Monthly Archives: June 2012

An Exorcism in (Non-)Fiction

When you leave whatever godforsaken place for the big city, your departure inspires rituals of hand-wringing and flurries of nervous questioning from the extended family. They watch concerned as you disappear into the vortex of banal evil where good people have no chance against the bad. But in these imaginings of the city as the heart of human darkness, we overlook the more deliberate, simmering violence of small town life.

Those little places are full of brutality, the kind that can’t be washed away, only covered like bloodstained hardwood under shag carpet.  What scares small town folks most about the city is the flippancy of violence, how the guy laying his fists into you isn’t someone you’ve lived less than five miles from all your life and there’s a black hole where a family tree’s worth of history should be to connect his punches to.

It is this kind of suffocating small town violence that pervades the pages of Growing Up Dead in Texas, the new “novel” by Stephen Graham Jones. It begins with Jone’s return to Greenwood, the West Texas town he grew up  in, to find out what really happened one morning in 1985 when someone set  the tiny town’s cotton ablaze. But that act of arson is just the first firecracker in a long line of minor explosions. As blame shifts wildly from one person to the next, bystanders are left bloodied to a pulp, their faces or fates never quite the same. Each year the list of dead (and mangled) grows and it all has the feel of a tragic script: it’s not over until everybody has been wounded, from cheerleader to King.

Cotton being compressed and bundled up in another small West Texas town. Source: (website of Stephen Graham Jones_

Jones was only twelve when this all happened, too young to fit the pieces together but sensitive enough to feel dark forces at work. He takes us from one secret to the next, each unturned stone smeared with blood. Earlier I called this journey into the past a “novel” because that’s what the cover claims. But Jones comes right out in the preface and states “…this wasn’t going to be a novel.” Then one paragraph later, he’s telling us he doesn’t think non-fiction is possible. What are we to believe? Novel, memoir, fiction, non-fiction? There will be no answer.

Unrelenting in his insecurity, Jones struggles defiantly with the expectations of his form and documents his exasperation at every step. In each statement there hangs a question as he takes aim at his own authority. Does he really have to change people’s names? Can he tell little lies for the sake of story? Does he have to tell us when he lies? Towards the end of the book, Jones seems to be begging, Must I go on like this?

While I was sucked into the intricacies of the mystery, constructing in my mind one of those tack boards you see in the background of cop procedural shows, the most rewarding parts of the book are when Jones unlocks his own memories. His account is as full of his own secrets as the secrets of the townspeople. Many of those secrets include his own acts of violence, starting with all the pets he’s had to kill. The first was a kitten, born prematurely with no chance in the world. Jones, in muleskin boots still to big for him, raises a cinder block above his head and lets it fall on the doomed life before going in for breakfast without saying a word. “It was how I knew I was grown up: I had things inside me that weren’t for anybody else.”

These searching moments, when Jones looks for the spark for the being he has become, provide an intimate look at what drives a person to narrate life. He does so not only for himself but for the town itself and all the people in it, looking for where everything began.

We think of such narration as an act of creation, but Jones also reveals the destruction at the center of stories. He takes us into imagined scenes, crafting conversations he could have never heard drawing out all the sad detail and crushing precision of rural poetry where so much of the meter depends on silence. And then almost cruelly he tells us, “Lies. All of it.” He never allows us to fall completely into his deceit. He has to tell us, “This is piecemeal, secondhand, polluted, cleaned-up then tore down, worse, but still, it’s the only way it could have gone, too.” Though he points to the seams of his narrative to expose its artifice, he is at the same time praising his craft for making the past real again or at least as real as it will ever get.

Despite the confusion of genres and unhinged narration, the book has already heralded as the “break-out novel” for a writer who up to this point has been known by some as a genre writer who tells zany stories about rabbit zombies and by others as the post-modern Blackfeet writer who tells stories that sound like acid trips. While his sentences are more straightforward in this book, beginning and ending in a trajectory that is mostly followable, the story is no less complex than his other other-dimensional novels. You can always count on Jones to bring the weird. Even as he slips into the occasional cliche (a first in my experiences with him and endemic it seems to writing about rural America), he leaves the typical phrase gutted and real again by the next paragraph.

I haven’t gone much into the complexities of the plot here because that might require a mapping of major players and a detailed timeline (which Jones himself does not provide). And as fascinating as it is to watch unfold, much like the smoke rising from a cotton fire, the book is more fascinating for what it says about the story being told.

