Monday, June 10, 2013

Oh, What a Web He Weaves

Anansi Boys

by Neil Gaiman

Published by William Morrow

4 Out of 5 Stars

A Digression and a Review:

When I was a child who was much too prone to being serious for her own good, there was a catalpa tree in our backyard. Now, if you don't know what a catalpa tree is, it's worth a Google. Catalpas are beautiful and exotic, with giant leaves we used as "plates" to have fairy-like meals of mulberry and honeysuckle (with mimosa blossoms as a bit of garnish), giant bean pods that hung down like sylvan fingers ready to ensnare an unsuspecting child, white orchid-like flowers that would shower down while we swung on the tire swing below. In its boughs, I could pretend to be Pocahontas, a female Mowgli, or Jana of the Jungle. I would climb up and look down to the ground so far below, filled with delicious terror at how impossibly high I was. This tree seemed massive--big enough to hold all of my dreams and wildest flights of fancy. It, to paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston, seemed to hold dawn and doom in its branches.

As an adult, however, this tree that looms so gargantuan in my imaginary landscape seems small and shrunken, like a wizened grandparent, its limbs not so big, and I realize that, while I felt like I was climbing to the top of a skyscraper, I was barely 10 feet off the ground.

I bring this up because this is the closest approximation I can make to the difference between reading as a child and reading as an adult. As a child, there was a magic in stories, and I'm not talking about pixie dust and wands (although there was certainly some of that). There was a magic in not knowing (or caring) where a story was going. A magic to realizing why, hey, that main character is kind of like me. A magic to finding that you could read the same story over and over and over again and it would never get old and would never be the same story twice, not really. The colors were brighter. The emotions were palpable. There was nothing but possibility. And, yes, there's certainly still magic in the stories I read as an adult, but it's never quite the same, is it? I'm a little more jaded in that, as soon as I can predict where the story is going, I lose a little interest. There's a little more cynicism, a little more impatience with an "I've been here before" narrative, and a little more sadness in knowing that I can never immerse myself in adult stories with the same abandon as that 10 year old reading under the catalpa tree.

Now, I bring this up to explain that this is why I love Neil Gaiman. Gaiman can, more so than any other author, create that childlike awe of story within the adult me without telling a children's story. It's a peculiar and wonderful literary alchemy, this ability to take the adult world, the "real" world, and transform it into a place where one can find the same charm, humor, unpredictability, and enchantment found in the best children's narratives. And Anansi Boys is such a book.

A companion book to American Gods, Anansi Boys, follows the story of Fat Charlie, son of Mr. Nancy, a rascal of a man with a wicked sense of humor, an eye for the ladies, and a knack for purposely embarrassing his introverted, sensitive son. When Mr. Nancy dies, the now grown-up, soon to be married, and tenuously employed Fat Charlie is relieved that his father can never humiliate him again; however he soon finds out that life is not going to settle into a mundane, predictable pattern for him. He learns that his father was Anansi, the trickster spider god of African folklore, and he learns that he has a brother, Spider, who inherited his father's mischievous spirit and magical abilities. It's not long before the reunion between the two brothers breaks out into a serious (and frequently hilarious) case of sibling rivalry, with Spider usurping Fat Charlie's apartment, girlfriend, and life, and Fat Charlie going to extreme lengths to rid himself of his demigod brother.

Anansi Boys lacks the darkness of American Gods and is a much more whimsical, comedic read. Initially, this did cause a bit of a disconnect for me until I gave in to the story without trying to connect it with or hold it up to my expectations of American Gods. While following the adventures of Fat Charlie, I found myself laughing aloud and relishing each twist and turn in the story (as well as looking forward to the humorous "in which" chapter titles). Gaiman's love of story is evident and, as we learn through his depiction of Anansi folktales, the stories we tell and the stories we live are important not just for entertainment, but for creating the world as it should be. And the world as it should be is something as close as possible to a catalpa tree as seen through the eyes of a child--a place where anything and everything is possible, because that's where real magic resides.

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