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!

erdrich-novels

“The Secret River,” Kate Grenville

“He might as well have swung at the end of the rope they had measured for him. This was a place, like death, from which men did not return.”

My Australian reading selection for my Around the World Reading Challenge was a real treat:  Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, first published in 2006.

TheSecretRiver

The subject of The Secret River is Australia’s colonial past as a dumping ground for English convicts.  William Thornhill, the main character, is transported to New South Wales in 1806 as his punishment for theft.  Originally, he was sentenced to hang, but he was granted a reprieve and sent to New South Wales for life instead, along with his wife and children.

In 1806, New South Wales is still not much more than a howling wilderness for someone used to the teeming streets of London.  Grenville begins the novel with Thornhill’s first impression of his new home, and his sense of isolation is palpable:

“Now, standing in the great sighing lung of this other place and feeling the dirt chill under his feet, he knew that life was gone.  He might as well have swung at the end of the rope they had measured for him.  This was a place, like death, from which men did not return.  It was a sharp stab like a splinter under a nail: the pain of loss.  He would die here under these alien stars, his bones rot in this cold earth.” (11)

I found this beginning captivating and could not help but read on.  I was not disappointed.  One of Grenville’s gifts as a writer is her ability to recreate times and places in vivid detail.  After the opening chapter in New South Wales, Grenville takes us back to Thornhill’s childhood in the slums of London.  William grew up poor—so poor that he was cold and hungry all the time.  Grenville gives Dickens a run for his money in her ability to recreate the stink and squalor of London.  Not surprisingly, Thornhill turns to thievery as a way to make a living.  Eventually he gets caught, which gets him sent to Australia.

Thornhill’s initial despair at finding himself in such desolate surroundings begins to shift.  He realizes that in this new country, he could escape the taint of class and become someone new—a landowner, one of the gentry.  He sets his sights on a piece of land that seems to promise him this new life and claims it for his own.  He moves his wife and brood of children to this unprotected space with high hopes.

As it turn out, however, this land is far from vacant: aboriginal people have been living there for thousands of years, and they have no intention of moving.  This tension between English settlers and the aboriginal peoples forms the basis for the rest of the narrative.

I highly recommend this book, which was based on the life of one of Grenville’s ancestors.  Grenville is a superb writer who makes history come alive. The characters are complex and realistic, and her portrayal of class and racial tensions is astute.

Her novel makes me want to read more literature from Australia and New Zealand.  Can anyone recommend others to me?

STOP THE JANE AUSTEN MADNESS!

If you are a fan of Jane Austen, check out the lostgenerationreader blog here. She is hosting an Austen in August event.

http://lostgenerationreader.com/2014/08/01/austen-in-august-master-post/

My collection of Austen spawn
My collection of Austen spawn

In vain I have struggled to hold back my thoughts, but it will not do.  My feelings will not be repressed.  You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love Jane Austen.

On my refrigerator
On my refrigerator

Because of my sincere appreciation of Austen’s superior mind and character, I was intrigued a number of years ago when I noticed the rapidly growing number of Jane Austen’s spawn infiltrating the marketplace  Her growing brood of knock-offs included not only faithful movie and play adaptations, but also re-imaginings of her works with an endless variety of twists and turns.

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary was one of the first Austen re-writes I read.  I found this re-writing of Pride and Prejudice from a 30-something English Everywoman’s perspective refreshing and hilarious.  As an added bonus, I learned the term “fuckwit” from this novel, a term I have found to be quite useful for describing a number of people I have since come across.

Even more diverting than the book version of Bridget Jones’s Diary was the movie version of it, starring competing dream boats Colin Firth and Hugh Grant (who are apparently the only two male actors in England).  How could anyone resist Renee Zellweger lounging alone at home in her jammies, singing “All By Myself” before falling into a drunken stupor?  How could anyone not find it satisfying that the snobbish female stick-insects of the movie ended up without either Colin Firth or Hugh Grant?

Colin Firth played the Darcy character in Bridget Jones’s Diary.  Not coincidentally, he also starred as Darcy in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and I believe he plays a not inconsiderable role in Jane Austen’s recent popularity. (Not that I would know anything about that.)

At the Jane Austen museum in Bath, England.
At the Jane Austen museum in Bath, England.

