Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys (William Morrow, 2005)
God is dead. Meet the kids. -- Neil Gaiman
We love Gaiman's work here at Green Man -- we've probably reviewed more of his work than anyone else on the 'Net. We've even reviewed his Day of the Dead: an Annotated Babylon 5 Script and multiple versions of his Stardust novel -- both the illustrated and just 'plain text' editions. So it was with great delight that I grabbed for myself the advance reading copy of Anansi Boys that I had requested from the publicist at Morrow just a few days previous, and settled into a comfortable overstuffed chair in the Robert Graves Memorial Reading Room of our Library with a cup of tea and read this truly lovely comic tale over the period of a few lovely afternoons. It was every bit as entertaining as American Gods, his previous novel, whose universe this novel is set in.
Now keep in mind that what I was reading is a mostly plain text version of the novel that will exist. Knowing the work that Harper Collins, on both sides of the Atlantic, has done with previous work by this author, I am confident that the design of the novel you will be reading will be as impressive as the story itself. I'll be purchasing the UK edition as I like that cover art better. I think it's more elegant than the US cover art which, for all I know, you might like better. I think the cover art is the only difference between the two editions, as they both have the same interior design. Either edition will do just fine as I expect you're really interested in reading Anansi Boys, not the cover art.
Gaiman in an e-mail later on commented on the differences between the US and UK editions: 'Not more than a word here or there. (Although the first printing of the UK hardback will have a sort of DVD extras section in the back of interviews, a cut scene, some notebook pages, and so on.)'
Ok, so what do we have here? We have the first screwball comedy that Gaiman has done. Yes, a screwball comedy. Our first clue to this comes in which he tips his hat 'respectfully to the ghosts of Zora Neale Hurston, Throne Smith, P. G. Wodehouse, and Frederick 'Tex' Avery.' Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) created the hopelessly dim but persistently affable Bertie Wooster and his ever-so-skilled valet Jeeves. 'Tex' Avery (1908 -1980) , for the few of you who are lacking in a proper education, was the cartoonist responsible for, among many that he created, Daffy Duck, Droopy, Screwy Squirrel and Chilly Willy. Tex Avery is also credited with creating the personality of Bugs Bunny, including the trademark phrase of 'What's up, doc?' Throne Smith, whose work I was not familiar with, wrote an unfinished novel that was the basis of a golden age film comedy called I Married a Witch.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) is, on first look, the odd one in Neil's tip of the hat, as she's a writer whose fiction and non-fiction centered on Afro-Caribbean mythology, but this is, as befits its name, a novel whose center myth is that of the Afro-Caribbean spider god, Anansi, which explains how she enters into that group of folk. Zora Neale Hurston collected the tales of the Caribbean folk, including the trickster tales that can be traced without any difficulty back to their West African origins where they are sometimes referred to as Anansi, or spider tales, in recognition of that god. The purpose of trickster stories, according to folklorists, is to caution you about what might happen if you get too greedy, or are too curious, or even too arrogant, but I think they were really intended as really good just-so tales. And Gaiman has taken the idea of a spider god who had a mortal child -- Charlie Nancy -- and created a truly memorable and complete delightful story.
Just consider that the father of Fat Charlie (who isn't really fat anymore but everyone thinks he is indeed Fat Charlie) is indeed Anansi, the shape-shifting spider god. Now imagine that this father was a free and cheerful being who believed in wine, women, and especially song. Oh, and making Charlie's life miserable without meaning to do so. Further imagine that Charlie wants nothing more than to lead a normal, rather boring life with as no contact with his father at all. Charlie finds his father quite embarrassing -- a condition only compounded when, at the urging of his fiancee at the time, Charlie decides (quite reluctantly) to contact his father, only to find him dead. After that, things get really, seriously weird from there on out. It's a novel set at the speed of a classic Warners Brothers cartoon. Indeed it has the same zany, delightful energy those cartoons have. It's without doubt the highest energy novel Neil's written so far.
No, that doesn't mean his previous novels were slow, or that they were boring. What it means simply is there's a manic energy here that his previous novels, such as American Gods or Stardust, did not have. It simply moves faster than anything else he's written that I've read.
In an e-mail to me, Cheryl Morgan, who runs the excellent Emerald City Webzine says of this novel that 'As a hardened arachnophobe I find it hard to imagine my reading an entire book about a spider god, let alone coming away thinking that such a fellow might be charming and amusing. Neil Gaiman, however, has the ability to make even spiders enjoyable and entertaining.' Now she's quite right -- I too never knew spider gods and their offspring could be some entertaining. Without giving anything away as that would spoil your considerable fun in finding out what happens here, I will say Tex Avery would be very happy with what Neil has done here, and the trickster god Coyote would also be pleased with what he'd being reading here. This manic story has interesting characters, believable if somewhat fantastic plots, and the right mix of romance, horror, and comedy. As Jane Yolen said in an e-mail exchange with me, what she loves 'about Neil is that he is always stretching, always trying something new. He is fearless.'
You, dear reader, are in for a treat. Anansi Boys is simply one of the best novels I've read in a long, long time. I plan on another read of it this winter so I can savor once again every word of this exceptional novel.