Authors, critics, and readers too are always trying to prove that stories matter to the world, that they give our society a soul and define our humanity. For Stephen Graham Jones, the story is important not just for humanity, here defined as those left behind in Greenwood, but most importantly for the one who got away, the writer himself. His story is there to lead him back to the person he tried to destroy, not in order to escape but to exorcise the desire to escape. In the beginning he tells us he has finally left West Texas behind with this book. On the last page, he says he is still watching the smoke rise on a December morning in 1985. Unlike the usual saying about fiction, these are not beautiful lies. But they are honest ones.

Book I Talked About:

Growing Up Dead in Texas, by Stephen Graham Jones. (June 12, 2012, MP Publishing Limited)


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The Christ Complex Down Under

Poster for the movie details the children torn between primitive man and burning civilization. I like the use of “world’s last frontier”–exemplifies a fluidity between Australian outback and apocalyptic frontier in sci-fi.

I find it hard to believe that anyone found it necessary to resurrect Walkabout, the 1959 novel by James Vance Marshall, that was mostly forgotten until adapted into film in 1971 by Nicholas Roeg. Yet for some reason the usually discerning New York Review of Books has ordained it a “small, perfect book.”

The only thing that is perfect about this book, besides the short-lived pain of reading it, is how easy it is to tear apart.

It tells in pseudo-parabolic form the story of two American children, Peter and Mary, who are stranded in the Australian wilderness after watching the rest of the passengers on their airplane dissolve into fire. As they walk away from the ashes of civilized technology, a primordial world of otherness opens before them in all its horrifying expanse.

Just as their situation becomes dire, and we’re starting to think maybe this book could get interesting and the kids will die, an aboriginal boy on his adolescent rite, the “walkabout” of the title, discovers and leads them to food and water. Upon their meeting, in his typically overwrought tone of explanation, Marshall painfully demarcates the differences between whiteness and Indigeneity. While the primitive in Peter and Mary “had long ago been swept away…by the standardized pattern of the white man’s way of life”, the aboriginal “knew what reality was” and lived a life that was “unbelievably simple” and “utterly uncomplicated.”

Thus begins a thanksgiving myth for the Australian landscape in which the Peter is taught how to fish and Mary struggles with her own disgust over a naked black body. In the tragic clash of civilization and savagery, Mary’s contorted grimace at the boy’s nudity is interpreted as the perception of the spirit of death in him. Here, Marshall’s total lack of knowledge, research, and respect rears it head, his ignorance providing the central drama of the book. Brushing past tribal beliefs about death by magic, performed by a ritual executioner not a scared white girl, Marshall explains that the boy will soon die…. from superstition. And die he does but not before forgiving Mary and she, realizing her cruelty, accepts him as one of god’s children.

Besides the story being so blatantly colonial in its premise and plot, the style is the combination of dolled-up bible prose and a PowerPoint presentation. Marshall, in his desire to be the dispenser of moral parables, tell us exactly what and how to encounter everything in the world he has created. When Peter begins to do a dance mimicking the platypus, just as the aboriginal had mimicked the lyre bird, Marshall at the end of his description must spell out “shades of the bush boy and lyre bird” lest our memory fails to extend back twenty pages. To further the transfer of Indigenous identity from Aboriginal to Peter, Marshall has Peter marvel at the darkening color of his skin. Nothing in the book is subtle, nor is it innocent.

Later when Mary tells Peter that the aboriginal boy, referred to as “darkie” throughout the book, has gone to heaven, Marshall turns on the sentimentality of a multicultural poster. “…She believed it. More than believed it. Knew it. Knew that heaven, like earth, was one.” But of course while we may all be one, half of that “oneness” has to die for the other to live.

In the introduction to the new edition, written by Lee Siegel, much is made of Marshall’s  spiritual message while his “romantic excess” (i.e. racism) is glanced over and forgiven. To Siegel, who is guilty of such excesses himself, Marshall’s “modestly subversive variation on the Christian myth is simply another version of the necessity of people to care for one another.” In this case, it is necessary for an Aboriginal to care for white children and then only necessary for those white children to care for him after he’s dead.

And what is so subversive in killing off the Aboriginal? That is the oldest trope in Euro-American culture. Does the subversion come from the fact that Marshall is writing about Aboriginals at all? There is certainly nothing subversive about white writers bringing the Christ complex to a continent that doesn’t belong to them. This impulse to bring biblical stories to sites of contact with indigenous peoples is the literary equivalent of bringing priests along on your conquests, and it too has been happening for hundreds of years.

