Shadow Tag
by Louise Erdrich (2010)
Harper (2010)
272 pp

Before reading Shadow Tag I had never read anything by Louise Erdrich, though I’ve encountered her name time and time again, most recently when her novel The Plague of Doves was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in 2009. I am not sure I would have read this one, but Washington Post book reviewer Ron Charles, whose opinions I respect quite a bit, put it as one of his favorite books of 2010. Now, if you have not been properly introduced to Ron Charles, I think it’s time you went over to his satirical Totally Hip Video Book Review; here is a link to his “The best novels of 2010” (which also includes Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which went on my list as well).

Besides Ron Charles’ praise, I was also drawn to this book for its opening set-up. Irene America discovers that Gil, her husband of about a fifteen years, has been reading her diary. The marriage has already been severely damaged, but, of course, this doesn’t help. Neither does Irene’s solution:

I have two diaries now. The first is the hardbound red Daily Reminder of the type I have been writing in since 1994, when we had Florian. You gave me the first book in order to record my beginning year as a mother. It was very sweet of you.

The second diary is a blue one. She keeps it in a safety deposit box so her husband will never even know of its existence. Irene will continue to write in the red diary, too, while going on with the charade that she doesn’t know Gil reads it. In the red diary Irene engages in all types of ambiguity and flights of the imagination in order to upset and manipulate Gil. Oh, what an awful situation this book explores.

It gets worse: Irene and Gil have three children, Florian (14), Riel (11), and Stoney (5). (And one of Irene’s cruelest red diary tricks was to state that Gil was not their father and then relate in detail the events leading to their conception.) Irene and Gil pretend that everything is okay, but the children know, and Erdrich gives us glimpses into the ways they deal with their parents’ relationship: Florian smokes joints and drinks wine, Riel imagines world-wide catastrophes and tries to figure out how she could save her family if they occurred, and Stoney draws pictures. In one instance, Stoney draws picture after picture of Irene always with some strange appendage at the end of one of her arms. When she can’t figure out what it is, Florian enlightens her: it is her wineglass, which Stoney pictures is just another part of her body.

Irene and Gil are attached in more ways than marriage, though. Gil is a famous painter of Native American themes, and his favorite subject is his wife. His America series featuring her has made him a success. Irene has been his model since before they were married, and the wisdom of being his model after marriage is brought up in the book though it apparently was never seriously brought up in their marriage. At any rate, his most famous depictions of Irene are violent and sometimes pornographic. While Irene doesn’t seem to mind, she is aware that Gil’s attempts to represent her do affect their relationship:

Her name was now a cipher joined to simulacra. And the portraits were everywhere. By remaining still, in one position or another, for her husband, she had released a double into the world. It was impossible, now, to withdraw that reflection. Gil owned it. He had stepped on her shadow.

His reading her diary is part of his sense that he has a proprietary hold on her: “When you take away that person’s privacy you can control that person.”

Other interesting aspects of Shadow Tag include its somewhat tangential (and slight) ventures into other forms of artistic representation and the relationship between artist and subject. Irene has been trying to get her doctorate, and her subject is the famous painter of Native American subjects, George Catlin. There are also the children’s artistic attempts to grapple with the family. And Irene’s red diary is, in a sense, a warped representation of her relationship with Gil, created to drive him mad.

It is a sad book. Irene and Gil can’t seem to give up the things that hurt the most: alcohol, each other. It is made even sadder when the reader reads it with an awareness of Erdrich’s marriage to poet Michael Dorris, who committed suicide in 1997. I don’t believe that knowledge is key to appreciating what Erdrich did here, but it does provide a unique perspective on the book’s events.

Now, there were times I thought I would abandon the book. For one thing, the breakdown of a marriage is common in literature, and at parts it felt like this book was just a slight variation on the theme. Irene and Gil can’t stand to be together but due to the complexities of marriage and intimacy can’t figure out how to get apart. Thankfully, the book shows time and again that it’s not simply another domestic drama, however well done.

But that’s not the only reason I almost put it down. At times the prose felt uncontrolled, and not in a “it’s raw” kind of way; rather, at times it felt sloppy.

One thing: they were never bored with each other. They might hate each other, at least, Irene might hate Gil, while he had no idea how much he hated Irene because he was so focused on winning back her love. He really did hate her. That was part of his immaterial wall. He couldn’t see it or experience this hatred, but it was there. Part of his fantasy about the breach in the wall had to do with reaching through his own hatred, which he didn’t know existed.

This passage is taken from a larger paragraph that began somewhere else and ends somewhere else, while repeating itself here in the middle. I wanted to give Erdrich the benefit of the doubt (she is, after all, an award-winner, highly respected author — and who am I?), but in the end it felt like the book could have used another good sweeping up.

So my final feelings toward this book are a bit on the positive side of indifference. Erdrich is obviously a supreme writer, but this book, to me, felt like it betrayed its promise. I liked it a lot at times, not much at others; though it gave me a sense that Erdrich is a gifted writer and someone whose work is worth getting to know, it didn’t make me feel any rush to do so.

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