Ghosts in the movie machine

I think we were walking to Aldi for some cheap crackers and cheese; for whatever reason we started talking about the colour of money. In Australia, the $5 note is pink, the $10 blue, the $20 red; the $50 is nicknamed “a pineapple” and only the $100 note is green. Bright bright green. Ivan asked for my impression of American bills, and I said it all looked like play money. It’s the kind of money they use in the movies.

I’m reading American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. It is a book about… well, probably about many things, but one of the key things is that there are a bunch of displaced gods, in America. They came across with the immigrants, used to be so important in the old countries – India, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Egypt, the Middle East – but have slowly lost their prominence in the new. Some are completely forgotten, dead, others linger; eking out an existence at the boundaries of real and not. Being remembered is important to them, but it’s unclear whether anyone does. My impression is that the same thing has happened to the native gods, so it’s not an exclusively immigrant identity problem – but I’ll have to get back to you on that once I finish the book.

Ivan’s dad was talking about his travels over New Years, and I mentioned that we might also go travelling – when Ivan returns from Oslo to Philadelphia (a few days before me), he will go via Stockholm, and I might go along. I’ve never been to Stockholm. Ivan’s dad was surprised: “Isn’t that like a New Yorker who’s never been to Times Square?” And I couldn’t really explain it, apart from that it’s about 8 hours by train away, not en route to anything except maybe Finland, and also; it’s in Sweden, going there to visit seems somehow perverse. Like camping in your back yard but even more pretend.

Right now I’m on a train from New York to Boston, where I’ll visit Rachel Buckley; fellow unimelb PhD student who got a post doc in the US. The landscape outside my window is becoming progressively more red, yellow, orange; I’m being a tourist, taking photos of random houses and skylines and trees. At one point we crossed a stretch of water, with boats and pretty houses on the far shore, and the thought dropped into my head – “I’m in the movies”.

It happens fairly frequently – last weekend it was while we were walking around Swarthmore college – but it’s never a specific movie, just The Movies. Some image, with a building here and a blue sky there, and the birds just so, it evokes a shifting, shimmering feeling of being somewhere familiar but not quite real.

There’s some connection between all these things – something to do with modern archetypes, I think, or perhaps old ones, if you’re being Jungian; something else to do with soft power and Hollywood and – oh wow the train just went by a cemetery with American flags on every grave. I wonder if it was military? – well I don’t really know what. But it makes sense that old gods would feel faded here; it makes equal sense that they would live here. Like nowhere else.

To redeem this rambly post, let me add a maybe-useful recommendation: if you are ever trying to decide between Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Days, and American Gods, pick the latter. The former is entertaining, but sort of sloppy. And for an weirder take on the breakdown of myth versus mundane, try Unsong.

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