To be in a family is to be interminably linked. Despite attempts at emotional and physical distance, the bond is lasting, till death do you part.
Neil Gaiman, prolific author of cult favorites such as Neverwhere and The Sandman graphic novels, is well acquainted with the familial phenomena, which he further investigates in his latest novel, Anansi Boys.
Unremarkable Fat Charlie Nancy (who's not really fat, but whose father, Mr. Nancy, dubbed him so) has moved to England, far away from his Florida roots, to escape his family.
When Fat Charlie finds out his estranged father has died, and in a rather undignifed way, he reluctantly flies across the Atlantic for the funeral. There, he is informed of his true heritage: His father was none other than Anansi, the West African/ Caribbean trickster spider god.
Fat Charlie also learns about a brother he'd never met, Spider, banished long ago for being a pest. When they finally meet, he finds Spider is everything he isn't: suave, confident and able to uncork wine without loosening bits into it. He's also the heir of their father's godlike powers.
Gods as everyday folk, wandering familiar streets, is a common theme in Gaiman's works, including the award-winning, best-selling American Gods. Gods as metaphor is not unfamiliar territory to Gaiman.
"Gods have always been, by definition, ideas that have been made concrete, whether it's one that you believe in, or someone else's funny god that you don't believe in," he says, speaking from his home outside Minneapolis. "That's the other delight about gods: Everyone else's gods are 'silly,' just like everyone else's families are 'normal.'"
Gaiman insists Anansi Boys is not a sequel to American Gods, and that they just happen to find a common character in the ultra-charming, soft-shoeing prankster Mr. Nancy. Interestingly, he had to approach Mr. Nancy's character in a backward way. He originally came up with the plot to Anansi Boys long before he started American Gods, but found problems.
"I was growing very fond of the character of Mr. Nancy, but then I realized ... that he was more or less going to die on page one. At that point, I thought it would be rather fun to borrow a character from a book I had not yet written and put him into a book that I was writing," says Gaiman.
Though the two novels are connected, they're distinct. Where American Gods is a thick, life-or-deathly serious story about immigrating to America, Anansi Boys is a comparatively brief snippet of a screwball comedy.
Gaiman's works always have had a twisted and dark sense of humor about them, but his latest definitely is influenced by Mr. Nancy. His last obvious "comedy" was Good Omens, written with sci-fi/fantasy favorite Terry Pratchett.
"Most people assume that what probably happened is that I wrote a very serious book and Terry walked behind, scattering jokes like little flowers," says Gaiman.
In fact, it seems the king of massively creepy storytelling is lightening up.
"American Gods is the kind of big book that wins awards, but it's very serious and it's not one that you come away from feeling very happy," he says. "And I wanted to write a book in which you did. In that nice, solid Shakespearean way, everything works out for the best."
-- Kara Luger
Neil Gaiman signs Anansi Boys
Tattered Cover Bookstore, LoDo, 1628 16th St., Denver
Tuesday, Sept. 27, 7:30 p.m.; free tickets for a place in line at the signing available at 6:30.
Free; call 303/436-1070.
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