My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A fundamental conflict in modern literature: there is, on the one hand, Yeats summoning the gods to Dublin in revolt and Morrison defending the honor of colonized and subjugated peoples’ “discredited knowledge”; on the other hand, we have Joyce’s carnivalesque mockery of all attempts to mythicize modern politics and Nabokov’s denunciation of “regional literature, artificial folklore.”
In the first case, the writer resists a bludgeoning and imperial modernity by pitting against it the very metaphysical forces it seeks to extirpate; for the second set of writers, by contrast, all myths, those of the colonizers and those of the colonized alike, are fictions, impositions redeemable only insofar as they may serve as the playthings of an ironical artificer.
In practice, all the writers I named are at once irresistibly attracted to the myths and committed to the irony inherent to complex literary forms, yet the belief that a revived magic may resist the march of imperial reason does divide them. The magical realists vs. the ironists, who expose all magic and all realism as sham and imposture.
Louise Erdrich, for her part, is clear enough in several passages of Antelope Woman about the magical realist’s enemies. First, capitalism and its assault on the commons:
Because of the Dawes Act, reservation land was parceled out to individuals instead of remaining in tribal trust possession. Land was the only thing that hungry people owned, and it started to disappear with astounding haste.
Then the idea of progress, with its inherent bias toward eliminating elements it considers backward and reactionary:
The walls were paneled with ancient oak worked into scenes of progress. There were wagons, valiant pioneers, oxen, plows, trains of course. As the Americans advanced counterclockwise around the great waiting room, Indians melted away before them…
Finally, the idea that time is both linear and divisible, the idea upon which all subsequent imperial progressions and capitalist allotments depends:
Although the Ojibwe never had a special day to pray until mission and boarding schools taught how you could slack off the rest of the week, Sunday now has its name. Praying Day.
The novel, first published as The Antelope Wife in 1998 and in this retitled revision in 2016, resists the ideology of progress with a twisting and recursive narrative and resists the ideology of individualism with a family saga plot whose characters, including spouses and lovers, humans and animals, are all related by blood. Plains Indian beadwork is the novel’s model for art; a myth humming in the novel’s background pictures the cosmos as beaded into existence by rivalrous twin sisters, one adding dark and the other light, each trying to overturn the balance of good and evil. Unlike other authors in the feminist-multiculturalist counter-canon, Erdrich indulges little moralism: she knows that the progressive dream of eliminating evil—yes, even evils like racism or rape—is at one with the eliminationist dreams of those who led the march of progress across the Plains that trampled indigenous America.
Antelope Woman begins in racism: a Quaker Union soldier named Scranton Roy soldier slaughters an old woman during a general massacre of the Ojibwe in the 1860s, before his remorse causes him to follow a child carried on a sled by dogs from the massacre. In the novel’s first instance of magic, he rescues the child and nurses it. Meanwhile, the child’s mourning mother tries to overcome her sorrow by nursing a dog before she bears the novel’s first set of twins to a man named Shawano. The soldier’s son will later marry the twins, and they will have the children whose descendants populate this most populous novel.
One of those descendants, in the present, is possessed by wiindigoo love and commits the novel’s act of rape, in the etymological and in the modern sense, when he kidnaps a woman at a powwow and takes her back with him to urban Minneapolis, where he is living with more descendants of the Roy/Shawano family. This rapt woman, Calico Sweetheart, proves eventually to be our eponymous heroine, the scion of the 1860s massacre’s child survivor and an antelope: she is a speechless and ensorcelling hybrid of woman and animal stalking the modern city, which, despite its modernity, harbors more twins, more talking animals, and more overall magic. Two present-day characters, also Roy/Shawano descendants, half-white and half-Indian, connected to tradition through their grandmothers but tied by economics to urbane modernity, discuss the problem with which we began:
“We developed as a people over many thousands of years. Our culture. Our ways. Our adaptations. Then all of a sudden in one generation—wham. Warp-speed acculturation. And now we’re the products of two cultures. Something happened in our family that cannot be explained by the culture we live in now. When our mothers tell the stories they heard from their grandmothers and great-grandmothers, we listen and nod as if we think the stories are true. But we don’t think they’re true.”
The novel’s narrator, by the way, is a dog—a descendant of the dog nursed by the mourning Ojibwe mother in the opening chapters. Proficient in dirty jokes and metafictional reflections, this narrator, who literally offers history from below, is capable too of Erdrich’s lyrical-mythical style: “The world halted. There sounded a great gong made of sky. A gasp. Silence.” This kind of rhetoric sits in Antelope Woman without blushing beside passages of Carveresque naturalist desperation as well as of cute sitcom dialogue and broad comic set-ups. In one scene, a woman trying to surprise her man on his birthday instead greets an entire surprise party while wearing nothing but stick-on bows on her nipples; in another an old woman accidentally sprays her granddaughters’ glitter on her vulva while preparing for a gynecologist appointment.
Erdrich, in short, negotiates the divide outlined in my first paragraph above by ignoring it. She is mythical when she wants to be, realist when she needs to be, and carnivalesque as the mood strikes her. Modern or postmodern disenchantment doesn’t defeat spiritual tradition, but, by undermining the presumptions of reason and coherence, becomes its matrix in the modern novel. The twin-beset family of her family saga is mixed—they are part white and part Ojibwe; they practice some Ojibwe traditions, hold some Christian beliefs, celebrate some American holidays, and read some pagan European authors of antiquity. Of the Iliad, a character comments:
“We’re just like those people, never knowing what the gods or the government is going to do to us next.”
The federal government is mocked and derided throughout the novel; unlike other American minority groups, Native Americans perhaps have a harder time seeing the state as guard and guarantor of rights. But the American Indian Movement is queried, too, for what Erdrich portrays as its swaggering masculinism. Calico Sweetheart is both a female victim of male predation and a supernal threat in her own right. The world is dark and light. Why should a novel not seek the same balance of opposites?
Some of this book’s mythical passages are too portentous—magical realism to the point of self-parody—and some of its gritty realism drifts into staginess, as in the aforementioned bawdy sitcom scenes. It is also a problem that the novel can find no verbal register between the mythical moments’ overheated “litfic” lyricism and the realist chapters’ slangy YA breeziness, though this is typical of contemporary literature. All the same, I respect Erdrich’s commitment to living the world’s contradictions in a fiction than knows it’s a fiction rather than trying to give them some forced and false resolution that would dare call itself the absolute truth.