Have you ever read a book by an author you really like only to find it… lacking? Good examples of these in my reading history include The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante, Pulp by Charles Bukowski, and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. None of them are terrible books in any way, but… compared to other works by the authors, they’re not as good.
For the last couple of years, Anansi Boys was that book for me in my Neil Gaiman library. In fact, I came in here ready to talk about how disappointing it is… how similar the character of “Fat Charlie” Nancy is to Richard Mayhew, from Gaiman’s superior debut novel Neverwhere. I was going to talk about how predictable much of the plot was, and how derivative the novel felt as a whole…
But then I re-read it. I figured I owed the book (and Gaiman himself) at least that much. And you know what? I really enjoyed it this time around. We’ll get into why I think this is below.
Sept 25, 2005
So… Anansi Boys. Even typing out the title gives me a bit of a cringe at the tip of my spine. The title bugged me since I first saw the book at the first bookstore I worked at back in 2006, before I even knew who Neil Gaiman was (funnily enough, I remember disliking the title because I didn’t know how to pronounce it, but kept thinking it sounded too much like “Nancy Boys” for me to take seriously). My, how things change.
To wit: At that point, I had a dislike for fantasy. I read the plot on the back and put the book back without a second thought. And I forgot about the novel, pretty much entirely… even after I read Neverwhere and Sandman and greatly enjoyed them. And then I found a battered, old remainder copy of the book at a Goodwill here in Portland and thought… A book of Neil Gaiman’s is certainly worth $3… Why not?
So I came to own my first Gaiman book. This was about two years ago, not long after I completed my first reading of Neverwhere. Upon finishing Anansi Boys I found the two main characters to be too similar, their arcs as characters to be almost entirely the same, and the supporting cast (particularly Rosie and Spider) to be less compelling than Door or The Marquis from Neverwhere.
Then I put the novel on the shelf and slowly surrounded it. Next came the Absolute Sandman volumes… Then Black Orchid, Prince of Stories, and Interworld. Soon, (all one purchase) signed copies of American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition, Coraline, Odd and the Frost Giants, and The Graveyard Book. And I read and re-read these books once or twice each while Anansi Boys just sat there. I didn’t feel bad about it either. I just wrote it off as a sophomore slump novel (though I was incorrect… Anansi Boys is Gaiman’s fourth novel… fifth if you include the illustration-less version of Stardust… whoops) and let it sit.
But after re-reading American Gods for about the third time… I came to enjoy the brief moments of Mr Nancy, and particularly laughed aloud at his mention of his son, whom Nancy claims he can recognize parts of Shadow, the protagonist of American Gods. And it got me thinking… I should give Anansi Boys another chance.
So I have. And honestly? I love the hell out of it now. Gone are my concerns about the similarities between Richard Mayhew and Fat Charlie (in fact, I can’t even figure out why I thought they were so bloody similar to begin with) and I’m not so miffed about the parallels in their plotting because… well, Gaiman often writes using Campbell’s idea of the monomyth (that is, the Hero’s Journey). In fact… pretty much all his novels have at least some aspects of the monomyth and Shadow from American Gods and Morpheus from Sandman are pretty much dead ringers for the whole idea…
So much of this novel is done well. From the dichotomy between Fat Charlie and his brother Spider, to the slightly off-kilter humor, to the perfect annoyance one feels at Grahame Coats’ constant stream clichés (and the eventual disgust one feels as he descends further into madness).
I will admit that I found some sentences required one or two readings to be fully understood. I would even go so far as to describe a couple of sentences as a bit clumsy. But Gaiman hits some very Douglas Adams-esque metaphors that showcase the level of humor of the novel, and also the differences between Anansi Boys and its predecessor American Gods.
The book alternates well the scares and humor, but the most crucial thing to remember about this novel (and this is true for a good deal of Gaiman’s oeuvre) is that it is first and foremost a story about stories… where they come from, why we tell them, and the truths and lies we tell ourselves to make it through our everyday lives… and even more importantly the ones we tell ourselves when our lives turn to shit.
Neil Gaiman month is almost all wrapped up here at Books & Bits! And that greatly saddens me. But I’ve got about one more week of posts to go… so look forward to a double post about Coraline and The Graveyard Book (with maybe another children’s book or two tossed in for good measure), something on American Gods, and… well, maybe one or two more… believe it or not, I’m almost all out of Gaiman content to write about!