Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys: is it the Tale – or the Teller?

Gaiman’s work owes something to Vonnegut, something to Douglas Adams, something to Sir James Fraser, and probably something to Hitchcock – and Monty Python…

I offer the following quote from a Wall Street Journal piece by Lev Grossman I cited last fall in an essay on storytelling and the Modernist tendency to force readers to struggle with artist’s literary experiments:

Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance. They’re forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

In an essay about current reading habits and the disappearance of “serious literature,” I offered the following advice from Henry David Thoreau, a serious literature kind of guy:

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.

At the behest of several friends I’ve been moving away from my stodgy, comfortable literary fiction tastes and trying new writers strongly recommended by family, friends, and colleagues – among these have been the delightful Douglas Adams and the interesting, though not as interesting as I’d hoped, Terry Pratchett.

Neil Gaiman has been an oft mentioned choice  as someone “you really must read, Jim.” And so, having come across a copy of his 2005 novel Anansi Boys at a local second hand book store, I decided to give Gaiman a try. And while I can honestly say it’s a delightful and enlightening novel in many ways, I could not make a case for Anansi Boys as great literature.

The novel revisits characters from Gaiman’s (thus far) magnum opus American Gods.  In this book Mr. Nancy’s (Anansi, a mythical character who is a spider – the weaving of webs of story, communication, ideas is an integral part of the novel) sons, named Charles (called “Fat Charlie” for most of the work) and Spider, discover that they are brothers. This knowledge leads to complications involving embezzlement, murder, and romance. Suffice to say that it all works out in the end – Fat Charlie becomes Charles and discovers that he has some of the magic of a god within himself while Spider, who is part brother, part bother, part doppelganger, part bon vivant (like his father) finds a humanity he didn’t know he had. This realistic part of the narrative is interpolated with African-Caribbean mythology that both provides overview of the “human” story and allows Gaiman to play with magical realism while at the same time gently poking fun at that style of narrative. I am not entirely sure if Gaiman means to poke fun at magical realism. Perhaps he is exploring its possibilities within the fantasy framework. But if he is having a giggle at MR’s expense, I like him the better for it.

Some reviewers have called Anansi Boys a combination of Douglas AdamsP.G. Wodehouse and Monty Python. It’s more – and less – than that. Gaiman has obviously knows his mythology, and much of Anansi Boys provides lesson for readers about non-Western mythologies. He does so, too, in ways that both entertain the reader and that make sense within the narrative and offer gloss to the text that helps readers understand that, for example, the villain is a recurring character who will appear again and again in stories because it is an archetype. This he does always well, sometimes brilliantly – and for the astute reader who grasps the implications of what Gaiman is explaining about good and evil, this glossing infuses the tale with the creepiness of a great fairy tale.

Where the novel is not always pleasing is in the comic “realistic” narrative that drives the entire book. Fat Charlie – who does learn (that he has godlike abilities like his father and brother); who does meet a helper (Daisy Day, a beautiful cop who also becomes his love interest); who does gain a “magic sword” (his father’s Fedora) – who becomes a hero in the best Proppian tradition – is a clear riff on Arthur Dent (with some Bertie Wooster thrown in – likable enough, slightly doltish, maddeningly tolerant of mistreatment despite his protestations otherwise. And Spider owes a good deal to Zaphod Beeblebrox. So there’s that. There are jokes galore (some laugh out loud funny) and silly situations worthy of a Python skit. But it all seems done before. And as well or better elsewhere.

There’s also another problematic element (and maybe this is just me), one that occurs often in work with recurring characters/themes (the dreaded “series” that every science fiction and fantasy author seems intent upon). I spent the last 50 pages or so sensing that Gaiman was “setting up” the next work wherein these characters will appear. Now Gaiman is deft, indeed, a brilliant writer in many ways, and this was subtly and skillfully done. But I’m an astute reader and a pretty clever writer myself. So this bugged me. It was more noticeable in a work from a writer of Gaiman’s reputation – and skill – than it should have been.

Ultimately these flaws seem to me to make Anansi Boys fall short of the giddy heights of a work like Stoner by John Edward Williams. That is not to say that Gaiman is not a brilliant writer and that Anansi Boys is not a superior read. It means this: Neil Gaiman is indeed a wonderful writer and I look forward to reading further in his oeuvre. What it means is that for me, Anansi Boys is not one of those treasures Thoreau mentions above.

But Gaiman may a member be of Thoreau’s “natural and irresistible aristocracy.” Proving that will require, however, further investigation.

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About Jim Booth

Novelist, college professor, rock musician - are we getting the band back together? Maybe....
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5 Responses to Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys: is it the Tale – or the Teller?

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