Monday, January 25, 2010

2010, Book Six: Louise Erdrich's Shadow Tag

An innocent children’s game becomes a metaphor for a tense psychological tug of war between an unhappy Minnesota couple in Louise Erdrich’s powerful and disturbing new novel, Shadow Tag.

The couple, Irene America and her husband, Gil, live in suburban Minneapolis with their three children and two dogs. Gil is an artist. Irene is Gil’s model and muse.

Before the two met Gil painted uninspired landscapes, but with Irene as his subject his paintings have achieved a quality that has brought him limited fame and fortune. (Envision a lesser Andrew Wyeth and his Helga painting.) Gil is now successful enough to support his family, but not so successful that he can escape being labeled a “Native American” artist.

It is their mutual dependence upon Gil’s art that both binds the couple together and pushes them apart, and which sets off an elaborate and cruel game of emotional manipulation. Gil resents Irene because he cannot achieve success without her. Irene, who has been unsuccessful in launching her own academic career, resents her financial dependence on Gil, who she claims to no longer love.

In a diary entry, Irene writes of Gil: “But here is the most telling thing: you wish to possess me. And my mistake: I loved you and let you think you could.”

Now Irene wants a divorce, but she is incapable of acting independently. Instead, she needs Gil to drive her away. Gil claims to love Irene, but their lovemaking is satisfying only when they bring physical pain to one another. Irene’s response to Gil’s escalating violence is almost nonchalant. When he viciously strikes his oldest son over a missing book report she photographs the bruise on the boy’s forehead, but does nothing more. Later when Gil rapes her, Irene’s response is to take a bubble bath.

Irene, who spends much of the book in an alcoholic haze, is not without cruelty of her own. Convinced that Gil, who suspects her of infidelity, is reading her diary, Irene creates two sets of diaries. She stores her true diary in a safety deposit box at a local bank. In her mock diary, kept in a file cabinet in her home office, she writes falsehoods that she knows will reveal Gil’s betrayal of trust and that will deepen his suspicions and anger. As with all married couples, Irene knows Gil’s insecurities and how to stir the embers of uncertainty, mistrust and vanity.

In shadow tag, children don't touch one another, instead shadows touch shadows. And that's what has happened to Gil and Irene. Each is so focused on their own desires -- their own needs -- that they look beyond one another. They are incapable of touching in any meaningful or loving way.

There are scenes of brutal candor and clarity. Stoney, the youngest child, loves to draw. He draws the dogs, his siblings, his father and mother.

In every picture, at the end of his mother’s hand, Stony drew a stick with a little half-moon on the end of it . . .

Look, said Irene, when she’d paged through her portraits and admired her carefully drawn outfits. There’s this thing on my hand, like another appendage, it’s always there. In every picture. What is it, Stoney?

The wineglass.

Irene was silent.

He thinks it’s part of you, said Florian.”

Shadow Tag is something of a departure for Erdrich.

Many of her familiar characters that appear from novel to novel – such as the Kashpaws – have been set aside. Her frequent use of magical realism and humor have also been abandoned in this novel, which is all too realistic and grimly absent of humor. Gil and Irene are Native America, but their ethnicity is of no bearing on the story. They could be Jews or Scotch Irish or Vulcan for all it matters.

Erdrich’s focus is in probing the shadowy regions of a marriage beyond saving, of a couple beyond redemption. It is a powerful, haunting novel that stands as Erdrich’s most accomplished work.

Published by Harper, Shadow Tag will be issued in February.

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