Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys Reviewed: An Ontological Reader Extemporizes Upon Limes and Spiders Within the Existens of Gaiman's Latest Soufflé
"His lime sat, like a small green Buddha, on the countertop."
Right. I want to have a word about Anansi Boys, which will be a bit hard since so much has been said already, and it's a Best-Seller, and all that. I guess I can only add that there is less root-and-bone-felt rumble of thunder in it than is sometimes true in Gaiman's novels. Instead, there's more an extremely strong—you might almost say pungent—sense of human perspective, id est, the ridiculous, via the main character, Fat Charlie. And there is also a lime that gets passed around, a lime that I imagine to be one of those large, gently shining citrus oil bombs available only in the South Pacific or extremely expensive fusion restaurants. A really beautiful lime. I could be wrong. It could be quite an average lime.
The thing I like best about the book is the way it's hung together. I expect that Neil Gaiman did a lot of work to get the structure of the book right; it's not a terribly long book, and, therefore, its overall narrative effect will be potent; also there is the whole concern about making a story about webs and weaving stories a well-woven one.
"It begins, as most things begin, with a song," begins the book. We're in for a bookended oral tale, brackets within brackets, spirals within spirals, like Ovid's Metamorphoses, or The Canterbury Tales, or A Thousand and One Nights. An anecdotal sort of read. Which, by the way, is the main trick of oral narrative: tellings embedded within tellings, connected by circular returns to the central matter, the better to remind the listeners of what's going on.
It goes on, "In the beginning, after all, were the words, and they came with a tune. That was how the world was made, how the void was divided, how the lands and the stars and the dreams and the little gods and the animals, how all of them came into the world." The book is punctuated throughout by such earthy cosmogonical reflections, as well as spacious, colloquial trickster narratives, mostly bloody but funny, and Fat Charlie's epiphanies, dreams, visions. These are mythic and yet lucid, because Gaiman is, thankfully, very good at writing the mysteries.
While Gaiman manages to maintain his encounters with the gods, the numinous is much more internalized or on the margins than in his other books. The human element is more important. "Stories are webs, interconnected strand to strand, and you follow each story to the centre, because the centre is the end. Each person is a strand of the story." Chapter One is entitled, "Chapter One - Which is Mostly About Names and Family Relationships"; Two, "Chapter Two - Which is Mostly About Things that Happen After Funerals." And so it continues, refulgently verbose, fantastical events unmistakably lynchpinned by the human: the plot of the novel is driven by vignettes shifting from character to character.
And Fat Charlie is the centre of this tale, not the Singer. Knock-kneed, smelling of sweat during mortal moments (I suspect), and charmingly humble, he manages to bumble his way around the worlds his father left him heir to; as all inept heirs do, he has his moments of humiliation and exaltation along the way—"Light, thought Fat Charlie. He sang aloud, and all the lightning bugs, and the fireflies of that place, clustered around him, flickering off and on with their cold green luminescence."
I liked Fat Charlie enormously, because he is imperfect, decent, and sympathetic, and has the sort of thoughts that most of us might think in uncomfortable moments; I imagine that a good deal of empathy went into his materialisation. His sheer embarrassment over his father's splashy, unconventional, and sometimes downright not-good behaviour is a nice example of Gaiman's light-but-heavy explorations of family and history: what lines from the past, however confused by time and the comings-to of grief, still form my possible world? What choices did my parents make that may or may not shape my chances and choices? What dark secrets have they withheld? The usual. The things we all need to ask. Charlie is forced to ask himself why he is so damn weird, and to follow the crooked trail of happenstance, history, and the choices of fathers down to its psychedelic dregs. The cocktail of a result is magic—plus a few footnotes here and there, three or four self-enclosed stories, and two not-too-romantic romantic subplots, as well as indecently funny indirect discourse on the part of heroes, spindly mothers-in-law, love interests, crones, and leading psychos. The result is a good yarn.
Spider webs come in many forms: cobwebs, silk-sheet tunnels, diving bells, and orb webs. See here for an animated illustration of how the garden spider builds an orb web. Spiralling outwards and then inwards, the spider works first a nonsticky spiral of silk, which it then follows back to the centre of the web, replacing it with sticky silk, the kind that traps other insects—seemingly innocuous and deadly grave at the same time. Kind of like this story, which oscillates surprisingly nimbly between a droll British tone and a mild Caribbean one, between the uncomfortable thoughts of a humble man and the odious reflections of a genial psychotic. It sucks you in, and you don't know it until, voilà, there's "blood in the soufflé," and you're two-thirds through the book. The rest is as easy as song.
How's that for a scramble of metaphors?
So the whacked, wicked narration veers from spoke of spiral to radial, moments of myth to bathos, in a series of feathery postmodern interpretations of slapstick comedy in the self-aware tradition of Wodehouse or, much more familiarly to me at least, the hallucinatory Loony Tunes. This web of a novel works a bit like the human mind itself—synaptic traversal of energy along a neural net or, more arcanely but just as coolly, along a spin network—all lightning (ah, there's a common visual trope, at least) and spark and boom, like a tropical storm.
The soufflé stands: replete with, well, a very humanized narratological existentialism whisked up with a very light and yet transcendent touch. Neil Gaiman, as usual, does some things differently in this book—tone, voice, and structure, for example, as well as laugh-out-loud characterizations. He does a few things the same. He is, for instance, very good at writing proper, coherent finales, which are also just a bit scary, since gods are, even when they're being foolish. And the ending is juuussst riiight.
"The important thing about songs is that they're just like stories. They don't mean a damn unless there's people listenin' to them." We're listening, Neil, as you well know. And our fedoras are all tipped your way.
Jasmine Johnston lives in China with her husband and several heavy books. She maintains a speculative weblog that is the only site to yield both "ratus ratus" and "seed pearl" on Google. It includes phonetic transcriptions of Mandarin ("pu-toong-hwa") as well as lively anecdotes involving smog and/or wonton soup ("hoon-doon").
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