So at first, I was proud of Jane Austen for her continuing popularity, and I wanted to learn more.  I thought it would be fun to research all of the Austen knock-offs from the past few decades.  But alas, my pride in Austen quickly turned to prejudice against the Austen industry.  I realized it was futile to try to compile a comprehensive list; her spawn was multiplying far too rapidly for a mere mortal like me to get control over it.

As I noted above, at first I found the knock-offs charming.  But then my attitude changed.  As the little Austens began to reproduce more rapidly, I started to become frightened.  For example, the Bollywood version of “Pride and Prejudice,” called Bride and Prejudice, was initially intriguing.  But when the entire cast came out in matching outfits and started singing and dancing together, I cried in horror.  I wanted to do a Mr. Bennett and go hide in my library until they were done.

But the real trauma began with a novel and author whose names I fortunately do not remember.  This novel described Elizabeth and Darcy’s early married life in intimate detail.  And I mean intimate.  I’m not a prude, but when I read the description of Elizabeth and Darcy banging away on the dining room table, I blanched.  Not long after that enlightening scene came another scene of ardent embraces that took place under a tree in the yard.  Unfortunately, Elizabeth had just recently given birth and was not ready for such “activities,” so she started bleeding and, if I recall correctly, some of her placenta came out as well (?).  (I’m not making this stuff up.  I am not capable of making this stuff up.)  That was the end of that novel for me.

Years later, after the traumatic memory of the previous book had been safely buried, I started perusing a few more knock-offs, with titles such as The Jane Austen Book Club, Lost in Austen, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, and, God help us all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.   Every time I walk into a book store, I see at least one,  usually more, re-interpretations of an Austen novel.  To be honest, they all blur together in my head; I can no longer distinguish one baby Austen from the other.   There are so many of them at this point, it is almost like trying to distinguish one brand of cereal from another.

You’d think a zombie knock-off would be memorable, but it’s not. For the most part, Seth Grahame-Smith copied Pride and Prejudice word for word.  My people call this plagiarism.   I guess Grahame-Smith gets away with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because in every chapter or so he adds a paragraph or two in which zombies enter the scene and Elizabeth Bennett skillfully fights them off with her advanced zombie-killing skills.   Yawn.    Where’s the “value-added” as my friends in the business world like to ask?

I don’t know about you, dear readers, but I have had enough.  Twenty or thirty Austen knock-offs are enough.  We do not need several hundred of them.   LET’S STOP THE MADNESS!  Let’s put an end to the endless Austen wannabes.  Let us regain some sanity and JUST SAY NO.***

Let’s let Austen rest peacefully in her grave.

If authors feel they must write a knock-off of an amazing classic woman author, how about George Eliot or the Bronte sisters?  Maybe some Emily Dickinson?  Virginia Woolf?  Let’s spread the love around, shall we?

JUST SAY NO TO THIS!
JUST SAY NO TO THIS!

***Unless Colin Firth or Hugh Grant is involved.  We can never get enough of those two, especially together in the same film. ***

Blame it on Hong Kong: The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

 

“I’ve known girls like you for years.  You come over from England and don’t know what to do with yourselves.  You could be different.  You should take the opportunity to become something else.”  (55)

 

 The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y. K. Lee.  Viking, 2008

(quotations in this book are from the Barnes and Noble NOOK edition.)

 

Piano Teacher

 

What makes people who they are?  Is there one core self that remains immutable over time?  Or might there be several potential selves lying dormant, waiting for the opportunity to emerge?  What effect does place have on our identities, our conceptions of who we are?

Janice Y. K. Lee’s haunting 2008 novel The Piano Teacher explores these questions, among many others.  The novel is set in Hong Kong in two different periods:  the early 1940s, during the Japanese occupation, and the early 1950s, after the English are back in control of the colony.  The piano teacher of the title is Claire Pendleton, a newly married 28 year old English woman who has come to Hong Kong in the early 1950s with her husband, a man to whom she is not attracted.  She takes a job giving piano lessons to the child of Victor and Melody Chen, a wealthy Chinese couple.   Eventually, she meets the Chens’ English chauffeur, Will Truesdale, and begins an affair with him.

