Monday 19 November 2012

Louise Erdrich - Shadow Tag

From the 'occasional reviews' department


Reading Louise Erdrich is like having your heart ripped out and stomped all over, but still understanding why someone did that to you - and forgiving them without even trying to.

Shadow Tag is a portrait - the metaphor is very apt - of a desperately, violently, drunkenly, obscenely, passionately, disdainfully, exhaustedly unhappy marriage. Gil and Irene feed off each other, wound each other, manipulate and heal each other, all before a chorus of witnesses: 14 year-old Florian, eleven year-old Riel and six-year old Stoney.

The day after I put down Shadow Tag, I picked up Craig Arnold's Made Flesh. The collection opens with a long poem, 'Couple from Hell', a story of love and hate and distance and bewilderment, told through Hades and Persephone. It is very, very beautiful and very, very hard to read, and contains the following lines:

Two people on a bed      trying to make love
your hands won't hold each other      you turn away
to separate sleep      only to startle yourselves awake
in the thick of coupling      arms and mouths
full of each other      some unspeakable desire
grinds you against each other like continental plates
at the earth's foundation      but waking once again
you pull apart      to opposite corners of the heart
and what you don't say is a dance floor between you

Soft as ivy pulling brick to pieces
she puts down roots in you      you fear
her hold on you is all that keeps you whole
and fear leads to shame      and shame to anger
and anger to bitterness      she must own
what she has broken      you will hold her
hostage to your unhappiness

The poem hews close to the tone of 'Shadow Tag', and it feels appropriate to respond to one through the other, because I read Erdrich first as a poet. As a result, I cared less about the narrative (which is tight and fast in some places and slow and lingering in others) and paid more attention to Erdrich's words and, particularly, the set pieces that involved each of the children: small, innocent Stoney; lithe, knowing Florian; deep, defensive Riel. This passage - oh, this passage:
What is it? What is it?
The crying began all over again with the same miserable fore. Then Stoney quit.
I don't want to be a human, he said. His voice was passionate. I want to be a snake. I want to be a rat or spider or wolf. Maybe a cheetah.
Why? What's wrong?
It's too hard to be human. I wish I was born a crow or a raccoon. I could be a horse. I don't want to be human any more.
After he considered many other animals, Stoney told his mother what had happened. That afternoon, at school, Stoney had made fun of another child. The teacher had first sharply reprimanded him, then told him the other child was handicapped, which Stoney hadn't understood.
You made a mistake, said Irene, it's all right. You didn't mean it. Did you say you were sorry?
Yes, yes, said Stoney, crying again. His rosy face was deeply flushed. His eyelashes clumped in wet points. The skin around his eyes was puffed and tinged a delicate lavender. His sorrow entered Irene and loosened her arms and made her eyes sting. She tried to hold him, but he wrenched away, and said, I don't blame you if you don't want me. I should be taken away.
Irene put her arms out again and this time Stoney flung himself upon her heart. As she held him, her thoughts spun; it took a long time for her to coax Stoney into a different frame of mind. Later on, she remembered that each of her children at the age of six were thoughtful, said startling things, and had experienced shame. Sometimes the humiliations were public, sometimes it happened at home. But the first time it occurred shame always pierced deep. The feeling was new, fresh, and terrible. It made you want to crawl out of your skin. Irene had almost forgotten what the feeling was like.
There is a certain staginess to the novel - of tell, don't show:
Winnie Jane had lived to raise Irene and see her grandchildren - that was something. Not enough, but something. Irene had grown up in the middle of Minneapolis without a television. Her mother had dragged her to everything Ojibwe. She learned the histories of the reservations before she learned the Pledge of Allegiance. Winnie Jane also loved recordings of Shakespeare's history plays, and Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear. None of the comedies, of course. They were Indians.
Gil had grown up watching the TV set his mother had brought home from the church basement. He could quote plots and lines from The Brady Bunch, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and I Love Lucy. Each episode was full of snappy comebacks, laugh tracks, an ooh-aah ending. Her endings were of course insane bloodbaths. His outlook was sentimental while hers was tragic. The union of the tragic and sentimental is kitsch. Irene felt that whenever she opened her mouth the appreciate her marriage in public, she was giving tongue to kitsch.
Towards the end of the book, Gil ponders a quote from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It isn't given to us to know those rare moments when people are wide open and the lightest touch can wither or heal. A moment too late and we can never reach them any more in this world. They will not be cured by our most efficacious drugs or slain with our sharpest swords. Shadow Tag catches, unflinchingly, how the power of emotion first expressed as love can leach away or - more frighteningly - transmogrify into other, harder, weapons. It is a book that is denies redemption - and is all the more powerful for it.

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