Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” and Marie Phillips' “Gods Behaving Badly” share a theme of mischievous deities.
In preparation for this week’s column I did the unthinkable: I actually read two books that more or less share a theme.
The first is Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” and the second is “Gods Behaving Badly” by Marie Phillips. The theme, as you might guess from the titles, is mischievous deities.
Gaiman’s book includes a pantheon of semi-mortal old world and pop-culture-inspired mythological figures interacting with and manipulating the human population for mysterious purposes. Phillips’ deities are similar: the “Gods Behaving Badly” cast is limited to the classical Greek pantheon, who have found themselves stripped of many of their powers and resources and confined to a crumbling London townhouse.
Of the two, “American Gods” is my favorite. It’s more complex on a lot of levels, and it explores several interacting ideas about what mythology means to Americans. Gaiman’s semi-mortals are more varied, coming from several pantheons and also including a few new, made-up beings specifically suited to modern industrial and technological lifestyles. I actually learned some new things about mythology from this book, and its premise (that America is strangely devoid of certain types of belief) appealed to me on an intellectual level. The story had road trips and magic motorhomes and a fantastic cast of heroes, villains and con men. I’m not sure what more I could have asked for in a novel.
In spite of the fact that “American Gods” was my clear favorite, “Gods Behaving Badly” is still a great read. What it lacks in deep philosophy, it makes up for in ribald humor and simple fun. By sticking to a well-known cast of formerly supreme beings, the book doesn’t require as much philosophy or set-up, and instead has time to enjoy itself in more lighthearted ways. It also does a great job of portraying the ongoing family squabbles that the Olympians are so famous for, not to mention detailing the plights of the mortals unfortunate enough to be caught in the crossfire. With judicious use of cupid’s arrows, lightning bolts, strong wine and cell phones, Phillips’ Olympians play out a vastly entertaining story.
As a ratings note, I should mention that both novels are intended for adults, and their contents reflect this. In particular (and this was unusual for me) I noticed a tendency for strong language and naughty humor. If you’re the type of person who flinches around bad words, you might want to bring your earplugs with you when you sit down to read these books. Otherwise, feel free to indulge your grown-up sense of humor in either of two great books about supernatural beings and the fascinating chaos they bring to everyday life, road trips, and true love.