When I read that Louise Erdrich had published a new book and that it was super, I nearly fell on my knees in thanks. She’s given me so much reading pleasure over the years that it seems greedy to ask for more, but I guess greedy is what I am. So anxious was I to get into Shadow Tag that I was ready to buy the hardback. Getting too old to wait. But my buddy beat me to it, so the copy I read was his.
I wish I could join in the elation of the reviewer, who found that she simultaneously couldn’t wait to finish the book but wished it would never end. I’ve had that experience in the past with, for example, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse [See my comments from 12/6/06]. Shadow Tag is something else entirely.
Not that it’s not good. It’s superb. And no one should criticize writers for going outside their customary realms. So I don’t. There is, though, something I miss. Tell you what it is later.
Most of Erdrich’s work embraces considerable scope and depth, involves many characters–sometimes dozens–and a host of grand enterprises which spur the action. Shadow Tag is a miniature. Austen-like. Even smaller. We live with one family. Husband, wife, three kids, and the characters we meet outside the group are few and, for the most part, without great influence or dimension. It’s also Jamesian in the sense that we experience the conception, birth, and death of a marriage at almost the cellular level.
Gil is a painter. The model he’s used to make him famous is his wife, Irene. He labels his series of portraits America. This is no Wyeth-Helga relationship, though. Gil has painted Irene in beauty and degradation. On mountaintops and with an American flag up her ass. And she has allowed it all, reveled in it. Then she falls out of love, bet he won’t. She finds out he’s reading her diaries. So she starts planting information for him, then keeping a separate diary for her real thoughts. (Red Diary for the bait, Blue Diary for the truth.) She wants out of the relationship, but she’s trapped, as much by her own feelings, it turns out, as by Gil’s brutality.
Going through it all is fascinating, cruel painful. Witness this marriage counseling session: [background–there is a question of whether the children are Gil’s.]
Perhaps we should consider paternity testing, he said with an acid smile. …
I have no objection for DNA testing to be added to their regularly scheduled checkups. They will at least be prepared.
Gil dropped his face into his hands.
Oh, shit, Yes, fine. Can you imagine? We know two of the doctors in the practice socially.
You know them, said Irene. I don’t know anybody.
Poor you, can you imagine the buzz?
Irene laughed. Right, especially when it turns out they each have a different father.
Go on. Gil’s face went red and his teeth clamped together. Go on, Irene.
Three different fathers.
Hey, that was a joke. A very bad pathetic joke for which I apologize. They are yours, Gil.
This kind of mutual cruelty and mistrust naturally involves and affects the children in various cruel ways as well. So the dynamics become enormously involved, even though the cast of characters is relatively small.
Erdrich adds both scope and depth to the story by touching from time to time to Irene’s stalled thesis on the nineteenth century painter of Plains Indian portraits, George Caitlin. Her references to the native belief that copying images of people drains some aspect or portion of their life and soul is reflected in the image of the family games of shadow tag whose object is to find a place in the light where the sun is directly overhead and you produce almost no shadow. Thus no one can tag you, exploit you, turn you into “it.” Which is obviously a metaphor for Gil and Irene’s relationship.
Erdrich has also included perhaps the greatest mix of POV’s of any novel I can remember. We get Irene’s of course, Gil’s, each of the kids. Sometimes in first person, sometimes in third. Then there is some omniscient narration. Despite Erdrich’s great skill, I found myself emotionally jerked around from time to time. Perhaps she intended that, wanted to produce some sort of Brechtian alienation effect so that we would never fall into that fictive dream, would always remain a bit aloof, observing and thinking. I’m not sure. I’d bet against her doing something unintentional. I know it was a bit unsettling.
And remember I said I missed something? That joyous, boisterous, rollicking Erdrich humor is just not part of Shadow Tag. No one here, for example, rises from their death bed as a joke or gets hauled overland in a canoe by a runaway moose and is forced to shoot his captor “in his great, swaying balls.”
I did promise not to condemn Shadow Tag for straying beyond my limited conception of the Erdrich boundaries. But I did want a laugh or two, and the only ones here are full of razor blades.
Finally, there must be something going around, because in the end of Shadow Tag the reader discovers that the entire book was put together in the same way Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (See Feb. 15) was, though under different circumstances and for different reasons. Coming on two like that in a month? You think it means anything? Let’s keep our eye out for a trend.
So, I’m not in love with Shadow Tag, though I’m still in love with you, Louise. This one gets more admiration than love from me, but I hope you’re still writing because I’m still greedy.