Morrow, 2005, 336 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-051518-8
In fantasy circles, saying that one doesn’t care all that much for Neil Gaiman’s fiction is tantamount to an invitation to be lapidated. The outrage is immediate: Neil is so nice! Neil is such a great writer! Neil has won so many awards! Well, yes, but no amount of heartfelt, diagrammed, possibly notarized disclaimers (Neil is nice! Neil is a great writer! Neil has won so many awards!) is enough to satisfy his many, many fans and make the point that some readers may not be receptive to Gaiman’s fiction, no matter how accomplished it is.
So it is that I’m always a bit surprised when I do get to enjoy one of Gaiman’s books after all. I’m not an enthusiastic fantasy reader, and even less of a mythology-oriented reader. But that’s exactly what Gaiman is writing. In Anansi Boys, for instance, he goes digging into trickster mythologies to inform a light-hearted novel of contemporary fantasy. Against all odds, it worked for me.
Part of my affection for Anansi Boys comes from how much it can be enjoyed on the slightest of fantasy levels. When mild-mannered protagonist Fat Charlie discovers that his (Trickster God) father is dead, he has no clue as to how complicated his life is about to become. On top of his grief, Charlie soon discovers that he has a vastly more extrovert brother named Spider. Before long, Spider has taken Charlie’s girlfriend, caused him to be framed by a dishonest boss and upset a venerable peace between various supernatural entities. Who has to fix everything? Charlie, of course… and he may get to be less of a nerd once he’s done.
So it is that the biggest strength of Anansi Boys is that you can, if you so choose, skip over the more overly fantastical elements and passages of the book in order to focus on Charlie’s adventures. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a really good way to read the novel: you’ll end up missing out on half the story and nine-tenth of its depths. But if you’re in a hurry, and already halfway convinced that the novel will be dull no matter how much attention you can pay, it’s not a bad way to read it diagonally. (It does mean not caring at all about the links between Anansi Boys and the Hugo Award-winning American Gods, though.)
But there is still a lot of fun in Anansi Boys even if you limit yourself to the more grounded elements of its story. Fat Charlie (who’s not fat; it’s just a nickname that stuck) is an appealingly nebbish character, and his explanation of what it was to be the son of a Trickster God has a few hilarious moments, one of them involving dressing up for President’s Day. His dramatic arc is well-accomplished, as he finds true love, discovers hidden reserves of strengths and even manages to bring back a bit of order and justice in the world and underworld. The characters surrounding him are also interesting in their own ways, although it’s his outgoing brother who gets the share of the glory by being such an inveterate attention-hog.
As usual, Gaiman’s prose effortlessly moves in-between high comedy, meaty mythology and sensitive drama. It’s astonishing how precisely he is able to reach his goals, even in changing modes throughout the novel: The funny stuff is funny, the sensitive passages are sensitive, and the mythological underpinning of the story does give it quite a bit of depth that a lesser writer wouldn’t necessarily have bothered with.
Not even a largely diagonal and inattentive reading can gloss over Gaiman’s gifts. And that, ultimately, may be a telling test of any writer’s skills: being able to charm readers fundamentally unsuited to their brand of fiction, and allowing them to read the story at the level they choose. Quite an achievement, that.