Fat Charlie's not one of life's winners. He has spent most
of his life trapped in the shadow of his charming, intelligent
and devilishly handsome father. He works for an oily talent
agent who keeps him around because he doesn't ask too many questions,
and he's engaged to a woman who refuses to sleep with him.
However, one day his quiet little life gets tipped on its head
when he learns that his father is dead . . . and that
he was a god . . . and that he has a twin brother
called Spider who takes very much after his father. Spider is
handsome, cunning, charismatic, and, unlike his father, is completely
Amused by Fat Charlie's life, Spider sets about taking it over.
Passing himself off as Fat Charlie, he takes over his flat,
his job, and his fiancee leaving Fat Charlie all alone and hunted
by the police. Fat Charlie realises that this was all a terrible
mistake and tries to get rid of Spider by making a deal with
one of his father's old enemies. However, Charlie comes to realise
that, as far as gods go, his father was probably one of the
better ones and that he and Spider aren't all that different
after all — and that the only way to solve all of his
problems and save Spider is to go back into the dreamtime and
truly become his father's son.
With the exception of Bad Omens (co-written with Terry
Pratchett), Gaiman's writing tends to suffer from a failure
to pay as much attention to the actual story as to the mythological
ideas that are being thrown about the place. American Gods,
for example, might well have been wildly imaginative and intelligent,
but it was also emotionally hollow. Similarly, Gaiman's remixing
of the history of the Marvel universe in 1602 was ingenious
but the plotting was absolutely disastrous ("Dudes . . . it's
all like totally because of aliens").
Anansi Boys bucks this trend by being funny, warm, charming,
and joyously accessible. In fact, this is arguably the best
story Gaiman has even written. Anansi himself is rendered as
a charismatic old guy with a twinkle in his eye and a warm heart,
his sons splitting these traits up amongst themselves quite
nicely, producing the warm-hearted but spineless Fat Charlie
and the gleefully amoral Spider. For the first time, Gaiman's
work becomes something that you can love rather than just be
impressed by or interested in, because this book uses its narrative
simplicity and characterisation as a springboard into some of
the most engaging ideas Gaiman has ever produced.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a bunch of guys who spent their
teens reading and thinking, fantasy and sci-fi writers have
long been fans of the archetypal battle between the Bully and
the Trickster. Richly allegorical, this battle can be taken
to symbolise any triumph of the wits over brute force or mindless
conservatism. For example, in his debut novel King Rat
(which also featured Anansi) China Mieville used this battle
to symbolise the struggle between multi-culturalism and cultural
patriarchy. Fans of Neal Stephenson will remember his talk of
Greek and Babylonian myths symbolising the triumph of science
and reason over bestial ignorance. Gaiman, though, puts a different
and arguably more trangressive spin on this timeless allegorical
Anansi battled Tiger and stole humanity's stories. When Tiger
owned the stories, all mankind could think of was killing and
surviving, but Anansi brought them freedom from such things
and gave them stories about love and fun and dance and song.
Anansi's victory over Tiger can therefore be taken to symbolise
Man's movement from an animalistic hunter-gatherer existence
to a more sedentary life where survival became easier, freeing
up time for more trivial pursuits. Just as Anansi battled Tiger,
now Fat Charlie must battle first Spider and then a host of
mythical beings using just his wits.
Fat Charlie is an everyman; he doesn't fight for all of mankind's
stories but for control over his own. Fat Charlie's fight can
therefore be seen as a fight between man and his gods. Fat Charlie
frees himself from the control of his gods and realises when
the battle is done that he has become a lot more like Spider
and Spider has become a lot more like him. In fact, they are
the same person cut in two.
For Gaiman, then, religion is a collection of stories written
by humans and we should treat them as such. But would you expect
anything else from a man who makes his living messing with old
Anansi Boys is a warm and wonderful book marred only
by a certain shallowness to the secondary characters, and by
the well worn tendency of fantasy writers to resolve all outstanding
plot difficulties using some impenetrable magical process. Despite
these problems, this is arguably Gaiman's most engaging book:
Its humour and intelligence sparkles through on every page.
It is also the first book to offer a number of DVD-style "extras,"
including production notes and deleted scenes. Gaiman fans will
adore it, and it will even appeal to those who don't normally
like his work.