In The Gods Wait by John von Dorf, you’ll find pessimists fighting to be optimistic about romance, a waitress’s vivid inner world, an internet troll’s thoughts on philosophy, and many other slices from diverse, scattered lives.
A collection of well-drawn characters seek fulfillment and meaning through various mediums, including film, insults, and food. Each obsession demonstrates the individual’s need and desire for grander meaning than their obsession actually delivers. The only voices with new ideas are shut down by the intentional defamation or self-congratulatory ignorance of other would-be intellectuals. Each character is defined as much by their hates as they are by their interests.
Several different characters share the limelight, and the narrative hops from one to another in a rapid succession of scenes. It actually takes a few chapters to even introduce the entire cast, and their stories weave in and out, often connecting via on online board where they meet, debate, and fight anonymously. Others meet face to face, sometimes through business, and often as lovers.
This is an extraordinarily well-written work of literary fiction. At times, the prose is advanced to a fault, as von Dorf does fall into the occasional trap of writing paragraph-long sentences. This style does work sometimes, as in Heiko the troll’s rambling descent into depression, but some of the ideas within a paragraph-long sentence would be much clearer separated out. While this is an obvious stylistic choice, there is also a lack of consistency with the style. Sometimes one sentence is a paragraph, and sometimes short paragraphs are combined together, with no seeming reason for the change.
Similarly, each character is compelling in their own right, but there isn’t always differentiation between each voice. Each character’s pessimism is a strong link between them, which is an intriguing thematic through-line, given the undercurrent of realism to each character’s outlook. However, the characters’ voices at times blend into one another. Each character is clearly a shade of the author, and most share similar dialects, which makes them less distinct than they could be.
For example, Cierra’s voice changes dramatically after her introduction at the diner. The next time we see Cierra, her entire vocabulary has changed, and she’s speaking like the professor, who provides a conduit for the heavily academic language von Dorf seems to favor. A story that uses language so well to articulate so many intensely personal thoughts, fears, and biases would benefit from a better range of character voices. The characters come from different backgrounds, but von Dorf doesn’t always acknowledge how that background would shape the rhythm and pattern of their thoughts.
Overall, The Gods Wait is a challenging but ultimately rewarding read. Despite some issues with characterization and voice, each character is still eminently interesting, and you’re compelled to keep turning the pages as their first connections begin to appear. It isn’t a quick read, by any means, but it isn’t meant to be, as the prose and plot both benefit from slow consideration. An engrossing, character-driven literary work, it’s a book for thinkers, fighters, and people who enjoy genuinely good prose.
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