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Neil Gaiman should need little or no introduction, but here is a brief one – he is a genre superstar. His novels, stories, and comics have garnered him numerous awards within the Fantasy and Science Fiction Genres, as well as the world of comic books. With Anansi Boys it would not be surprising to see another few awards added to Gaiman’s already crowded shelf.
Here, in his latest novel, the story starts simply – as he is preparing for his upcoming nuptials, Fat Charlie Nancy’s father passes away. The simplicity ends once you realize the dead man in question is Anansi, the Spider god of Africa, the archetype from which all other tricksters have been molded. Anansi is also a god gifted with telling stories and naming things, something he happened to steal from another ancient African god, Tiger. Anansi is not only the trickster god, but also in fact, the same Mr. Nancy from Gaiman’s earlier multi-award winning American Gods. This character is the only thing truly shared betwixt the two novels, though you do not need to know the story of American Gods to enjoy this book, they both stand quite well on their own.
Also at this early point in the story, the hilarity ensues because it as at about this point Fat Charlie slowly learns of his father’s godly nature. Fat Charlie’s dad’s death (and in particular the manner in which Mr. Nancy passes away) infuses a healthy dose of chaos into Fat Charlie’s life. Up to the events in this book Fat Charlie has led a rather controlled life as a talent agent in London, he was in a respectable position in a rather respectable company. This book heightens the awareness of what happens when things, as in life, are turned around. In addition to Dad’s death throwing everything out of balance, Fat Charlie also meets Spider, a brother he never knew he had. More worrisome for Charlie is the fact that Spider seems more the son of the trickster god than Fat Charlie.
With such a mismatch between the two brothers, we have a classic comedy team of the Fat Man and the Thin Man in the vein of Abbott & Costello or Laurel & Hardy. The comedy here, however, has a darker and more magical tinge, of course. To reveal more of the specifics would rob the reader of the joy of discovering the many humors and wonders Gaiman has spun in this extraordinary novel.
To classify this novel in a singular manner is difficult and really does no justice to the charm and skill Gaiman has weaved into Anansi Boys. One of Gaiman’s great strengths is his ability to combine many layers in his writing, whilst also pulling you along on a deceptively simple narrative. Gaiman’s skills here also show how well he can play with myth and mythological figures. Whilst masterfully painting them with broad strokes of power and majesty, he also shows us how gods can be as petty for revenge as humans. Anansi Boys uses humor to tell a family story, which just so happens to involve Gods.
Gaiman also connects with the reader on a less godly level, by allowing the reader to identify with themes easily recognizable to anyone in a family. While Charlie really isn’t fat, his dad called him Fat Charlie one day and it remained his name for life. It could be said that regardless of what his father did, Charlie always wound up embarrassed. This is a nearly universal theme with many people, something many people can identify with – we are all, at times, embarrassed by our parents. This is part of the reason why, when Fat Charlie’s fiancé Rosie asks Charlie if they should invite his father to their wedding, he refuses. However Gaiman cleverly expounds upon this by taking the relationship between Charlie and his dad further than confines of reality and elevates them in the realm of the fantastic. Even after his death, Charlie’s dad embarrasses him, and manages to complicate Charlie’s life even more.
Another joy of Anansi Boys is taking part in Gaiman’s fantastic skills in playing with genre archetypes. On one hand, this novel can be considered a quest novel, as Fat Charlie learns more about his father and his own relationship to the world of Gods. In this sense, Gaiman does a great job of revealing the world and the characters through Fat Charlie’s eyes. On the other hand, the book can also be seen as a humorous rite of passage novel, as Charlie and Spider have to deal with several life-changing events as the grow to know each other and more of their father’s nature. Many of the things Charlie learns and encounters are new to both him and the reader. Indeed, as the book progresses the reader and the characters realize that a curtain has been lifted, revealing the whole life Charlie grew up in to be different than what he thought. It is again a sign of Gaiman’s skill as a writer in how he reveals that the world, once the curtain rises, is filled with magic and wonder mixed with the everyday. Mixing the mundane with the magic as one whole has always been a hallmark of Neil Gaiman’s fiction, including this great novel.
This was the most fun I’ve had reading a book this year, Gaiman made me smile, he moved me, and unsettled me, often in the same paragraph. Many of the scenes were a delight, and I suspect Mr. Gaiman had a great deal of fun relaying his imagination to the page. We as the reader are very lucky indeed, to be taken along for this fun and wondrous ride. If you are ever curious about the gods, just whisper to a little spider named Neil, and you will be astonished and enamored by the story he will spin.
HarperCollins’ featured Web site for Anansi Boys
© 2005Rob H. Bedford