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Neil Gaiman's obsession with identifying the metaphor, in one Americans Gods passage

Erika Kaar in American Gods Photo by Jan Thijs - © 2017 FremantleMedia North America.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Nearly all of Neil Gaiman’s books have a moment where the narrator steps back, looks at the reader knowingly, and says, “You get that this is a metaphor, right?”

In Stardust, Fairy is a metaphor for story; in Neverwhere, London Below is a metaphor for the unknown. And as you’re nodding and saying, “Yes, I took high school English, I see what you’re doing here,” the narrator will add, “But also it’s real,” and then drop you back into the story as if you never left.

In American Gods, the 2001 Gaiman novel that will soon make its way to television via a new Starz series, that moment looks like this:

None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you — even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition.

Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to see the world.

So none of this is happening. Such things could not occur. Never a word of it is literally true. Even so, the next thing that happened, happened like this:

At the foot of Lookout Mountain men and women were gathered around a small bonfire in the rain. They were standing beneath the trees, which provided poor cover, and they were arguing.

It’s a mildly pretentious stylistic tic that still mostly works, and it speaks to Gaiman’s two major concerns as a writer. First, that stories should have metaphorical resonance, that they should lead you into deeper ideas and questions about humanity and storytelling. And second, that the stories should be good stories in their own right, that they should be compelling enough that they feel real regardless of their symbolic significance.

But to balance those two concerns, and to keep those meta moments from getting absolutely insufferable, you need an authorial voice as warm and intelligent as Gaiman’s. It’s a voice that you trust will lead you somewhere interesting, no matter what else happens — and it’s that voice that keeps the stories vibrant and living and the metaphors subliminal and compelling.