I’m fascinated by train wrecks in movies, and probably would be unable to look away if I saw one in real life, although I look away from needles going into anyone’s arms in both real life and reel life. And while I don’t slow down to gawk at what may be roadside accidents as I drive by, I have to slow down because traffic does (I don’t want to become the object of passing gawkers by rear-ending someone…) and at least glance at whatever is on the side of the road.
Shadow Tag (2010), the latest novel by Louise Erdrich (1954-), was too creepy for me, but could not look away or stop turning pages of it. I know that she has said that if the novel were a roman à clef, she would not have waited more than a decade after the suicide of her estranged husband (under a cloud of child abuse charges, Michael Dorris (1945-97), to write it. I do not find this convincing and couldn’t not read Shadow Tag without the knowledge that, like the couple in the novel, Gil and Irene, Dorris and Erdrich had “an iconic marriage” as a model Native American artist couple that descended into horror (child abuse and/or child abuse accusations, substance abuse, and suicide, for sure, and complicated deceptions I’m pretty sure).
I’ll grant a difference in method of ending the war between the fictional couple, and that instead of the three daughters Erdrich had with Dorris, only one of the three young children in the novel is female, and that there is an observer character named Louise (whom I think Erdrich would prefer to have been rather than being like Irene…). But the fraught material is very close to home, the home in which like Dorris, Gil works on the second floor.
An important difference between life and fiction is that despite being a decade younger, and Dorris’s student at Dartmouth, Erdrich won a National Book Critics Circle Award (for Fiction, for Love Medicine five years before he won one (for General Nonfiction, for The Broken Cord (1984 and 1989, respectively). Irene stopped work on a dissertation on Canadian Métis rebel Louis Riel (1844-85) to make and raise babies, and is contemplating writing one about George Catlin (1796-1872). She has not even begun “her work.” Gil has become a successful painter with a series of paintings of Irene “in all of her incarnations – thin and virginal, a girl, then womanly, pregnant, naked, demurely posed or frankly pornographic. . . . She had allowed him to paint her on all fours, looking beaten once, another time snarling like a dog and bleeding, menstruating. In other paintings she was a goddess, breasts tipped with golden fire. . . . She appeared raped, dismembered, dying of smallpox in graphic medical detail.”
Irene has more Native American blood (including a tribal registration, like Erdrich) than Gil (who claims a mixture; a claim like the one Dorris made that has been regarded with skepticism) and identifies with the Mandan painted by Catlin: some of whom felt their spirit had been stolen in the images and many of whom died of smallpox soon after being painted. She changes a story in which Catlin gave back a profile portrait, feeling that the father of her children has damaged her spirit, while acknowledging complicity she now regrets: “By remaining still, in one position or another, for her husband, she had released a double into the world. It was impossible, now, to withdraw that reflection. Gil owned it. He had stepped on her shadow.” (This last references a belief about harming spirits and relates to the title game of tag stepping on a shadow. Gil stands directly under the streetlight, so has no shadow.)
In displaying what few won’t see as a representation of her marriage that puts herself and her dead husband on display even while protesting Gil’s exploitation of Irene. This strikes me as in the trying to have your cake and eat it too league. Moreover, she seems to be putting Dorris’s pathologies on the page here more than Dorris ever put Erdrich’s on the page.
At the start of the novel Irene realizes that her jealous husband has been reading her diary. She starts writing another one in a bank vault-not just stored there, but written there-and starts writing what she knows will torment him in the diary he has been sneaking looks at. This works, but a more tormented husband is a more tormenting one, not least in abusing the children, who sense a divorce and fear his receiving custody of them. Their sensitive pets provide some protection: “When Gil was about to lose his temper one of the dogs always appeared and did something to divert his attention.”
Explaining how the character named Louise enters the story would constitute plot spoiling, and the third narrator (in addition to Irene’s two diaries) is not revealed until the very end-in an anti-climax. I don’t like either the ending or this twist, though there is something inevitable about the ending and clever about the twist. I liked the book more until then, and was expecting a more conventional feminist ending.
In all three narratives Gil loves Irene and the children and Irene has major flaws of her own: indecisiveness and excessive alcohol intake to name two. The youngest child, Stoney, draws her with what looks like a tulip growing out of one hand. It is his representation of her ubiquitous wine glass. (Both Erdrich and Dorris have written much about Native alcohol abuse in their fiction and nonfiction.)
In addition to not liking the ending and not liking to be forced to think about the real-life Dorris-Erdrich pathological relationship, I thought there were some analytical statements – most notably “his outlook was sentimental while hers was tragic” – that made me want to tell Erdrich “Show, don’t tell!” even though I do not believe this is a categorical imperative for fiction writers. Indeed, if it is crisply expressed, I can like such statements, e.g., “[Gil] had no idea how much he hated Irene because he was so focused on winning back her love,” which is also shorthand.