Fat Charlie Nancy’s greatest fear is being embarrassed. Unfortunately for him, he had a father that was even better than fathers normally are at embarrassing his son. When Fat Charlie’s fiancée, Rosie, suggests they should invite him to their upcoming wedding, he can only think of the many forms of excruciating embarrassment this will probably lead to. At Rosie’s insistence, however, he calls Florida to try and locate his father, only to learn that he has just passed away.
He crosses the Atlantic to attend the funeral, and learns that one, his father was no ordinary man, but the West African and Caribbean trickster god Anansi (readers of American Gods will have met him as Mr. Nancy); and two, that he has a brother by the name of Spider, and that if he wants to meet him all he has to do is tell a spider. Fat Charlie does so, and soon realizes that meeting Spider will change his life in more ways than he could have imagined.
I think that if you were to ask me right now, I would say that Anansi Boys is my favourite Neil Gaiman novel. (The answer would probably change in a few days, though. My favourite Neil Gaiman novel tends to be the last one I've read. The same often happens with Terry Pratchett. They’re my favourite authors for a reason, after all.) I had forgotten just how much I love this book, and just how many things I love about it.
I love the Caribbean mood, for starters. I love the language and the folklore and the settings and the ambience. I love the characters: Fat Charlie, Spider, Rosie, Daisy, Mrs Higgler and Mrs Dunwiddy and Maeve Livingstone and the others. I love how all of them are vulnerable and human, even those – like Rosie’s mother – who don’t seem so at first.
I love the seamless mix of horror and humour. The funny bits are really, really funny. And the creepiest bits are nightmare inducing (the scene with the flamingos – ahhhhhhhhh! Okay, I guess my thing with birds helps, but seriously, how creepy is the Bird Woman? And that scene with Spider and Rosie at the Greek restaurant? I think I'm going to have to start thinking about kitties and puppies now so that I can try to banish it from my mind forever.)
I also love how so much of the story is about parents and children getting misunderstood, being estranged, being embarrassed or getting hurt, but generally meaning well and still deeply caring about one another. Even Rosie and her mother manage to communicate more or less openly at last. I love how much tenderness there is in this book
None of these reasons, however, are the main one. There’s another thing I love about Anansi Boys – something that, for me, is at the core of the book: the fact that it is about stories, about how they play such a big role in making us human, in making what we call the world the world. Take this passage, for example:
Anansi gave his name to stories. Every story is Anansi’s. Once, before the stories were Anansi’s, they all belonged to Tiger (which is the name the people of the islands call all the big cats), and back then the tales were dark and evil, and filled with pain, and none of them ended happily. But that was a long time ago. These days, the stories are Anansi’s.And this one:
‘Now, Anansi stories, they have trickery and wit and wisdom. So, all over the world, all of the people, they aren’t just thinking of hunting and being hunted anymore. Now they’re starting to think their way out of problems – sometimes thinking their way into worse problems. They still need to keep their bellies full, but now they’re trying to figure out how to do it without working – and that’s the point where people start using their heads. Some people think the first tools were weapons, but that’s upside down. First of all, people figure out the tools. It’s the crutch before the club, every time. Because now people are telling Anansi stories, and they’re starting to think about how to get kissed, how to get something for nothing by being smarter or funnier. That’s when they start to make the world.’What Tiger and Bird Woman represent is a world before stories, and that’s why they’re so scary. Well, maybe not exactly before stories, but before the kind of stories we tell today, stories that are inventive and funny and happy and sad, stories that stay with us, stories we tell again and again, stories that shape our lives.
The moment when Anansi stole the stories from Tiger is the moment when it happened – the moment when we became human, the moment when life ceased to be only about hunting and avoiding being hunted. To quote another passage, now “people still have the same story, the one where they get born and they do stuff and they die, but now the story means something different to what it meant before.”
This deep belief in stories and in the fact that they’re a crucial part of what being human is all about really resonates with my own way of looking at the world. And I keep finding examples of it in Neil Gaiman’s work. The Sandman is perhaps the most obvious example, but there are others. I think I’ve said this before, but this is a big part of the reason why he’s my favourite author.
I enjoyed Anansi Boys even more this time around. I really ought to re-read my favourite books more often. There were certain things I feel I only appreciated properly now, because now I’ve read collections of West African and Caribbean folklore and Zora Neale Hurston and Nalo Hopkinson. And I did that, of course, after reading Anansi Boys for the first time.
I love the way I kept finding new details in the book. For example, Grahame Coats, Fat Charlies’ obnoxious boss, talks in clichés. And that’s really annoying, and the first time around all I thought about it was that his clichés were one of the things that made him so annoying. But this time I started thinking that maybe there’s more to it than that. Clichés are uncreative, and creativity is Anansi’s. And Grahame Coats is more Tiger’s than Anansi’s. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why his very use of language is so uninventive. Of course I can’t really know if this was meant to be read like that, but that’s the beauty of being a reader. We can see whatever we want to in the books we love.
Anyway. I’ll shut up now and leave you with a couple more of my favourite bits:
Songs remain. They last. The right song can turn an emperor into a laughing stock, can bring down dynasties. A song can last long after the events and the people in it are dust and dreams and gone. That’s the power of songs.
Stories are like spiders, with all they long legs, and stories are like spider-webs, which man gets himself all tangled up in but which look so pretty when you see them under a leaf in the morning dew and in the elegant way that they connect to one another, each to each.
A wonderful post by Eva about several books by Neil Gaiman, including Anansi Boys
Confessions of a Book-a-holic
(Let me know if I missed yours.)