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June 12, 2010

Vicious Circle Reads: Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

I said I’d never join a book club, mostly because I get offended by book club questions in the back of paperbacks. Or rather, I get really disturbed by the idea of somebody finishing a book, and not being able to think of any questions on their own. Which isn’t snobbery on my part– surely, the most unschooled reader would come away with the most questions anyway? And that would be  a fine thing, but to finish a book and come up with nothing? What’s the point of reading, let alone clubbing to talk about it?

When I finish a book, I usually come away with a mess of questions, and this was why I decided to finally join a book club. I also decided to join because they asked me, and “they” was a group of people/readers I really respect (and would enjoy sitting around drinking wine with). Also because “they” were going to ask other such people, and the whole group seemed like a worthwhile one to take my questions to. To check my reader responses, to clear up what I didn’t get, it fill me in on what I’d glossed over, to provide some fine enlightenment, new perspectives, and expand my readerly horizons.

The Vicious Circle had our first official meeting this week, to discuss Louise Erdrich’s novel Shadow Tag. Someone asked me beforehand if I liked the book, and I told him that I wasn’t sure yet– perhaps the best kind of book to be under discussion. I enjoyed reading it enough, admired the writing, was appropriatly disturbed by scenes of harsh brutality, but the novel’s slightness also left me perplexed. I was unsure of its wider context. Shadow Tag is the latest novel by Erdrich, who I’ve never read before. The novel has autobiographical over/undertones, as evidenced by this rave review,  and the fact that the lead character is mirrored by a character called Louise.

The lead character is Irene, who begins to keep a second diary (“the blue notebook”) when she discovers that her husband Gil has been reading her original diary (“the red notebook”, and I couldn’t help but think of Doris Lessing too, but not enough to come to any conclusion). She begins to manipulate Gil with the first diary, pushing his boundaries, and the boundaries of their relationship. Gil is a painter who has come to fame with degrading images of Irene in the context of native-American history, and she is essential to his artist persona and to his art. Irene’s entire identity is wrapped up in being Gil’s muse, so she has a lot riding on their relationship as well, in addition to the fact that Gil swore he’d use her alcoholism to take the children from her if she ever left him. Which is also to say that their children are in the middle of this, and being damaged in the cross-fire.

A twist at the end of the novel reveals a mysterious narrator and brought forth many questions about everything I’d read already. How reliable was Irene’s other diary if she was lying in the first? How reliable was the third-person perspective? Could any of the novel’s weakness in plot or character be written down to being a deliberate part of the structure? I’d enjoyed the writing, the childrens’ perspective as witness to marital breakdown was heartbreaking, and I’d also enjoyed reading about native experience where the nativeness itself was not the point.

The Vicious Circle’s concensus seemed to be that I was reading into the book too much with my questions, applying layers of complexity that weren’t there. Everyone agreed that the prose was wonderful, but the characters were unlikeable, unrealized, and some readers just couldn’t bring themselves to care enough. That perhaps Erdrich’s own experience was the key to the novel– that she is writing to make sense of what happened to her, instead of creating a fully realized fictional world, but that didn’t necessarily make for a better book. That some of the dynamics of Gil and Irene’s relationship were perfectly depicted, and the scene in the therapist’s office was hilarious. That Stoney was definitely a bad name to give a child, and pot-smoking children were not convincing. That Erdrich has such a strong reputation as a novelist and story writer that perhaps the book had gotten a lighter treatment in reviews?

This conversation went on for ages, and it was wonderful. And though our response to Erdrich’s book was not overwhelmingly positive, there was enough substance for us to work with and many important discussion topics with bearing on literature in general. I came away liking the book less than I had going in, but gladder than ever that I’d read it. What a book club.

(For other Vicious Circlers’ responses, check out Bronwyn’s vlog [a vlog!] and Julie’s review).

6 thoughts on “Vicious Circle Reads: Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich”

  1. Study Window says:

    I have had very mixed experiences with reading groups, but I now belong to two where the level of conversation not only prompts me to think more deeply about the book that we are discussing, but often enhances my appreciation of other books as well. I’m glad you appear to be at the beginning of such a productive relationship.

  2. I’ve been quietly fantasizing about starting at the beginning of Louise Erdrich’s work and reading straight through; this was just a glimmer of an idea until I read The Red Convertible but now, every time I read a review like this yours, I’m reminded of how much I want to take this on. She is such a provocative writer and a terrific choice for a group read, I’d say.

  3. patricia says:

    Great post. As you can see, I am too lazy (so far) to write about our book club meetings. You’ve summed up the evening very well. I am thankful that you didn’t mention my gluttony regarding the chocolate covered blueberries. And I really did appreciate your insightful perspectives on the book, but still maintain that your excellent suggestion of the unreliable author is, though a great idea, was not the intent of Ms. Erdrich. That is another brilliant book, waiting to be told. Perhaps by you?

    1. Kerry says:

      I actually think it was her intent, but not (as you said) the book she published… And no, I didn’t gluttony, though my own would have been a post in itself.

  4. Julie says:

    I love The Vicious Circle already.

    And, lady, you can bake!

    1. Kerry says:

      Thank you, Julie. I will have to think of a worthy follow-up for next meeting, though I am not sure there is anything better than strawberry bread.

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