Monday, September 12, 2011

As if repetition equaled truth, [the story] strengthened until the inventions were known as fact

It's fitting that the most recent Literary Blog Hop asked if literary writing had to be difficult. I just finished Louise Erdrich's Tracks which I could see people considering a "difficult" novel, although it's relatively short (only 226 pages) and uses simple language and sentence construction. There are no multi-page descriptions or stream-of-consciousness chapters. And yet this book took me awhile to get through, even though this is my second time reading it.

In my answer to the LBH question, I said there is an important distinction between a a difficult book and a challenging book, and that it basically boils down to a challenging book is worth the work you have to put into it while a difficult book it's difficult for the sake of being difficult. Tracks is a challenging book.

The book's central character is an Anishinaabe woman named Fleur Pillager, although you never get to know her too well. The book has 2 first person narrators: Nanapush, a village elder and father figure to Fleur  and Pauline Puyat, who I could say something objective about but instead I'll tell you she is crazy. Crazy. Kind of like the albino killer guy from The Da Vinci Code except she's a fully realized character. Fully realized crazy. And it's up to these 2 to tell you about the main character. The fact that you stay removed from Fleur adds to her mystic. She's sexy, she's powerful and she's dangerous, but not in a contemporary-action-hero-Lara-Croft kind of way. There are legends about her circulating throughout the tribe and legends naturally exaggerate the truth so you're never quite sure what she's really capable of. You assume she can't conjure up tornadoes but you can never really be sure.

Nanapush and Pauline are each telling their own stories about the past, and they sometimes talk about the same events, although the fact that they're talking about the same thing isn't immediately obvious (challenge!). This also means that you're dealing with not one but two unreliable narrators (challenge!). Nanapush is explaining Fleur's past to her estranged daughter Lulu and Pauline is telling her own story, but she's a wee bit obsessed with Fleur (crazy AND challenge)

The book isn't just about the force that is Fleur and her narrators Nanapush and Pauline. The book also deals with several difficult topics, include rape, death, starvation, the loss of the Anishinaabe land as they're pushed onto reservations and lots of other uncomfortable topics. It's not quite a Toni Morrison level of uncomfortable topics, but it's certainly heading in that direction.

Tracks is a challenging read, so don't let the short length fool you. But the important thing is it's worth the challenge. Sure, I probably won't be reading this one again for awhile because the challenge means it takes work and overall I'm a lazy person. But when you're up for it, it's worth the effort.

Title quote from page 215

Erdrich, Louise. Tracks. Perennial, 1988.