Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Toughest Indian in the World, by Sherman Alexie, pt 1

‘Indianness’ is a central theme in Alexie’s work and race is a concern shared by all of his characters (with the exception, perhaps, of Robert Johnson in Reservation Blues). The reader is never allowed to forget the race of the characters nor encouraged to identify with them simply as people. Skin, hair and eye-colour are frequently used as defining features. References to race are so frequent in Alexie’s stories that I carried out a brief survey, selecting forty pages at random, from four of his books – two novels, Reservation Blues (1995) and Flight (2007), and two collections of short stories - Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) and The Toughest Indian in the World (2001). I counted all direct references to race (ie Indian, White, Black) including tribal affiliation (Lakota, Spokane, Flathead), blood quantum (half-blood, quarter-blood), and slang (breed, skins, redskins). I did not, though, include other Indian identifiers (braids, tipis, warriors, blue eyes). Using this method, I found an average of 2.2 direct references to race per page in Lone Ranger, 3.5 in Reservation Blues, 4.3 in Toughest Indian, and 2.6 in Flight. The effect is something akin to a jackhammer and after a while Alexie’s stories begin to feel oppressive. As a white reader, I am very much an outsider in Alexie’s world. Which is, of course, at least part of point.

In the early books, in particular, Alexie makes no attempt to link characters to universal themes or to acknowledge that there are common emotional experiences that extend beyond race. Alexie does not pander to a white audience and I get the feeling that he probably wouldn’t mind if he had no white audience at all. Thankfully, that is not the case. Over the past few decades, the New Age movement has hijacked Native American spirituality, and white America in general has romanticised Indians and Indian culture through the commercialisation of ‘Native American Wisdom’. Rather than allowing white Americans to empathise with Indians, as I think is the intention, this romantic view serves to assuage our guilt over the decimation of Native Americans in the 19th century, and their position at the bottom of economic and life expectancy surveys in the 21st. Alexie throws out that idealised, romantic image of Indians and gives us instead, a gritty, realistic one where poverty, violence and alcoholism are as much a part the Indian experience as powwows, vision quests and respect for Nature. White readers benefit from Alexie’s keen observation and biting criticism, which reflects the deep division between Native and non-Native Americans. Only by acknowledging that division, and our role in creating it, can true reparation begin.

Review of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas

As a writer, I enjoyed the narrative complexity of this novel: each of the six stories were compelling, and the links between them successfully bound them all together. The structure was interesting, with half of each narrative being told in chronological order up until the central chapter, Sloosha's Crossin', and then in reverse order in the second half of the book. My one grievance with this structure was that it took me a few pages to settle into the very different genre's during the first half, and in the second half, I kept having to flick back to the beginning chapters to remind myself what had happened previously (but that's probably just my poor memory).

Even though the second half of each of the stories (except for Letters from Zedelghem) ended on an upbeat, I was left feeling quite disheartened by the overall message, for the reader knows what the characters do not, that history is unfolding in ever more sinister ways and that Adam Ewing's fervent hope that 'humanity may transcend tooth & claw' is not to be. This is a depressing (though realistic) thought. I did, however, take hope from Robert Frobisher's final musings that the world goes in cycles and that 'We do not stay dead long....In thirteen years from now, we'll meet again at Gresham, ten years later I'll be back in this same room...composing this same letter...Such elegant certainties comfort me.' And even though I don't believe in reincarnation, they comfort me too. Otherwise, the future that Mitchell presents would be very depressing indeed.

Review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road

As a punctuation pedant, it always takes me a while to get into the swing of Cormac McCarthy novels, but I'm always glad when I can remove my teacherly hat and get sucked into the story. I found this one very moving, probably in part due to its stark simplicity. The relationship between the man and his son is beautifully portrayed and utterly tender. McCarthy is not a one-trick-pony; all of his books are different - always dark, but still always different. Which is possibly why the punctuation thing nags at me. I'm not sure why he's chosen to write this way. Yes, it represents a kind of bleakness, which he's famous for, but still it seems unnecessary. He does not need a gimmick like this to set himself apart from other writers. His stories do that for him. And it makes it really difficult to insist that my students use correct punctuation...

Review of Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark

Published in 1968, Outer Dark, is McCarthy's second novel. The black and pessimistic view of human nature, McCarthy's trademark, is there, and themes which emerge in later books are touched upon.

There are, however, some fairly rudimentary issues which kept me from being fully engaged with this book. For some reason McCarthy likes his characters to be as anonymous as possible, seldom referring to them by name. This, and the fact that he does not give us much in the way of physical description, made it very hard for me to picture Rinthy and Culla Holme and to care about them as people. Sure, we know that they live in the bleakest of circumstances (that’s pretty much a given for McCarthy’s characters) and that they are impoverished on all levels, but it is not until nearly half-way through the book that we learn the age of Rinthy. This matters. I do not necessarily need to know that Rinthy is nineteen years old, but it would have helped tremendously when trying to form an image of her, if I’d been given an indication of her age. Until that point, she could have been anywhere from thirteen to forty-five (roughly, the child-bearing years).

One of the other questions I had was why Rinthy suspected the tinker of taking the baby. Culla, himself, didn’t know this when he finally took her into the woods to see the spot where he claimed to have buried the body. After hearing an alligator in the first few pages, my initial concern, had I been Rinthy, would have been that the child had met a worse fate than being taken up by a passing tinker. I had further questions about the fate of the baby. Was it the burnt, one-eyed child that Culla eventually finds or not? If it was, how did the child wind up with these men? I’m all for a bit of ambiguity, but there are some questions that do need answers if the reader is to believe the story. Otherwise, it just seems conveniently coincidental.

McCarthy's work is known for its bleak and amoral view of human nature, and the seeds of his later masterpieces can be found in this early novel.

Review of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian

As can be said of all Cormac McCarthy novels, Blood Meridian is not for the faint-hearted. At its centre is 'the kid', a fourteen-year-old boy, sucked into a mercenary band of scalp hunters who rove the south-west frontier of 1849. As they drift from one bloody massacre to another, a hellish world unfolds.

There is little plot in this novel - the action is, for the most part episodic - and the omniscient narrator remains detached to the point that we never get inside the heads of the characters. This makes them feel two-dimensional and clich̩ in their bloodlust and I know that I've seen them all before Рthe psychotic murderers, the crooked lawmen, the Indian accomplices dressed in ill-fitting morning coats Рand because of the narrative distance, I learn nothing new about any of them. The narrator also has an amoral and objective tone: we are never asked to make judgments about or join in the depravity, but merely to be a witness. We do, however, get the sense early on that it is the judge, not Glanton, who we need to be wary of, and in the final chapter our suspicions are confirmed when we learn his true identity.

McCarthy's prose is stunning - visual, rich and multi-layered. Turn to any page and you will find imagery full of precision and clarity: "They did not noon nor did they siesta and the cotton eye of the moon squatted at broad day in the throat of the mountains to the east and they were still riding when it overtook them at its midnight meridian, sketching on the plain below a blue cameo of such dread pilgrims clanking north." It is for writing like this that I will continue to return to McCarthy.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Stepping Across the Chasm

This is a link the Synergise website which has just published an article I wrote about a visit to Malindi, Kenya. If you would like to have a look, please click here.