Monday, December 11, 2006

Immortal Folly II: Review of Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Grade: A

Adam and Eve frolicked free and easy in the garden, knowing God, but not knowing what he knew. "Eat this fruit," said Eve, "and we'll be animals no more." Gilgamesh took Enkidu aside, shaved his shaggy ass down and got him to the temple prostitute. When Enkidu was properly deflowered, Gilgamesh told him, "now you are a civilized man." It is a tale as old as tales. But the fertile crescent is only the beginning of civilization. We dropped down from the trees and started chattering at each other well before we settled down in cities. Neil Gaiman takes the conceit (and it's a conceit I dig) that humanity started somewhere in west Africa, and if anything sets us different from the animals it ain't the speaking, it's the telling of the stories.

Surely the oldest gods were animals and monsters. Anansi the spider is (though you no doubt have to take some liberties and change some names along the way) the oldest of the lot of them. At any rate, as the tricksy god of fiction, he's got some license to make the claim; his earliest stories rescued us from the savage and hairy jungle. In the more recent past, he came across the Atlantic Ocean on a slave boat, and whispered his stories into the ears of chained men and women on the Caribbean islands and in the American south. Modern times have diminished Anansi, like many gods, to folklore, and these days you can catch him whiling his time in southern Florida, fishing off bridges, charming women much too young for him, and otherwise having a good old time.

These anthropomorphised spirits were the subject of Gaiman's award-winning and popular novel American Gods (which had charm and character but misfired badly in terms of the divine mechanics and in terms of its American-ness), in which Anansi had a supporting role. Like any deity worth his name, the spider sprouts off a maladjusted demigod every now and again (tricksters don't make the best fathers), and Anansi Boys follows one of his rather mundane and indecisive sons. Fat Charlie (the old man could make a nickname stick) Nancy has just found out he has a brother, one who takes after their father much more than does Fat Charlie himself.

Gaiman has his moments, but he's not into prose gymnastics as a rule, and he's better at clever allusions than he is at deep uniting themes. (What I did miss from his other novels is the exquisite visual, or graphic, sense that Gaiman usually leaks into his stories. That felt attenuated here.) What he is damn skilled at is unwinding a good yarn, finding room for a light heart and for dark dread, pitting characters you love to like against villains you love to hate. Here, he doesn't attempt much mythological heavy lifting, but swings around just enough magic to lend a fairy-tale whimsy and just enough legendary heft to make it feel nontrivial. The result is a story appealing in much the same way as any of the Anansi fables you may remember reading as a child (or even hearing, if you've the proper ancestry), which is a lovely thing to encounter as an adult.

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P.S. I will try to keep up with this for the next couple weeks, but it's likely I'll only be in and out. I have a ton of work piled up ('tis the silly season), and may even suffer the indignity of taking some of it home.

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3 comments:

sydbristow said...

Excellent, I love this stuff (to wit, etc). I'll be checking it out.

twiffer said...

hey, i read that on the plane, headed to florida for turkey day.

agree; a good yarn. fun, quick and satisfying.

Keifus said...

twif: yup. Actually, I bought this at the airport too, on the trip to Tennessee last month.

syd: those themes are underneath, but I don't want to give the impression that it dwells them overmuch. It's more my reason to tie four books together. (I'm glad I got the Gilgamesh story about right. Was going to review it, but evidently lost my copy.)

K