When it comes to modern American fiction writers, Louise Erdrich is one of our finest. In many of her novels, her storytelling capability draws on the oral tradition; often the reader feels that someone has sat down to tell her the story, one on one. The stories themselves are frequently humorous and poignant at once. Erdrich is a master at finding the moment that resonates, the moment that reveals so much more than its own significance.
Her new novel, Shadow Tag, is first rate Louise Erdrich, yet she uses a more conventional approach then she often takes. Frequently, her stories are a composite of tales told or seen through the eyes of many different characters, intricately woven pieces of a beautiful overall tapestry. In Shadow Tag, Erdrich writes the fairly straightforward story of Irene and Gil and the dissolution of their marriage, their relationship, and their lives.
Gil is a major Native American artist whose main subject is a series of portraits of Irene, known collectively as the “America” paintings, for the character she personifies in them. She is working on her doctoral thesis on another famed painter, George Catlin, whose own primary subject was Native Americans. In his paintings, Gil portrays Irene in highly controversial ways, touching on sex, violence, and debasement. Gil’s own private obsession with Irene, and what he feels are her infidelities, informs the themes of his paintings while also reflecting the rocky nature of their relationship.
Irene believes that Gil is reading her private notebook so she decides to keep two: the Red Diary, which she “hides” in a place she knows Gil will find it, and the Blue Notebook, which she hides in a private place. Both books play prominent parts in the novel; Irene, who badly wants their marriage to end, realizes she can manipulate Gil with the entries in the Blue Notebook that he secretly reads.
Erdrich has a talent for bringing her characters to immediate life. This, coupled with her superlative storytelling, is what makes her one of my favorite fiction writers. In this relatively brief novel, she fully realizes not only Irene and Gil, but their three children, who are vividly portrayed, as well as Irene’s sister, Louise. Though the story might seem a familiar one, it is the incisive psychological insight, her ability to capture a moment, that lifts the work above standard fare.
The following is a fairly common scene in modern fiction: a couple is making dinner together, moving back and forth between the serious topic of going to marriage counseling and the banality of everyday things (which they can’t even agree on). Irene says, in reply to the idea of counseling:
I need a clove of garlic. Can you crush a clove for me? I’ll have to talk about our marriage, said Irene. I can’t do that anymore.
There’s not much garlic. Here. Gil scrapped a bit of garlic into the jar she was using for the salad dressing. Why can’t you talk about our marriage?
Because our marriage is kitsch.
Everything is kitsch, said Gil. He always dipped his lasagna noodles in hot water to soften them, which Irene said was unnecessary.
They reverted to one of their endless arguments, first about the noodles, then about kitsch. This was not fighting, but the sort of argument that could go on for years and years, where each found bits of evidence to prove their point and dropped it into the next go-round a month, two or three months, on. They were back in old territory. They argued sometimes for comfort.
In the following single sentence, with the very deliberate use of the “grammatically incorrect” double negative, she perfectly encapsulates the flaw at the heart of obsessive Gil:
“He believed he wasn’t capable of not loving Irene …”
There is a devastating precision in that line that anyone who has seen unhealthy obsession in love recognizes immediately.
How this all plays out, the resonance of the title phrase “shadow tag” and its relation to the Native American superstition of soul-stealing in photography/art, are examples of this novel’s deep richness. That the story closely parallels the real life relationship of Erdrich and her deceased husband, the author Michael Dorris, has been noted in some recent reviews.
Frankly, in my opinion, the biographical similarities don’t inform the story in any way beyond that of macabre curiosity, but you might want to judge that yourself. For me, the novel transcends the personal and gets to what is universal in human relationships: love, need, desire, obsession, and power. It reads like a primer of what to avoid and strikes desperately close to home as it explores what can go wrong and why. The cliché abides: there is a thin line between love and hate.
Like Louise Erdrich, this book stands on its own two legs, powerfully, beautifully, and without compromise. It is high quality modern fiction, indeed.