Trademark Louise Erdrich: Humor

In the past few weeks, I have been binging on Louise Erdrich’s novels.

(Erdrich is the acclaimed Ojibwe author of so many books I can’t keep track–maybe 16 novels?   If you are unfamiliar with her work, here is a review of her latest novel by the New York Times. It serves as a good introduction to her work.)

These are the novels I have recently read (or re-read):

  • Love Medicine (1984)
  • Tracks (1988)
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001)
  • The Plague of Doves (2008)
  • The Round House (2012)

Several years ago, I also read her Crown of Columbus, and I am now starting to read her Bingo Palace (1994).

It would be an understatement to say that I am a fan of her work. The woman is a literary goddess.  Each of her novels creates a world unto itself.  However, most of them are connected to each other as well.  She focuses on a small (fictional) area of North Dakota and many of the same families are featured in each work.   In terms of her style, each work is unique.  Nonetheless, certain themes and stylistic traits recur throughout her work.  Taken together, the combination of these traits add up to a distinct Erdrich voice or “trademark.”

In this short series, I want to focus on a few elements of her voice, the things that mark her as distinct. Today I am focusing on her sense of humor.  In general, I would not classify Erdrich as a comic writer.  Taken as a whole, her fiction veers more towards the lyrical, the tragic, or even magical.   However, her vision is consistently punctuated with episodes of broad comedy.  Often the comedy is physical, even slapstick.  The humor provides some relief from the sadness of much of her writing, but it also expresses her view of the world—one in which the tragic and the comic cannot be neatly separated.

One example of trademark Erdrich humor can be seen in her first novel, Love Medicine.  In this work, Lipsha Morrissey accidentally walks in on his grandfather having an adulterous tryst in the laundry room at the senior center with his old flame, Lulu Lamartine.  In the context of the entire work, Grandfather Nector Kashpaw’s yearning for Lulu is portrayed as poignant, sad, touching.  In this particular scene, though, the perspective is one of broad comedy:

“There they were. And he was really loving her up good, boy, and she was going hell for leather.  Sheets was flapping on the lines above, and washcloths, pillowcase, shirts was also flying through the air, for they was trying to clear out a place for themselves in a high-heaped but shallow laundry cart.  The washers and dryers was all on, chock full of quarters, shaking and moaning.” (196)

This was an awkward scene for Lipsha to witness, to say the least.  But the awkwardness turns to hilarity when a wig is added to the equation:

“The Lamartine wore a big curly light-brown wig.  Looked like one of them squeaky little white-people dogs.  Poodles they call them.  Anyway, that wig is what saved us from the worse. . . . Turned out, though, in the heat of the clinch, as I was trying to avert my eyes you see, the Lamartine’s curly wig jumped off her head.  And if you ever been in the midst of something and had a big change like that occur in the someone, you can’t help know how it devastates your basic urges.  Not only that, but her wig was almost with a life of its own.  Grandpa’s eyes were bugging at the change already, and swear to God if the thing didn’t rear up and pop him in the face like it was going to start something.  He scrambled up, Grandpa did, and the Lamartine jumped up after him all addled-looking.  They just stared at each other, huffing and puffing, with quizzical expressions.”  (197)

This sort of broad comedy intermingles with scenes of great sadness and even tragedy throughout her works.  We can see another example of her slapstick humor in her 2012 novel The Round House.  This novel focuses on the rape and attempted murder of the narrator’s mother (Geraldine).  The perpetrator is known, but cannot be punished by the legal system because of complex and blatantly unjust issues of jurisdiction on Native reservations.  Not surprisingly, the overall tone of this novel is serious, even grim.  Still, Erdrich manages to interject scenes of pure slapstick, such as this one, in which a teenage boy  named Cappy confesses to a Catholic priest that he has been having sex with his girlfriend—in the church basement.  The confession does not go as well as expected though.  Father Travis, an ex-Marine, was in excellent physical condition and had a temper.  Rather than forgiving Cappy, he explodes in anger and starts chasing him:

“There were arcane sounds—the slide of the priest’s window, the whispering back and forth—then the explosion.  Father Travis burst from the wooden door of the confessional and would have caught Cappy if he hadn’t rolled out from under the curtain and half crawled, half scrambled along the pew.  Father ran back, blocking the exit, but already Cappy had sprung past us, hurdling the pew toward the front of the church, landing on the seats with each bound in a breathtaking series of vaulting leaps that took him nearly to the altar.”  (232)

The ensuing chase scene lasts for three full pages of slapstick adventure reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner.

“Cappy had those good shoes, but so, I noticed, did Father Travis.  He wasn’t running in sober clerical blacks but had perhaps been playing basketball or jogging before he dropped in to hear confessions.  The two sprinted hotly down the dusty gravel road that led from the church into town.  Cappy boldly crossed the highway and Father Travis followed.  Cappy cut through yards he knew well and disappeared.  But even in his cassock, which he’d hoisted and tucked into his belt, Father Travis was right behind him heading toward the Dead Custer Bar and Whitey’s gas station.  We marveled at Father’s pale thick-muscled calves blurring in the sun.” (233)

I am not a Catholic, but I am pretty sure that’s not how confession is supposed to work.

