My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Browsing in a library the other day, I came upon a reference—in I don’t recall which book by I don’t recall which author—to the idea of a real novelist, as opposed to a novelist whose primary interests are moral or ideological (I believe the examples of the latter were Camus and/or Baldwin). I would not want to make a hard rule out of this, because it would too decisively separate intellect from art; while maybe Camus or Baldwin (or Orwell or Kundera) could be said to write novels whose thick themes are imperfectly joined to the thin fiction meant to realize them, you could not say the same of, for example, the best novels of Eliot, Dostoevsky, Mann, Ellison, Bellow, or Ozick, in which art and idea are all of one piece.
Even at that, though, I know a real novelist when I see one, and Louise Erdrich is a real novelist. Switching my metaphor, the genuine novelist breathes in her element, can live forever in her imagined universe, and never need surface to a higher medium of justification—politics, morals, religion. Which is not to say that Erdrich’s first novel, Love Medicine (1984; revised edition 2009), has no politics or religion; it has plenty, but they are wholly immanent to the story she wants to tell. They are visible in the lives of the characters instead of being insisted upon by the narrator or overtly wrought into an allegorical plot by the author.
To summarize Love Medicine would be pointless, as I would have to explicate the family tree adorning the spread before the novel’s first page, and to fully explain the family tree, I would more or less have to rewrite the whole book. (As I once noted of Elizabeth Bishop, one of the tricks literature likes to play is to cause us to think we are reading the map when we are actually traversing the territory; this makes sense if you consider literature to be a form of expression that is constitutionally hostile to abstraction, a lapse in which hostility may be the definitive feature of the ideological as opposed to the genuine novelist.) Suffice it to say that Love Medicine narrates the complex interrelations, from the 1930s to the 1980s, among several families (the Lamartines, the Pillagers, and the Kashpaws) on an Ojibwe reservation and environs in North Dakota and Minnesota. But “narrates” might be the wrong word, as the novel’s characters mostly narrate their stories for themselves in a set of linked short stories that make up the book, itself only the opening episode of what the jacket copy calls Erdrich’s “Native American series.”
The novel-in-stories (what Ted Gioia has called “the fragmented novel”) has its potential pitfalls—done poorly, it so disperses our attention that no one character or story stands out, thus diffusing the entire novel. But its advantage, shown superbly by Erdrich’s performance here, is that it can allow the novelist, especially if she is writing a family saga, to forego reams of plodding explanatory narration, of the kind that afflicted the 19th-century novel with its longueurs. Erdrich instead keeps the characters in constant motion while requiring the reader’s attentive participation in constructing the whole pattern of relation suggested by the fragmented plot. That may sound like an arcane description of technique, but it just an attempt to explain (abstractly, that is, non-literarily) why Erdrich’s stories are both exciting and discrete narratives in themselves—often wildly varying in tone, style, and theme—even as they add up to a coherent novel, and, I assume, even a mega-novel formed by the other books in the series.
Erdrich organizes Love Medicine around an absence: the novel begins with the last night on earth of June Morrissey, as she meets her death by walking into a snowstorm back toward the reservation after a loveless assignation with a trucker that marks the culmination of failed escape to city life. June’s death is the vortex the novel swirls around, as Erdrich, after the first chapter, goes back to the early 20th century to tell the whole story of the family matrix in which June was formed before ending with the coming-of-age of June’s son.
Love Medicine‘s absent-center construction embodies its theme, as the novel is a lament over the passing of a more intense and spiritual age, which it only partially identifies with traditional Ojibwe culture. The older generation who were immersed in that culture, represented by the characters Rushes Bear and Moses Pillager, are somewhat distant spiritual authorities and guides for a younger generation adrift in an ugly, impoverished post-Vietnam and Reagan-era America. The novel has a strong Catholic presence as well (reflecting Erdrich’s dual heritage), and, while the Catholics are portrayed more ambivalently than the older generation of Ojibwe—the second chapter features a sadistic nun who makes the priests in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man look like models of enlightened thinking—Catholicism itself is ultimately honored as a source of visionary experience and spiritual energy. In mode, the novel tends to alternate between passages of romantic intensity, often associated with the past, and passages of very 1980s “dirty realism,” though often leavened by gritty comedy, used to describe the narrative present of persistent poverty, incarceration, and alcoholism, as David Treuer, censuring overly identitarian critics of the novel from his own doubled perspective as modernist aesthete and Ojibwe scion, points out in Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual:
The metaphoric language…provides a metaphoric wash that is applied liberally over the past, giving it a special antique tint. The past becomes, not larger than life, but larger than modern life, which is crabbed and cramped and impoverished.
Unlike some other great writers in the era of high multiculturalism, such as Heaney, Morrison, or Walcott, Erdrich does not seem to trade in a politics of nation, race, ethnicity or even cultural exclusivity. The novel’s main white character, Marie Lazarre, marries into the Kashpaw family and becomes one of the narrative’s central moral authorities; she seems to gain the respect of her mother-in-law, Rushes Bear, in part because she has since childhood been a kind of Catholic visionary. Not only that, but the “love medicine” of the title is ambivalently and somewhat farcically portrayed in the book’s second half, as if Erdrich wished to hedge on authentic magic’s capacity to survive in the degraded present, for anyone, Indian or otherwise. Finally, the novel often emphasizes the class of its characters, white and Indian, as they are left impoverished in the upper Midwest by distant, hostile economic and political forces.
Like many novels-in-stories, Love Medicine probably does not impress its characters on us sufficiently, as they make fleeting impressions without being present to us over a long duration. Like much fiction that relies on the quirky voices of first-person narrators, it can at times feel forced or gimmicky. It also sometimes descends, in trying to represent states of religious transport or sexual ecstasy or incipient madness, to a vague and portentous lyricism that for too many readers has come to define “literary fiction”:
Her look was black and endless and melting pure. She looked through him. She saw into the troubled thrashing woods of him, a railing thicket of bones.
Erdrich’s fictional world, though, is large enough to dissipate objection. In command of the novelist’s demiurgic power, she has her people up and walking around in a three-dimensional landscape and, for the most part, you will just want to listen to what they say and watch what they do. More than that, Love Medicine, though often comic, beautifully expresses the longing of its characters to escape its own grim confines. Rising above realism without the aid of outright fantasy, it hints at a fourth dimension above—or suffusing—the three of “reality.” It is more ecumenical about the modes of escape—including sex and death, as well as traditional Catholic and Ojibwe lifeways (though not the false exit of alcoholism)—than its reputation as a particularly “ethnic” novel would suggest. It is, because and not in spite of its commitment to the local, a 20th-century novel through and through: it demands that there must be more than what the modern world has left its characters with when it confiscated their gods, but unable to believe fully in what that more might be. The narrative is the movement the characters—and the author—make when they stretch toward the beyond of a squalid realism:
How come we’ve got these bodies? They are frail supports for what we feel. There are times I get so homed in by my arms and legs I look forward to getting past them. As though death will set me free like a traveling cloud. I’ll get past the ragged leaves that dead bum of my youth looked into. I’ll be out there as a piece of the endless body of the world feeling pleasures so much larger than skin and bones and blood.
Perhaps all genuine novelists, when they are unencumbered by the weight of conviction, are able to make this movement. Such more-than-realism is as close as we can get to isolating the real of the real novel.