But of course this is about more than mere salvation. It is very much about the process of settlement. The savior at the end of the story is not actually the Aboriginal but the house of a white man waiting for the children after their journey. It is the literal settlement of foreigners, not a continued life in nature, that is the true end goal of the book. Though Peter and Mary cannot remain in the Garden of Eden, the paradise of primitiveness being forever lost to them, they can incorporate that experience into their identity in order to be better white settlers. The death of the Aboriginal boy because of his primitive superstitions suggests that they are in fact even better Aboriginals than the Aboriginal himself because of their Christian beliefs.

The walkabout all along has been the initiation rite for the white children. It requires the death of their primitive childhood and embodied in the literal death of the aboriginal boy, in order for them to take up the mantle of mature white settlers. It is as if the two children have gone away to a more dangerous version of summer camp. At the end of the book, Peter turns to Mary and says in the Aboriginal’s language, “Kurura,” meaning follow. It is supposed to be a touching moment. But for me this final transference  of Indigeneity into a white boy is like when Michael Jackson’s eyes glow at the end of the Thriller video. The monster has peeked out from behind its mask of innocence and walks away to continue the, in this case metaphorical, consumption of vulnerable bodies.

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Happy Birthday Louise Erdrich!

Louise Erdrich in her dorm room at Dartmouth. I know, I know. She’s a babe. And a phenomenal writer. Pretty much leaves no room for the rest of us aspiring writer mixedblood ladies.

Louise Erdrich is many things. The literary queen of the mixedbloods. The Faulkner of Indians. The Ojibwe beauty queen. She is also today’s birthday girl.

Erdrich was born on this day in 1954 into the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. She was born in Little Falls, Minnesota but was raised in North Dakota where many of her books also take place. Her first book Love Medicine established her style and content for the next several years: multi-generational narratives focused on several particular families on the same Ojibwe reservation.

Love Medicine sounds potentially like a horribly cheesy Native romance saga and the paperback edition I read had a horribly cheesy cover. While it is true that Erdrich writes about love, she is rarely sentimental. For me, she is  one of few who can successfully communicate the insanity of love with prose that is daring, unexpected, and seamlessly connected to larger narratives of human experience.

Many people credit her heartbreaking prose to her tragically failed romantic relationship with Michael Dorris. Honestly, I’m not very interested in tracing their tortured affair through the male characters and broken families of her books. But I will say The Antelope Wife was the first book she wrote after their divorce and it is one of the most genuinely sad books I have ever read.

After I merged my being with Love Medicine and The Antelope Wife, I attempted Plague of Doves but set it aside after suffering the equivalent of a reading faint. Erdrich could probably write about a tree losing its bark and I would start bawling, but the multi-layered, multi-generational narratives started to wear on me. I mean you can only read so many of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels before you need to take a literary nap.

Returning to her now though I realize there are some odd ball books thrown into her oeuvre that I should give a chance, chief among them is The Master Butcher’s Singing Club a mystery story which focuses more on German immigrant culture though still involves enough characters to warrant a family tree in the front matter. Erdrich has taken some flack for her alleged lack of allegiance to Native communities, i.e. she acknowledges and writes about her European ancestry and that bothers people.But as with her writing on love and heartbreak and loss, her books with German immigrant culture come from an intensely honest desire to write all aspects of her self.

To a large degree, I think haters might be coming from a place of anxiety about what constitutes Native American literature and also a need to protect Indian identity. Second only to Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich is the cross-over success story of Native authors. Perhaps other Natives, authors in particular (cough, Leslie Marmon Silko, cough), fear losing the powerful message of Native identity found in her novels once she is thrown into the Oprah-approved, literary mainstream.

In this instance, I often compare her to Toni Morrison whose book Beloved is still I think one of the greatest literary expositions of the trauma of slavery in the black community. It may be a bestseller, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the truth. The same goes for Ms. Erdrich.

If anyone still doubts Erdrich’s support of Native peoples, her independent bookstore  Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, MN, which is a big promoter of Native authors, artists, and community, should act as the proper slap in the face. If for some godforsaken reason I ever find myself in Minneapolis, it is on the top of my list of places to visit (along with everywhere The Replacements ever breathed on).

So, on this day of your birth, I offer my humble thanks to Louise Erdrich for refusing to be anything less than what she is. And what she is is a master creator, re-crafting the shipwreck of Indian and settler lives and encounters into structures as beautiful and complex as her life and person.

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