Web of Wonders

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand
Sunday, September 25, 2005


By Neil Gaiman

Morrow. 336 pp. $26.95

With Anansi Boys , Neil Gaiman's delightful, funny and affecting new novel, the bestselling author has scored the literary equivalent of a hole in one, employing the kind of self-assured storytelling that makes it all look so easy. One can imagine Gaiman's legion of fans putting down the book and rushing en masse to pen their own riffs on traditional folklore and contemporary pop culture. But it's hard to imagine anyone topping Anansi Boys , if only because it's a tall tale to end all tall tales, inspired by the trickiest of all trickster gods, Anansi the Spider, whose origins lie in Ghana.

Tales of the West African deity traveled with slaves to North America, where the clever spider became the anthropomorphic figure known as Aunt Nancy, Anancy, or Bre'r Ananse (a counterpart to Bre'r Rabbit, another African American trickster). In Gaiman's last full-length novel, American Gods , Anansi made an appearance as the (mostly) human Mr. Nancy. In Anansi Boys , Mr. Nancy cedes center stage to his sons, Fat Charlie and Spider. As the novel's catchphrase puts it, "God is dead. Meet the kids."

Only Anansi isn't exactly God; he's a god, sort of the god next door: "In the old stories, Anansi lives just like you do or I do, in his house. He is greedy, of course, and lustful, and tricky, and full of lies. And he is good-hearted, and lucky, and sometimes even honest. Sometimes he is good, sometimes he is bad. He is never evil. Mostly, you are on Anansi's side. This is because Anansi owns all the stories." Anansi isn't exactly dead, either, though it's true that Fat Charlie's troubles begin when he attends his estranged father's burial. Fat Charlie "was only ever fat for a handful of years. . . . But the name Fat Charlie clung to him, like chewing gum to the sole of a tennis shoe." He grew up in Florida but now lives in London, where he is engaged to a nice girl named Rosie, who won't sleep with him until after they're married. He works for the loathsome, weaselly Grahame Coats, a talent agent who for years has been fleecing his clients, including the delectable Maeve Livingstone, widow of Morris Livingstone, "once the most famous short Yorkshire comedian in Britain."

Fat Charlie's pre-marital and career woes work in tandem with his chronic insecurity and a constant, slow-burning sense of embarrassment, guaranteeing that nothing very exciting will ever happen to him -- until, that is, he goes to Florida for Mr. Nancy's funeral.

Afterwards, Charlie visits some family friends, four little old ladies who just happen to be witches. The most formidable of these is Mrs. Dunwiddy: "As a boy, Fat Charlie had imagined Mrs. Dunwiddy in Equatorial Africa, peering disapprovingly through her thick spectacles at the newly-erect hominids. 'Keep out of my front yard,' she would tell a recently evolved and rather nervous specimen of Homo habilis , 'or I going to belt you around your ear-hole, I tell you.' "

There's also Mrs. Higgler, who tells Fat Charlie that his father was a god.

" 'He was not a god. He was my dad.'

" 'You can be both,' she said. 'It happens.' "

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