Friday, October 31, 2008

Love Thy Characters

True enough, one robin doesn't make a spring, but one Louise Erdrich short story often makes a novel--or at least a part of one. Of all the major short story writers producing materials today, her short stories, which stand firmly on their own dramatic feet, are the ones most likely to find their way into a novel.

Tobias Wolff? Not so much; perhaps his last venture being the opening chapter of his novel, The Old School, which first appeared in a different form as a short story in The New Yorker. Alice Munro? Much as her stories have many of the features of a novel, including multiple point of view, and are to this reader satisfying in their unsettling way of revealing symptomatic behavior and attitudes, she continues to let the matter rest with the shorter form. Tom Boyle? Although I think any given short story of his has an amazing mixture of gravitas, wild humor, and a complete willingness to take no prisoners, I don't see him linking the stories together nor do I see his novels appearing to be stitched short form ventures.

All of which gets us back to this week's (November 3, 2008) issue of The New Yorker, which contains Erdrich's short story, "The Fat Man's Race," stunning enough in its stand-alone self but even more promising in its portent of being a part of another of Erdrich's ensemble-cast novels which began with Love Medicine, which is, of course, a series of chapters that have a second life as short stories. In and of itself, "The Fat Man's Race" does in its first two paragraphs what a well-wrought story should do: it introduces characters (note plural here), agendas, personalities, and agendas. The second paragraph, which is only one brief sentence, immediately brings the unthinkable to pass, and from there becomes a wild, careening ride down icy curves with no restraining rails to keep the car from breaking loose and diving off the road.

Even though I've for some years managed to convince myself that I no longer read for pleasure, but rather for the intense focus of discovery (of the author's techniques, of world visions, of assorted mementos and hidden messages I may have missed, of inspiration and understanding), Louise Erdrich is one of two or three authors for whom such lofty ends disappear and the agenda of pleasure lurches forth like a bored teen-ager getting out of school for the afternoon. Another such author is Jim Harrison, whose latest novel, The English Major, made itself known to me as a book that wanted to be brought home. But that is a matter for later.

Erdrich's characters suffer long bouts of yearning or expectation or fear or a combination of things that make them ideal candidates for being in the kinds of brief encounters that somehow will link into a larger story arc. Her short stories remind me of an enormous quilt made by sewing together any number of smaller Bayeux Tapestries, a metaphor rich in irony for the primary reason that the Bayeux Tapestry is of itself quite large. Her characters want such things as love, respect, understanding, an unfolding of some art or artifice or agenda they sense to be blooming within them. They often get what they want but do not recognize it or they do recognize it and immediately become suspicious of it. Many of her characters, while not formal scientists, seek some form of living proof that will confirm or eradicate their beliefs. Nevertheless, superstition, the supernatural, and the magical whisper dissenting votes into their ear, causing great internal disruptions which they try to mitigate by drinking large quantities of alcohol, making large quantities of live, playing subversive jokes, and drawing others along by the force of their reckless energy.

You would be hard put to find any of her characters whom you could say with certainty she did not love, which is, I believe, the clue to her effectiveness as a story teller. By loving them, she is free not to have to defend them; they may do as they wish to whomever they wish, their random acts seeming driven and perhaps even desperate, but never meanspirited. By loving her characters, Erdrich is free to grant them leave to do what they will and later to own up with the consequences. As a result, her middle-aged characters have much more cogent conversations with their children, thinking that somehow they may learn something from their children as well as passing along such information as survival entails. Her middle-aged characters want in the confines of their secret selves to be seen as sources of wisdom for earlier generations, but they have too much heart to want to be venerated and too much wisdom to allow them to accept the veneration were it to be offered.

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