Certainly, Erdrich is not the only writer who combines humor and tragedy.  Many southern writers, for example, are famed for their tragic-comic vision.   William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor come to mind.  I think Erdrich’s humor is particularly broad, even cartoonish.  The combination of this slapstick humor with serious, even tragic, themes is one of the more striking elements of Erdrich’s voice.

I will discuss other elements of her voice in future posts.  Stay tuned!

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“Tracks” by Louise Erdrich

This weekend here in Minnesota is snowy and bitterly cold, good weather to hunker down and continue to gorge on Louise Erdrich novels. I just finished reading Tracks (1988), a story of the decimation and dispossession of the Ojibwe (a.k.a Chippewa) Indians of Minnesota and North Dakota during the years 1912-1924.    This is how the novel begins:

“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.  It was surprising there were so many of us left to die.  For those who survived the spotted sickness from the south, our long fight west to Nadouissioux land where we signed the treaty, and then a wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers, what descended from the north in 1912 seemed impossible.
By then, we thought disaster must surely have spent its force, that disease must have claimed all of the Anishinabe that the earth could hold and bury.
But the earth is limitless and so is luck and so were our people once.” (1)

This sense of unfathomable loss permeates Tracks, and yet it is not entirely bleak.  This novel is recounted by two alternating narrators, Nanapush and Pauline.  Pauline is an odd young woman, half mad, full of longing and resentments.  She gravitates towards a masochistic kind of religiosity and eventually becomes a nun, albeit one who is twisted and sometimes sadistic.

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Nanapush, a man of about fifty, is the only surviving member of his family.   He possesses a wealth of historical knowledge about the tribe that he is passing on orally to his granddaughter, Lulu.  We readers are positioned as eavesdroppers to his oral history.    He says to Lulu, “Although I had lived no more than fifty winters, I was considered an old man.  I’d seen enough to be one.  In the years I’d passed, I saw more change than in a hundred upon a hundred before.  My girl, I saw the passing of times you will never know.”

In the beginning of the novel, Nanapush finds a young woman named Fleur Pillager barely alive in her cabin, surrounded by five dead family members.  Fleur, like Nanapush, is also the last survivor of her family.  Nanapush takes Fleur home with him and becomes like a father to her.  They are both overwhelmed with the spirits of the dead who surround them.  The names [of their dead family members] “grew within us, swelled to the brink of our lips, forced our eyes open in the middle of the night.  We were filled with the water of the drowned, cold and black, airless water that lapped against the seal of our tongues or leaked slowly from the corners of our eyes.  Within us, like ice shards, their names bobbed and shifted.  Then the slivers of ice began to collect and cover us” (6).

Nanapush and Fleur almost succumbed to their grief by moving on to the next world; many people did.  Nanapush notes that “there were many of our people who died in this manner, of the invisible sickness.”  They do not die, though.   It might be too much to claim that Fleur, Nanapush, and Pauline flourish, but they do lead vigorous lives of passion, love, violence, vengeance and even laughter.   Erdrich writes in a lyrical style in which the line between realism and myth often blurs. Her prose is beautiful and her characters are magnificent.

This is the second time I have read Tracks.  The first time was long ago in a different century.  I remembered very little about the book except for the haunting power of Fleur Pillager.  All three main characters—Nanapush, Pauline, and Fleur—are compelling creations.  Fleur, however, is mesmerizing.  She is strong.  She is beautiful.  She is frightening.  Nanapush calls her “a woman gone wild, striking down whatever got into her path” (45).  Pauline claims she almost destroyed the town of Argus.

What I find interesting (from a craft perspective) is that this untamed woman does not have a voice in the novel.   Fleur has a huge impact on the people around her.  We read about her from Nanapush’s and Pauline’s perspective, but we never hear her own voice, her own story.

In this sense, Fleur reminds me a little bit of Caddy Compson from William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury.  Caddy has three brothers who are all obsessed with her, but in different ways. Each brother narrates his own section of the novel in which Caddy plays a central role. We never hear Caddy’s story.

Writers, take note.  One might expect that not giving a character her own voice would dilute her power.  I am not sure if that is the case, though.  For me, at least, Fleur and Caddy both remain indelibly ingrained in my mind long after I was done reading.  Might they have had even more impact if they could have spoken for themselves?  It is hard to say, but my guess would be no.  Maybe observing other characters trying to hard (yet failing) to understand and “capture” these female characters is what makes them so compelling.

What do you think?  If you have read Tracks or Sound and the Fury, do you think Fleur and Caddy should have been allowed to speak for themselves?  Why or why not?  Can you think of other really compelling characters who were not given a voice?  Have you written any?

 

 

 

 

 

The Piano Man

Writing about erotic love is hard.  One has to navigate so many obstacles: romantic clichés, pornography, cynicism, and the desire to sing Barry Manilow lyrics.  Writing about ghost lovers is even harder.   Is it possible for an author of realistic literary fiction to write about a character who believes herself to be in a romantic relationship with a dead man—and to do so without mocking the character?   Louise Erdrich does so in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001).

