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I seem to have endured a flurry of dopamine-click-led not-entirely-well-advised online book ordering. Things keep arriving, often things that are not quite what I imagined they'd be when I ordered them, if I remember ordering them at all.

An elderly yet still robust copy of Brigid Brophy's The Snow Ball arrived today (discussed brilliantly on Backlisted here). That can only be a good thing.

And this week I sat right down in the middle of the Salinas Valley (page 353) to read Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology.

I hadn't read any Gaiman in a good while. I thought it would be happy to check back in with him, and with the Norse myth-world of my childhood.

Norse Mythology's dust jacket is beautiful: a soft matte black infinity dusted with stars, with a lustrous Mjolnir in the centre.

Some of my favorite stories from the mythos are in Gaiman's book (the forging of Mjolnir, the birth of Sleipnir), and some I didn't know as well (the mead of poetry). Some of the gods I feel most affinity for are less prominent (Baldur, Bragi).

Gaiman and I are both totally hot for Loki, so that works out, because Loki kind of is the protagonist both of this retelling and, arguably, the mythos itself. I'm not a traditional storyteller or an anthropologist, but it seems to me that Gaiman picks up on the culture-hero role of tricksters like Loki as creators and bad/fortunate role models.

I’ve loved Gaiman's use of this mythos in other works: Sandman especially, and American Gods. Norse Mythology itself isn't a wholly successful adaptation for me.


The best way I can think to put it is this: there's something blurry about this telling.

Perhaps one problem is that I remember the myths told in strong, simple sentences for children. Maybe I expect a particular kind of voice in myth-telling. This voice isn't like that, and presumably Gaiman didn't want it to be.

He wanted something else. He wanted this slowed-down, gentler, almost muffled version of the stories, where the powerful mythological action works under a layer of prose that feels strangely mated with it (like the giant of the mountains who marries the god of the sea).

These gods speak in casual, chatty dialogue, often for the sake of a mild jokiness. This dialogue might be meant to illuminate character, but I feel like I've seen Gaiman do more vivid things with, say, the character of Loki, again in Sandman and American Gods. That scene in Sandman where Loki tells the story of Thor "giving birth" to the squirrel Ratatoskr is a lovely portrait of mischief and envy.

These slacker-voiced gods would be entertaining in other kinds of adaptation – a modernization, a comic book – but in an otherwise fairly straightforward retelling they feel weird, and moreso because the dialogue is intermixed with formal constructions (“It was then that he saw,” and so forth) and the kind of detailed circumstantial descriptions I would expect in a novel.

All of this, and a certain repetitiveness, means that the narration seems to drag its feet, as though the storyteller were almost too tired to move along the path of the tale, and instead lingered and looked around.

This is like myth drowsily overheard as coffee shop conversation.

In fact, if I imagine Gaiman's voice reading the lines aloud, the prose works much better. This is Gaiman's own particular dreaming or drowsy mythological conversation. I happen to have a childhood investment in the mythos and (apparently) strong opinions about how it should be given life, but he's not beholden to my version of the myth-world.

Ultimately, reading Norse Mythology made me want to re-read the book of Norse myths I had (or at least read) as a child. I did a search; the book must almost certainly be the d’Aulaires’, probably in the 1967 version.

I found it in a Popular Online Bookstore, and then, on even sexier second thought, at the local library.

Now I will say positive things about a book, to prove I can.

Just when East of Eden was fading me out, Steinbeck dropped deeper into the workings of Cal's character, and my faith flared up again. Steinbeck is very good at imagining the inner lives of people without ordinary empathy. I find it exhausting to be in those minds for such long stretches, but this is not the same as the work not being well done. The work is done very well.

{rf}

Crossposted from Dreamwidth (http://radiantfracture.dreamwidth.org/8312.html), where there are comment count unavailable comments. Comments either place are great.

Date: 2017-03-25 10:01 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] shewhomust.livejournal.com
I haven't read Gaiman's Norse Myths: my feeling is that I will sometime, but I'm in no hurry, and your review confirms that.

You don't mention his use of the Trickster figure in Anansi Boys, which is one of my favourites...

Date: 2017-03-25 03:36 pm (UTC)
radiantfracture: (Harold Ross of the New Yorker)
From: [personal profile] radiantfracture
Good call. I was just thinking I should read Anansi Boys as followup, because of that affinity. I've never read it. What kinds of things do you like about it?

{rf}

Date: 2017-03-25 10:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] shewhomust.livejournal.com
That's a fair question, but it's a while since I've read it: mostly I just remember it with affection. There is one piece of stunt writing, which I don't want to point out, in case you aren't forewarned, and can have the pleasure of noticing it for yourself...

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