Wednesday, 24 May 2006

Anansi Boys - of tiger, bird and spider

Some musical soundtracks seem to follow us around. ‘The Supermen’ by David Bowie, pops up in my head from time to time. It starts,

“When all the world was very young,
and mountain magic heavy hung,
the supermen would walk in file,
guardians of a loveless isle
and gloomy browed with superfear
their tragic endless lives could heave nor sigh
in solemn, perverse serenity, wondrous beings chained to life.”

Neil Gaiman starts his Anansi Boys novel with the words “It begins, as most things begin, with a song”, so I feel the lyrics above are somehow appropriate.
americangods.jpgNow freeze frame to me, resting from the road in a small and mystical town called Stone Mountain, in Georgia, USA. I was in a small café, sipping Java by a rack of books including the then freshly published “American Gods” hardback by Neil Gaiman.

I soon had a new companion for my journey.

Now anyone who has read Neil Gaiman will know that there are some strange games in his writing and that he can use a colossal palette to describe his ideas and those of his godlike characters. Back to Bowie:

“Strange games they would play then
No death for the perfect men
Life rolls into one for them
So softly a supergod cries”.

And the American Gods book became a fitting backdrop to my journey across the USA at that time, with its story of a released prisoner named Shadow and a set of epic circumstances he finds himself entwined within after sharing a flight with a character called Wednesday. The gods are deciding what to do with America.

But this review is supposed to be of Gaiman’s later book called Anansi Boys, which I just read on my travels. I was hoping there would be some overlap and indeed there is. Some plotline similarities (death of wife opens the first book and death of father is a central point in the later book). There is a significant overlapping character- Mr Nancy. And the story also involves gods, but of a different complexion to the American soul seekers of the first book.

The dead father of Fat Charlie (our initial hero) in the Anansi Boys turns out to be a human form of Anansi, the African trickster god. Fat Charlie (with Afro-Carribean connotations) is surprised to learn that he has a brother, Spider, who has inherited some of their father's godlike abilities. After calling for his estranged brother by talking to a spider, the brother comes to visit Charlie.

A set of pivotal identity theft begins to occur as the brother Spider gets Charlie fired from his job, steals his girlfriend and creates a situation where Fat Charlie is arrested and suspected of murder.

Charlie decides to use magic to remove the unthinking rather than evil Spider, but unfortunately things start to go somewhat awry.

Where all were minds in uni-thought
Power weird by mystics taught
No pain, no joy, no power too great
Colossal strength to grasp a fate
Where sad-eyed mermen tossed in slumbers
Nightmare dreams no mortal mind could hold
A man would tear his brother's flesh, a chance to die
To turn to mold.

Now I don’t want to give away too much plotline, but let’s say the style has good narrative, much humour, clever storytelling and entertaining twists. It does weave a web and part way through I found myself wanting to unravel what was to happen. Gaiman manages to progressively reveal that ‘things are not always what they seem’ and to cross from a netherworld to a real world within a sentence.

The difference from the earlier book is one of scale. American Gods swept across the souls of a nation, whereas this book makes greater reference to family, sibling rivalry and an esoteric form of rites of passage. If American Gods is a thunderclap across a continent – potentially devastating but somewhat impersonal, Anansi Boys is more of a large furry spider on the arm – immediate, very personal, somewhat scary and potentially quite tickly.

lime.jpgFar out in the red-sky
Far out from the sad eyes
Strange, mad celebration
So softly a supergod cries

Far out in the red-sky
Far out from the sad eyes
Strange, mad celebration
So softly a supergod dies

If you like the idea of this, read both books. I happened to read them in the order of publication, I don’t really think it matters in terms of their concepts or from the perspective of continuity. And yes, the lime is relevant.

UPDATE: By popular request, the Glastonbury version of Supermen, from the geodesic dome era.

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