We learn that ten years earlier, Will Truesdale moved to Hong Kong and fell in love with Trudy Liang, a wealthy, beautiful, and charming Eurasian woman.  The novel switches back and forth in time, focusing on all three characters.  One of Lee’s major focuses is the effect of World War II and the brutal Japanese occupation on the characters.  While some characters show bravery and undying loyalty, many others descend into ugliness, into greed and betrayal.

While love and betrayal are perhaps the main themes of this novel, Lee simultaneously explores another issue:  that of the unstable self.   What happens to a person if they are unmoored from their home environment and everyone they know?   Claire Pendleton muses on this question throughout the novel and finds herself changing in ways she had never imagined possible.  She thinks at one point, “This is Hong Kong.  I am a woman, displaced.  A woman a world away from who I am supposed to be” (63).

Hong Kong
Hong Kong

When Claire first moves to Hong Kong, she is still unformed, having lived a sheltered life.  She does not like the person she has been up until this point.  She “wanted to be someone else.  The old Claire seemed provincial, ignorant” (37).   She senses that there is another Claire inside her, clamoring to come out, but this person was not able to emerge in the constraints of her English life.

“There had been times when Claire felt that she could become a different person.  She sensed it in herself, when someone made a comment at dinner, and she thought of the perfect, acerbic reply, or something even racy, and she felt her mouth opening, her lungs taking in air so that she could then push out the words, but they never came out.  She swallowed her thought, and the person she could have become sank down again, weighted by the Claire that was already too evident in the world.  She sensed it when she held a glass at a cocktail party and suddenly felt the urge to crush it in her hand.  She never did.  That hidden person had ballooned up and deflated so often, the elasticity of her possibility diminished over time.”

Transplanted to Hong Kong, though, her submerged self starts to grow, like a formerly stunted plant that thrives in the heat and humidity.

“But this was the thing:  she, herself, had changed in Hong Kong.  Something about the tropical clime had ripened her appearance, brought everything into harmony.  Where the other Englishwomen looked as if they were about to wilt in the heat, she thrived, like a hothouse flower.”

The change goes much deeper than her looks.   Unmoored from her familiar surroundings, she does things she never dreamed she would, such as having an extramarital affair with Will. It was as if “her old English self, with its defenses and prejudices, was dissolving in the humid, fetid environment around her.”   She is strongly attracted to Will, and perhaps in love with him.  However, she knows at some level that the real love affair she is having is with her newly emerging self.

“He didn’t have an idea of what she should be like.  She was a new person—one who could have an affair, one who could be ribald, or sarcastic, or clever, and he was never surprised.  She was out of context with him.  She was a new person.  Sometimes she felt that she was more in love with that new person she could be, that this affair was an affair with a new Claire, and that Will was just the enabler.” (65)

The combined influence of Hong Kong and her affair with Will transform Claire profoundly by the end of the novel.   To be sure, she is more sophisticated and sure of herself.  More interesting, though, is the way the ridiculous prejudices and narrow view of the world she brought with her to Hong Kong have begun to disappear.  Her intellectual horizons and her view of world broaden immeasurably and she sees herself a thread in the larger web of humanity.

The Piano Teacher is about more than Claire’s transformation, of course.  For starters, Claire’s emerging self was brought about at least in part by Will, who had previously been transformed by his relationship with Trudy. Trudy, in turn, depended on Will to define herself in a way that was not self-destructive.  I know that I am not doing justice to the complexity of this novel in this brief discussion.  The main point I want to make here is that it seems to me that Janice Lee is emphasizing in this novel not only the malleability of our selves, of who we are, but also the way our identities are created through our relationships with others and with our environments.

In case it wasn’t clear, I loved this book and would highly recommend it.  The portrayal of the English people in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion was fascinating to me.  So, too, were the complicated characters and their relationships with each other.  Trudy Liang is a particularly interesting character.  If you decide to read the book, don’t give up if you find the beginning less than compelling.   The characters and themes at first seemed shallow to me, but the war reveals all of the complexity beneath the surface.

What do you think about the issue of the self?  Do you think you would be essentially the same person no matter what circumstances you find yourself in?  Or do we, as Janice Lee suggests, have a number of competing selves inside us, waiting for the right opportunity to emerge?

 

 

Hong Kong
Hong Kong