It’s clear from the outset that Anansi Boys is determined to take fantasy off on a tangent. Gaiman’s trick is to ground the fantastical in the humdrum of mundane modern life. Our hero, Fat Charlie, works a dull job with an irritating boss, a girlfriend who won’t have sex with him before their wedding, a horrendous witch (not in the fantasy sense) of a step-mother, and a general inability to overcome the various embarrassments that have befallen him over the years, particularly at the hands of his scoundrel father.
The fantasy element kicks in when Fat Charlie’s father dies, and we learn that the old man was actually a god. Then Fat Charlie’s estranged brother shows up, who is also a god and as much of a pain-in-the-arse scoundrel as their father. Fat Charlie’s family turn out to be part of a parallel universe consisting of lots of animal-like gods – Tiger, Snake, Spider and so forth – like a sort of Greek-mythology version of The Jungle Book.
Gaiman seeks to weave these two styles together – animistic tales of yore clashing with the high farce of Fat Charlie’s tragic life (Gaiman explicitly name-checks PG Wodehouse in the dedication). Gaiman loves this clash of styles. He relishes the idea of bringing fantasy fiction crashing down to Earth – a particularly British vision of Earth full of semi-detached housing, microwave meals and a “tiny front garden, which consisted of a hedge, for people to throw up in.”
This is where he’s best, describing the mediocre rubbishness of British life, such as variety performer Morris Livingstone, who “had a top ten single back in the eighties with the novelty song, ‘It’s Nice Out (But Put It Away)’”.
The folksy tales of animal gods are also reasonably entertaining. The subtext – that these ancient forms of story-telling are terribly important and valuable – is a little grating, but Gaiman is too in love with English self-deprecation to disappear far up his own arse.
What lets the whole effort down is an awful, namby-pamby tidiness that descends gradually upon the book. Everything is so bloody neat and perfect that it becomes ludicrously predictable and devoid of emotion. Fat Charlie starts to lose his girlfriend just as another – far more perfect – girl arrives on the scene. His boss steals a load of money and flees to the Caribbean, just as two of the other main characters decide to go on a cruise … to the Caribbean. In fact, everyone ends up coalescing in the bloody Caribbean for a grand finale in which lessons are learned and everyone lives happily ever after. What this ends up feeling like is a Richard fucking Curtis film (the swearword is to indicate that this is not a compliment).
What surprised me, then, was that I was not annoyed with the fantasy elements of Anansi Boys – indeed, they tended to be more satisfyingly rough around the edges (e.g. Fat Charlie’s brother gets his tongue ripped out at one stage). What bothered me instead were the overly neat plotlines and tidy conclusions that are a common feature of farce. So this book has warmed me a little to fantasy, but perhaps only because I’ve discovered an even deeper hatred for a whole other genre of fiction. I’m not sure if that’s a very solid victory, but we’re getting closer.
Eric the Unbeliever reads Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
In what may turn out to be a rather naive and fool-hardy venture, we at Holdfast have decided to attempt to spread the love of Speculative fiction by trying to convert some self-proclaimed 'Unbelievers.' Eric Randolph, a SERIOUS journalist who covers SERIOUS world affairs, and normally likes ‘high brow’ stuff has come back for Round 2 after we failed utterly to convert him with Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. In this issue, we offer up Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. We have looked carefully at the results, and by completely biased means we have judged this round a tie.
Unbelievers 1, Holdfast editors 0
Unbelievers 1, Holdfast editors 1
Unbelievers 2, Holdfast editors 1
Here come the big guns: even I have heard of Neil Gaiman. For Christ’s sake, this guy was even on the front of the Economist’s Intelligent Life, which in my pretentious world is surely enough of an accolade to tame the brutal gag reflex I feel every time fantasy fiction is mentioned in my presence.
(On the other hand, I see that Guy bloody Garvey from Elbow is on the front of the current issue of that magazine, so that’s not saying much).
(Also, I am informed prior to reading Anansi Boys that I should not see this as truly representative of fantasy fiction. A friend writes to tell me that “Gaiman is to Fantasy Fiction as Kurt Vonnegut is to Sci-Fi”. I’ve managed to love Vonnegut for years without taking the slightest interest in science fiction – I’ve only ever watched Star Trek out of confusion or with regret – so I have high hopes for Gaiman, while also feeling that this is a bit of a cheat.)
After a terrible defeat in round 1, when we asked Unbeliever Eric Randolph to review Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, we thought we’d go for something a little less alien for our reader this time. In order to ease him in more slowly, we went for Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, a solid piece of Urban Fantasy steeped in African myth.
As with all Urban Fantasy, Anansi Boys takes place in the real world, or, more precisely, an urban environment, in this case London. After the death of Fat Charlie’s embarrassing and estranged father, Charlie travels to his funeral where he finds out he has a brother he’d somehow forgotten existed. Discovering there are Gods in the family is not something that thrills Fat Charlie, who just wants a nice, quiet life. Gaiman mixes elements of horror, farce and fantasy convincingly, creating a funny and engrossing read.
What we loved about this book is Gaiman’s command of the British character, including in this his portrayal of the Afro-Caribbean culture, which is a large and integral part of the makeup of London and the UK. Bringing into this the legend of Anansi, drawn from African myth, creates a fresh and diverse example of the genre. It is refreshing to see people of colour as the protagonists in a popular speculative fiction book, something that doesn’t happen too often. It could have turned out badly for Gaiman, a white British man living in America, to focus so much on a community and culture that isn’t his, but through hard work and research, he does a really great job. There are more people of colour in the book than there are white people – and not just Black either – Daisy, the policewoman who Charlie meets, is “a bit Chinese”, as his girlfriend’s mum points out. This is unfortunately not commonplace in mainstream speculative fiction, and we think it is really important for writers to make a concerted effort to change this.
One of the things that often puts people off about fantasy (apart from general snobbishness) is this feeling that it isn’t relevant to them. This aversion to the fact that fantasy is all ‘make believe’ is, we believe, because Fantasy wears it’s ‘made uppness’ on its sleeve, in a way that literary fiction doesn’t. That makes people uncomfortable, for some reason. But, really, it’s all made up, isn’t it?
Saying that, this is why Urban Fantasy often offers a gentle slide into the genre. Readers understand the surroundings and the rules, can empathise with characters in situations that could perhaps happen to them. So, when the fantasy elements enter into play, it is vital that the author introduces them in a way that doesn’t jar the reader from their comfortable ‘realness’ bubble. This is where Gaiman’s mastery of this genre truly comes to play, offering up his protagonist Charlie as an unwitting victim of his father’s godliness. Charlie, like our reader, does not believe in magic, spider-gods or talking ghosts. But Charlie, through experiencing unexplainable things and being part of the unfolding events is gradually convinced that this is all real, this is all actually happening. And through him, as readers, so are we.
Whilst we do have sympathy for Eric’s frustration at the neat ending of Anansi Boys, we can’t help feeling a little encouraged by the fact that the fantasy elements didn’t annoy him too much. Well done Gaiman, you have brought our cynical Unbeliever one tiny step closer to conversion!
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