Wm Morrow / HarperCollins
US Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 09-20-2005
334 Pages; $25.95
Date Reviewed: 08-29-05
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005
Families are difficult to fathom. Every family is different. Each is a complex machine, built over time, that functions, or doesn't, according to rules that are at best arbitrary and at worst unfathomable. Every member of every family knows this, and we all know the various magics that our families use and abuse to get from one day to the next, from one generation to the next. Smiles and compromises, snarls and threats, every action has a place, a time, a way to unfold as the circumstances require. Every family is weird, really weird, and the members of each family understand how strange their behavior must seem from the outside.
But from the inside, from within, every member of every family knows that what's done is what must be done. There's simply no way around it. With 'Anansi Boys', Neil Gaiman digs into the complex weave of family relations and externalizes the magic that all of us feel makes our lives work. Yes, his families happen to consist of gods and their children, of ghosts and murderers, of wise women and ignorant men. But that's pretty much the makeup of any family, isn't it? 'Anansi Boys' is Neil Gaiman's best work to date, combining the depth of his more serious and mythic 'American Gods' with a comedic sensibility that enables him to deploy a variety of storytelling styles with a light, sure hand. 'Anansi Boys' is a masterpiece of misdirection. Frothy comedy and silly supernatural slapstick are woven seamlessly around a tender and rather intense interest in the push-me-pull-you dynamics that pits fathers against sons, brothers against one another and entire clans against the world, real, imagined or a bit of both.
Fat Charlie's father was not like other fathers, but then, fathers never are, are they? Still, Fat Charlie's father pushes the envelope. Fat Charlie -- a name given by his father that has never left him -- is about to get married when he gets the message that his father has died. From that moment on, his carefully balanced life in London -- a job at a financial services corporation, a fiancée with a fussy mother who doesn't really like him -- starts to unravel in a manner that only Neil Gaiman could conceive of.
Gaiman's a very daring writer, who goes for broke from the first page. But he does so in such a witty, matter of fact manner that the reader can't help but be charmed. As Charlie finds out about his father, he also meets the brother he never knew. The whole family magic thing is a bit more intense in Charlie's world, because his father is Anansi, the Trickster god. And his brother Spider got all the magic.
Gaiman cleverly complicates matters with crime fiction, slapstick comedy, supernatural plotting and mythic storytelling styles. The miracle is that he does so effortlessly, with a light hand so sure that he can slip from a tale of corporate misdeeds to a Caribbean romance via ghosts and gods. It sounds complicated, but it's really simple. Charlie has a family as screwed up as any you've ever met, and certainly as screwed up as yours. He'd like to simply get married to the girl he loves and live a relatively normal life. But his brother, his father, and family friends don’t make that an easy task.
Gaiman demonstrates the full range of his skills as a writer with 'Anansi Boys'. He's constantly, remarkably entertaining and humorous, even when he's taking on subjects as serious as the father-son dynamics and the permeation of ancient mythologies into the modern world. The plot here is quite complex, yet it seems utterly transparent. Gaiman's plot engine runs on a financial scam, on a ghost story, and on several love stories. But he lays them out with such clarity and logic that the novel streams from one scene to the next. Only in retrospect, thinking back on the novel, and you will think back on it -- does 'Anansi Boys' seem as complex as it really is.
Gaiman masterfully weaves in a variety of narrative styles in a manner so seamless as to make the novel almost absurdly easy to read. The character arcs are complicated but clear. There are so many of them it almost seems a bit crowded, but every character, major and minor, gets precisely the right amount of attention and detail. Gaiman juggles everything in his pocket universe with precision and a big old goofy smile on his face. No, wait, that smile is on your face.
Humor plays a much bigger part in 'Anansi Boys' than it did in 'American Gods'. Gaiman will have you grinning when you're not guffawing. While his humor is often best described as black humor, it's also buoyant. Gaiman is in love with his wacky world, his weird family and even the creepiest of their companions. When an author loves everything in the book as much as Gaiman clearly does, readers will find the whole complicated concoction seems a lot simpler than it is. This is the only potential problem for Gaiman with 'Anansi Boys'. It functions so smoothly that many readers may never realize that it's remarkably sophisticated.
Of course, this is the sort of problem that writers should dream about. 'Anansi Boys' tells us so much about ourselves in so many witty and imaginative ways that it seems positively bursting. And yet it also seems nicely confined, honed in on a single story, a single family, and a man who at least starts out the novel as single. No less a talent than John Donne informed us that, "No man is an island." Neil Gaiman's 'Anansi Boys' wraps that message up in a novel so entertaining, so wonderfully witty that you'll never suspect how deeply you've been affected. Until the next time you have to deal with your family.