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The Anansi Boys

Posted by Linda | 3:20 AM

Anansi Boys is the follow-up to gold standard of modern fantasy - American Gods. Anansi Boys is a fun modern fantasy but it is not genious. The story of Charles "Fat Charlie" Nancy and his relationship with his deceased father and long-lost brother is engaging and creative. As in American Gods, the gods and characters from fable have life in the world around us. One of thoe gods - Anansi - is Charles Nancy's father.

Fat Charlie is a character adrift in modern society - hard working, diligent, uninspired. Anansi Boys is his story, and as much as anything it is about the growth Fat Charlie experiences thanks to the influence of those he meets. Fat Charlie's estranged relationship with his father, his unpleasant boss, his aggressive future mother-in-law all help to make Charlie a particularly easy character to empathise with. His is a warm and attractive character who develops in a very pleasing way.

Charlie's father Anansi does not feature much in the book but it is a really excellent character description. It is a little odd for those readers who might have grown up with Anansi stories to have them transposed away from their place of origin and given slightly alien features but Anansi as a soft-shoe shuffling charmer enjoying the easy life is great.

Charlie's brother Spider is the one who breaks open the narrative. Prior to Spider's arrival, the world is sane, senisble, and mundane. Spider is the sense of adventure and creativity that breathes life into the ongoing activities. He is designed as a contrast to Charlie but it is never that black and white. The conclusion of Spider's character arc is really disappointing in its lack of ambition and what Gaiman aspires to for him but Spider is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The women of Anansi Boys are all a bit weird. The old crones in Florida are a nice take on the cabal and Callyanne Higgler in particular is entertaining, easily helped by her well constructed name which places her so easily in the reader's mind. Miss Dinwiddie is a bit of an archetype but she serves the story well as the source of much of the old wisdom and current tension Fat Charlie discovers. Of the two younger women, Rosie gets most of the coverage but as a paragon she is really not very interesting. Daisy is far more intriguing a character but she does not earn as many words. Daisy's parental backstory is the kind of aside that makes a book like this really good to read. The nationality of her parents is that extra touch of excellence and the combination of ultra capitalist Hong Kong and communist Ethiopia makes for an amusing reference point that presumably Gaiman meant to include. Maeve Livingstone and her affection for her husband Morris is a lovely character.

Anansi Boys is not though a work of genious. The dialogue is very clunky at times. In particular, Gaiman appears to have great difficulty describing the dialect of the Caribbean. The various West Indians and Floridians indicate their ethnicity mainly by swapping "are" for "is" as in "I is". While this may be a feature of the particular dialect, there is no roundness or believability to their use of language. This is probably because Gaiman does not offer the kind of insightful description of their speech to make up for the poor dialogue itself. Far too many of the characters have a distinctly British voice - the worst culprit is Tiger. This menacing force is built-up throughout the book as a fearsome physical representation of fear and dread. His foppish use of British English such as "Frankly...we appear to be stuck together" is the kind of understated Britishness that works very well for Hugh Grant characters but not for the personification of violence that is Tiger. Equally, Dragon is a strange character who seems to exist for one joke. Dragon is a raging beast who when foiled describes his circumstance with a menacing "Bother". Dragon should not be middle class English in any way. Dragons appear in many cultures of the world but really hardly in English tradition at all which makes Gaiman's Anglicising and class identifying of this character just horribly lazy.

What works extremely well about Modern Fantasy is when it is believable. A couple of lazy mistakes make disbelief a little harder. Gaiman clearly is not at all familiar with the Caribbean islands because St Andrews is not a viable name for an island. There are no single islands in the Caribbean with a plural name ending in English. Maxwell Gardens is a surprisingly rare name for a street in London but Gaiman really doesn't make the street identifiable so probably has never been to Maxwell Gardens. That oversight is perhaps why Gaiman had to use the clumsy term "main road" when describing how close Fat Charlie is to his apartment on one difficult evening. These details are lacking often through the novel which is a shame. They are not important to the flow of the story which is still a fun read but do mean that it just isn't as believable.

Where Gaiman references other works, it can work very well. The quote from Danny Glover's character in Lethal Weapon is an obvious but fun one. The reference to Kafka's Metamorphoses is one of the cleverest moments in Anansi Boys given the metamorphosing that some of the characters undertake. These and other references build the reality of the world the crazier events take place in. Other things are less impressive - Grahame Coats use of an Arnold J. Rimmer catchphrase does not fit the very different characters involved. The description of 'Binky' Butterworth's use of a very small lift is just a direct description of the lift scene in the home of Roger de Bris during The Producers. The lift is important for Gaiman's construction of a later event but it isn't especially creative to describe exactly a scene and character from another work without it being a reference point. Indeed, the entire story seems to have been "influenced" by a famous Chuck Palahniuk novel which was turned into an even more famous film. The line identifying the differences between Fat Charlie and Spider includes some of the exact same physical disparities in Palahniuk's pairing and that gives away what could possibly have been any kind of twist to the plotline.

However, there is one clear moment of genious - the description of the meaning of folk tales is absolutely excellent. The role of Anansi stories in celebrating innovation and creativity are a hallmark of the key change in human history that occurs with the rise of pastoralist communities of Bantu in Africa. Gaiman's insight into the role that folklore plays is absolutely superb.

The Headline Review publication does not do itself any favours at all with the additional material at the back of the book. The interview with Gaiman is a bit cringeworthy especially when Gaiman indirectly states that he is a genius. The suggested questions for book clubs are horribly academic. While it can be fun to realise at university that the way to pass exams is to state why the question being asked is incorrect, the questions here are far too dry and also full of assumptions. Book clubs are supposed to be fun.

All in all, Anansi Boys is a fun story with a less complex plot than might appear in the early going. It has some nice characters, some of whom are very endearing. The use of ancient folktales is good. It isn't really a great example of modern fantasy and the dialogue in particular is at times terrible. This is a nice, easy going novel with a thought provoking folklore comment tucked inside but it is not a masterpiece and does not compare favourably to Gaiman's American Gods.

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