Night and Fog. For years, I’d wondered if something was wrong with me that watching those made for tv movies and reading The Diary of Anne Frank didn’t make me cry. But this affected me in the way that nothing else had. And then I began to see what the real problem was.

The public education system delivers a very watered-down form of the Holocaust and World War II. You’re taught about it in a way that invites an excess of emotion on the part of the teacher, but there are no materials provided that evoke the same response in the student. What you’re left with is this great gap between people who are trying their best to try and get you to feel something with PG materials and students who haven’t got a clue and are annoyed that people keep harping on and on. It wasn’t until I took my college course that I finally got it. Spiegelman provides this answer to the above-mentioned question: “Maybe everyone has to feel guilty. Everyone! Forever!” I liked that Spiegelman approached this question head-on, in the text.

The other thing I greatly enjoyed about Maus, is that I think there’s a tendency to over-romanticize World War II, the Allied victory, and the survivors of the camps. What I mean by this is, like many other things, if some person comes through a great trauma, they are often later excused from other bad behaviors. Spiegelman relates a scene in which his father, Vladek, expresses blatant racism against an African-American man. Spiegelman attempts to point out that what Vladek is doing is no different than what the Nazis did to the Jews, but Vladek refuses to see it. I like that Spiegelman had this courage to approach his relationship with his father in a way that doesn’t paint him in a romantic light.

Maus is as much a history of the Holocaust as it is a chronicle of Spiegelman’s relationship with his father. In this, he is honest. He portrays Vladek as a stingy, crotchety old man who makes everyone around him miserable. This is quite different from many of the other treatments we get of Holocaust survivors. In Maus we get a human, rather than romanticized, idealized portrait of an ethnic group. The thing that is so often forgotten is that people are people. Even people who have had great atrocity delivered upon them, do not always transfer that into absolute goodwill toward their fellow man. We are all flawed and faulty, every last one of us.