In John Irving’s latest novel, Last Night in Twisted River, one of the characters, a writer, complains about book reviewers:
In the media, real life was more important than fiction; those elements of a novel that were, at least, based on personal experience were of more interest to the general public than those pieces of the novel-writing process that were “merely” made up.
One can imagine Louise Erdrich, making the rounds to promote her new novel Shadow Tag, making the same complaint and saying, as Irving’s character Danny “subversively” said,
…a fiction writer’s job was imagining, truly, a whole story … because real- life stories were never whole, never complete in the ways that novels could be.
So let’s get one thing out of the way to begin with. Louise Erdrich used to be married to Michael Dorris, their careers were intertwined, their marriage ended in divorce with allegations of child abuse and Dorris committed suicide.
Now let’s move on to Erdrich’s fiction.
In Shadow Tag Erdrich creates a story of people trying to save a family when the parents really should divorce. This could have been an excruciating novel to read but it isn’t, partly because it is short (slightly over 250 pages), it moves fast (most of the story takes place over a 2 month period) and Erdrich intersperses the very intense parts of the story with vignettes of every day life (making dinner, helping the kids into their snow gear, etc).
Irene and Gil have been married since the early 90’s, he is a successful painter although he has been pigeonholed as an “Indian” painter. Irene is his model and muse. She has been working on her dissertation analyzing the paintings of George Catlin but without any real focus. They have three children: Florian, Riel and Stoney. To all exterior appearances they are a model family. But Irene and Gil’s marriage is falling apart. And when Irene discovers right at the beginning of the novel that Gil has been reading her private journal, something inside her snaps.
This little novel is knee-deep in themes to be explored (so it is a shame that it is Erdrich’s personal life that is the topic of so much critical attention). You could focus on “women’s” themes alone for a very long time. Irene has spent her life furthering Gil’s career. Gil’s paintings are often exploitative of Irene’s body. Irene is trapped in her marriage if she wants to protect her children because she has no way to support them and Gil is, essentially, holding them hostage to keep her there. And of course there is an entire post to be written about men’s possessory interest (both legal and emotional) in women.
But, on the other hand, maybe that’s not the interesting thing about this novel. Maybe it’s a novel about taking game-playing too far. This is relationship where each member of the couple exploits the fears of the other and intentionally antagonizes the other (often in a War of the Roses manner) so that the reader doesn’t end up feeling a lot of sympathy for either one. Irene intentionally tries to drive Gil crazy by writing untruths in the Red Diary that she knows he will read. But Irene also enables Gil and often not only doesn’t help herself but actively chooses to give in to Gil’s charm. The scenes with the marriage counselor are excruciating in this way.
Or we could discuss this as a novel that explores the limits of privacy. Irene feels she has no privacy. She takes long baths so that she can be alone with her nakedness. Gil usually knocks on the door and bothers her.
It could be a novel about identity. Native Americans felt that a painting could capture the essence of a person and steal something from him.
“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.”
You could look at the novel as a post September 11 novel in which the characters like the daughter Riel worry about catastrophes from the outside destroying the family (while ignoring the catastrophes within the family).
Perhaps it is an exploration of trust and lack of trust. Irene explores trust with Louise, a friend of Gil’s who turns out to have an important connection with Irene. And of course there is the lack of trust between Irene and Gil. When Irene finds that Gil has been reading her journal she is appalled. She says that she “couldn’t imagine it. It was a failure of imagination on my part.” It is the last straw for her. And early in the novel Irene is discussing with Gil the first Native American girl encountered by Christopher Columbus and she says to Gil, “Women are always swimming trustingly out to men! We’re curious as otters when we should be wary as snakes.”
It might even be an exploration of the meaning of love. Gil “loves his family with a despairing sort of devotion.” He is constantly trying to buy affection with gifts. Early in the novel, Irene explores the meaning of love in her journal and decides that Gil doesn’t really love them. But later Irene writes in her journal that Gil loved them all. He loved them meanly. But he loved them. Of course she writes this in the journal she knows he reads, in which she puts many lies.
I thought it was most interesting as an exploration of what it meant to “save” someone. Gil wants to save the family by forcing Irene to stay with him by every means possible and trying to force everyone into the family into a role with regularly scheduled “vignette” times, like family movie night. Irene is trying to save the family by figuring out how to get Gil to let her go and take the children with her. On the other hand, there is a real sense throughout the novel that Irene is also trying to save Gil. Or that Gil is begging Irene to save him.
Even though this is a story of a husband and wife, the children are key (as they often are in these situations).
The oldest boy, Florien, seems the most fatalistic. A mathematical and phsyics genius, he sees his father as a black hole sucking everything within its orbit into it’s void. He watches his mother try to break free but questions whether she will wait too long and be caught in the pull and be brought to her own doom?
Riel is trying to save the family by imagining every possible catastrophe and planning ahead. At first she is determined to save herself (she is sure her family will forget her and leave her behind in the panic). Eventually she decides that it is she who must plan to save her entire family. Her plan involves living on one of the islands in the nearby lake. Her imagination of the types of catastrophes that could occur is vivid:
… a sudden panic, a bomb launched toward Minneapolis, an asteroid targeted to hit the Walker Center, a 100 percent fatal pandemic virus, an airplane exploding the IDS tower, a vampire uprising, if Indian killers or born again Nazis or nuclear winter took over the US government …
And yet Riel doesn’t imagine the one thing that does happen. On an island, in fact.
Irene from the beginning is depicted as a person who feels she can do anything. When Riel, during an ice skating session, worries what would happen if she fell through the ice, Irene tells Riel that she, Irene, could save her. But Irene also tells Riel how to save herself. In the end, as Florian knows, you must save yourself before you can save anyone else. If you leave it too long you can be caught in the vortex and also be lost.
This short little novel is told in five sections with a coda. The end is surprising and a bit ambiguous but seems appropriate. The thing I liked the most about this novel is that Erdrich unflinchingly portrays both Irene and Gil in good lights and in bad lights. Neither is wholly evil nor wholly good. I very much recommend it.