Three and a half stars. Upon first completing the book, I would have given this book a solid four stars, but then I read some of the after matter and have to admit that I revised my score — more on that to come.
On first reading, I was drawn to the novel’s terse poetry and found the author’s occupation of the mind and voice of a fourteen-year-old boy from a culture so different from my own artful, instructive, and compelling. It reminded me, in texture and voice, of narration at the hands of a young Junot Diaz. And you should know that — while a reluctant one — I am a massive fan of Diaz’s, so this is meant as a meaty compliment.
At its simplest, this is a bildungsroman gone right. A young boy born with a rare brain condition defies the odds and overcomes bullying and cultural divides as he grows up and comes into his own. The book is at once optimistic about transcending such barriers and deadly serious about the many intransigent problems that have plagued the Native American community for generations. I found the parts in which Junior travels to a neighboring town to attend a better school among the wealthier whites especially fascinating. These episodes read almost like “passing narratives” (a literary subgenre in which characters claim a racial or ethnic identity that is not their own), where Junior grapples with the norms and expectations of his white classmates and at one point comments that “I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other.” As he travels between towns, he notes that he “always felt like a stranger.” The backdrop of this racial and cultural no-man’s-land sophisticates an otherwise run-of-the-mill tale of teenage identity formation. The feeling of dislocation, the longing for community and belonging, and the desire to be accepted that haunt nearly every teen the world over are profoundly amplified in this racially heightened context. Against it, Alexie deftly points to the instability and performance of cultural and personal identity and provokes us to think about the various official and unofficial ways in which we think about Native American vs. White, Reservations vs. Not, etc.
Alexie’s inclusion of comic sketches in the book and the metafictional winks we get every now and then (i.e., when Junior is saying something notably immature, the province of a teenage mind and nothing more, and we understand that we are meant to heave a sigh and say “oh, teenagers”) further contribute to the feeling of fluidity in the novel. These tactics generate cognitive dissonance where we are reading through the eyes of a fourteen year old boy but also laughing along with the author as he offers us the space to dismiss some of his immature observations as — well, teenage boy stuff. And the comic strips interrupt the textual flow, reminding us continuously that we are reading and looking — that is, we are constantly forced to consider the medium we are consuming and evaluating our own position in relation to the text. I don’t mean to get too heavy-handed/theoretical here, but this is sophisticated stuff. Alexie is creating narrative and textual instabilities and blurrings that mirror the kind of identity shape-shifting going on in the character himself.
But then I read the after matter and my impression of the book changed. In it, Alexie writes a note to the audience in a voice that sounds markedly similar to the voice of fourteen-year-old Junior — the same slouchy, informal slang and mildly irreverent tone. I was taken aback. But — so — that wasn’t a deft performance of a fourteen year old? That’s just…Alexie’s voice? Hm. I take back some of the accolades. Then, Alexie goes on to explain that the character of Rowdy was adapted from his real-life best friend, Randy, who was killed in a car accident not long after the book was published and whom he eulogized. Alexie notes that while he spoke “off the cuff” at the funeral, he thought he’d try his hand at sharing what he said and then re-prints a version of his remarks. I was so offput by all of this that I found this section hard to read. First — it felt like a horrible infringement on Randy and his family. Second — it seemed bizarrely self-congratulating that he delivered this eulogy “off the cuff” but then managed to capture it in writing afterward (and it was lengthy, and he makes sure to gesture in the text to when the audience laughed). What’s worse: the eulogy itself is more about Alexie than it is about Randy. He uses it to call out his former bullies, talk about what the friendship meant to him, and so on. I was honestly appalled. So much of the tender-heartedness I had felt towards the book and its characters evaporated as I realized that much of Junior’s story was Alexie’s own memoir, and he doesn’t seem to be a particularly empathy-rousing person in real life if we can use this social gaffe of reprinting a self-aggrandizing eulogy as an example.
Add to this the controversy over the many alleged cases of sexual harassment he is currently facing and — well. I can’t say I left the book on as positive a note as I’d have liked to.
This has been an interesting exercise for me because I have long thought of myself as a close reading scholar — a textualist. Historical and biographical contexts matter, yes, but the text reigns supreme. I have always enjoyed close analysis of the language, narrative design, and various literary techniques deployed in a given text and have used those tools to unpack meaning, occasionally dipping into history or biography to amplify observations. Here is a case where the context of a book dismantled and interrupted my text-centric interpretation of the book and left me with a sour taste in my mouth. I don’t quite know how to feel about it. How do we separate author from text? Can we? Can we appreciate the work of, say, Hemingway, even though we know he was not a “nice man” and that he cheated on his doting wife? Or do we evaluate art on multiple levels, possibly appreciating an aesthetic or a theme but rejecting it nonetheless because its creator was embroiled in scandal and sin?
It’s tough for me. I’ve always felt uneasy “scoring” art based on the merits of the artists behind it. It’s a slippery slope, and easier, in some ways, to just look at the text or canvas and draw what you wish from it.
Tell me your thoughts!
March Book Club Pick: Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing.
OK, I was reluctant to select this book because it’s so right now and buzzy, but I did read it last month and I had to toss it into the mix as a counterpoint/foil to both Madeline Miller’s Circe and Lauren Groff’s Florida, earlier Magpie Book Club picks. Further, so many of you have written to ask for my opinion on it and commented on how much you have enjoyed it, so I thought — why not?!
I’m drawn to a couple of things about this book. I won’t spoil it for everyone by diving too deep here (will publish a full review in March), but some of the themes I found most stirring were: geography, the alternating conflict and consensus between man and nature, exile, and identity. There are so many interesting observations to be made on all of these fronts when stringing these three books (Circe, Florida, and Crawdads) together. Written within about a year of each other, what do these three narratives tell us about the position of women in society today?
For those local to New York: let’s plan to meet on Monday, March 25th to discuss. I will send out my usual email requesting RSVPs soon!
More Book Club Picks.
+Had a lot of positive feedback on this post; start here.
+About to read this at the request of my husband, who LOVED this memoir, but this is next on my list for serious reading after several book club members went insane over it, and this is my next pick for a brain vacation.
+Now that Circe is a few months behind me, I’m inclined to try Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, another retelling of a classic from a female perspective. People rave about Le Guin! I’m intrigued.
+Not usually a huge fan of athleisure/athletics-wear but HOW COOL would you feel wearing this Marant sweatshirt?! Like, I’m shivering from afar imagining how hip I’d feel. Must be worn with GG sneaks or Vejas.
+When we were little, my mother ordered each of my sisters and I a pink duffel bag from Lillian Vernon with our names monogrammed on the side. The night before a trip, she’d instruct us to “bring the pink bags down and put them on my desk.” And we’d line them up, diligently, because this meant she would top our bags off with little surprises and toys and candies that we were only permitted to access after the seatbelt sign had been turned off on the plane. I am confident mini needs her own pink bag now that she’s getting older. And this might be the ticket. And I might as well order this for micro.
+I own a few dusters/long cardigans that have gotten a lot of wear this pregnancy. I like to layer them over my maternity tees and leggings and finish with my GG sneaks for an easy everyday look. Currently lusting after this tie-dye duster situation and this colorblock Staud sweater. (Why is everything by Staud so freaking cool?)
+This tub mat is super chic and on sale. I just threw away a tub mat that was getting a little ratty and ordered this instead.
+Speaking of bathroom decor, how darling are these scallop trim hand towels (on sale!)?! I love them with the oversized monogram!
+OK, this swimsuit is SUPER cute. Looks like it’s by Lisa Marie Fernandez but currently on sale for $70!