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The main character of The Last Report is Father Damien Modeste, a Catholic priest who serves the Ojibwe Indians on a North Dakota reservation named Little No Horse.  He has tended them faithfully for many decades and has earned their trust.  One thing his flock does not know about him, however, is that he is actually a woman named Agnes (a.k.a. Sister Cecilia). (I am not giving anything away here.  Readers know this from the beginning of the novel.)  Agnes has had a few romantic relationships in her life.  Perhaps the most passionate of them was with the spirit of Frederic Chopin.

The Last Report is a long and complex novel with many disparate strands.  Agnes’ erotic relationship to a dead composer is just one thread of this intoxicating book.  It is a strand I found compelling, though–maybe because I am learning to play the piano myself, or maybe because I find it easy to become deeply attached to a beloved author.  (I may have had an erotic dream about Chaucer when I was younger.)

As a very young woman, Agnes DeWitt becomes a nun and is called Sister Cecilia.  She takes her vows seriously and considers herself married to God.  God has some competition, though.  Her true love is music:

“She not only taught but lived music, existed for those hours when she could be concentrated in her being—which was half music, half divine light, only flesh to the degree she could not admit otherwise.  At the piano keyboard, absorbed into the notes that rose beneath her hands, she existed in her essence, a manifestation of compelling sound.”  (14)

Agnes empties her whole soul into her piano, especially when she plays Chopin.  It was “as though her soul were neatly removed by a drinking straw and siphoned into the green pool of quiet that lay beneath the rippling cascade of notes” (14).    Put simply, “Chopin’s spirit became her lover.  His flats caressed her.  His whole notes sank through her body like clear pebbles.  His atmospheric trills were the flicker of a tongue.   His pauses before the downward sweep of notes nearly drove her insane” (15).

Her relationship with Chopin is so real to her that she feels guilty about it.  After Agnes leaves the convent and receives a marriage proposal from Berndt Vogel, she tells him “that she must never marry again, for not only had she wed herself soul to soul with Christ, but she had already been unfaithful—her phantom lover the Polish composer—thus already living out too grievous a destiny to become a bride” (17).  Chopin, through his music, has become more real to her than anything else in her life.

To be clear, Agnes is not psychotic.  She is not pathetic.  She has simply realized that piano music is where she can best express the essence of herself.  In a very real sense, she finds herself in communion with Chopin through the music he composed a century earlier.   When she plays his music, he comes alive for her:

“There was the scent of faint gardenias—his hothouse boutonniere.  The silk of his heavy, brown hair.  A man’s sharp, sensuous drawing-room sweat.  His voice, she heard it, avid and light.  It was as though the composer himself had entered the room.  Who knows?  Surely there was no more desperate, earthly, exacting heart than Cecilia’s.  Surely something, however paltry, lies beyond the grave.  At any rate, she played Chopin” (16).

chopin
Frederic Chopin

Because she is able to summon him through his music, Chopin the man exists as a real lover for Agnes, one who provides erotic satisfaction.  Berndt Vogel realizes this truth about Agnes as he watches her play: “and as the songs Chopin invented were as much him as his body, so it followed Berndt had just watched the woman he loved [Agnes] make love to a dead man” (22).

I find Louise Erdrich an astonishing writer for many reasons.  One of them is her abililty to convey how the unseen world—be it the world of the spirit or the world of the imagination —is for some people more vivid and meaningful than the so-called “real world.”   I wish I could tell you in Three Easy Steps how Erdrich does it so well.  Certainly she relies on sensory detail and a varied sentence structure.  Mostly, though, I think it is her openness to the possibilities of the world.  She refuses to reduce the world to simple categories of real/not real, physical/not physical.  She sees fullness where others might see lack, magic where others see drabness.   If you have not read her books before, I recommend that you do.

 

 

WWW Wednesdays

Miz B at Shouldbereading hosts a weekly Wednesday meme called www wednesdays

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To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading?
• What did you recently finish reading?
• What do you think you’ll read next?

1)  I am currently re-reading Louise Erdrich’s The Roundhouse.    

This novel is about a woman on a North Dakota Indian reservation who was raped and almost murdered.  She has a husband and 13-year-old son named Joe.  The story focuses on Joe, who tries to find and punish the rapist at the same time that he deals with all of the growing-up issues any 13 year-old-boy faces.  The novel’s tone is serious, as you might expect, and yet there are also parts that are laugh-out-loud funny.  Erdrich won the 2012 National Book Award for this novel, and rightly so, in my opinion.

I am also listening to Dennisi Lehane’s The Given Day.  I chose this novel to complement my Boston trip; it is set in Boston at the end of World War I and is highly atmospheric of Boston neighborhoods.  So far, I am enjoying it!

2)  I recently finished reading The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, which I wrote about briefly here.
 I loved this book!  The writing was beautiful, and the story of the main characters was heart-breaking.  I would definitely recommend it.

3)  Next on the list for one of my book clubs is Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, a Minnesota writer.  He mostly writes mysteries (of which I’ve read a few)  but this novel is not a mystery.  I’m looking forward to it!

What about you?  What are you reading?