Saturday, August 3, 2013

Summer of Tricksters

You can learn an awful lot from the Internet, and some of it is probably true. For instance, last week I learned about the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, which is the experience of encountering something for the first time, then suddenly seeming to encounter it everywhere. After reading about Baader-Meinhof, I realized that this summer I have been experiencing it myself.

I'm calling it my "Summer of Tricksters."

Technically, this summer wasn't my first encounter with tricksters. As an English major, I already knew something about those mischievous, trouble-making gods and demigods that can be found in just about every mythology. (Puck, from A Midsummer Night's Dream, is probably the most famous example.) But it's been over thirty years since I took that Folklore in Literature class, and I haven't really thought much about tricksters since then.

Until this summer, when I suddenly seemed to be encountering them—well, if not everywhere, at least in several movies and books.

For instance, there's the Norse trickster, Loki. This summer, I've been catching up on the Marvel Comics movies I missed in the theater the last few years, including Captain AmericaThor and The Avengers. I have to confess that I loved these movies. I was probably one of the only people on the planet who saw them knowing next to nothing about the characters. (I read some Marvel Comics as a kid, but I was more of a Spider-Man and Fantastic Four fan.) And so I was completely surprised to find that the villain of both Thor and The Avengers was Loki, son of Odin and brother to Thor.

Now, I never studied Norse mythology, but I knew a bit about Loki the Trickster and Odin the All-Father (who also has quite a reputation as a trickster), having just encountered them in Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel American Gods, a strange and beautiful book that is slated to become an HBO series. While not without humor, American Gods is, for the most part, as dark as a mid-winter day in the northern Midwest, when and where much of it takes place. One might categorize it (to the extent one can categorize any Gaiman novel) as "trickster noir." It certainly has many of the elements of noir fiction: murder, betrayal, a beautiful femme fatale (who happens to be undead), and a mysterious protagonist named Shadow, who quickly finds himself over his head in a deadly trickster con game.

Tricksters love con games.

If American Gods is trickster noir, Gaiman's 2005 novel Anansi Boys is almost pure trickster farce, calling to mind the brilliant comic fiction of the late Douglas Adams. Anansi, aka "Mr. Nancy," is a West African trickster who is living a relatively quiet life of retirement in Florida when he drops dead of a heart attack while singing in a Karaoke bar. Yes, gods can die—at least in Gaiman's universe—and, as Shadow learns in American Gods, "when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered." However, Anansi is neither unmourned nor unremembered, and there is some doubt that he is truly dead. "Fat Charlie" Nancy certainly remembers his estranged father, and he tries his best to mourn him in spite of that fact. Of course, he has no idea that his father was a god—at least not until his brother Spider, who seems to have inherited all of their father's talent for magic and mischief, shows up at Fat Charlie's door in London, bringing all manner of chaos into his life.

Tricksters love chaos.

Samson Hunts Alone also discovers this fact in Christopher Moore's 1994 novel, Coyote Blue. As a teenager, Samson was forced to flee the Crow Indian Reservation after accidentally killing an abusive police officer. Now, years later, he seems to be doing quite well in Santa Barbara, California, as insurance broker Sam Hunter. That is, until the trickster god Coyote turns up, reminding Sam of his Native American roots and turning his seemingly perfect new life upside down. Like Anansi Boys, Coyote Blue is a comedy—a laugh-out-loud, at times extremely low comedy.

Tricksters love low comedy (the lower the better).

I've included links to the movies and books mentioned above, and if you want more information on Loki, Anansi, Coyote, and other tricksters, I'm sure you can find everything you want to know on the Internet. However, the only thing you really need to know about tricksters is that they are Trouble, with a capital 'T'.

But they certainly do make life more interesting.

Coyote Changing the Moon by Eating It

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