Louise Erdrich's newest novel, Shadow Tag, contains two surprise endings, one of which is dramatic, the other technical. (CAUTION, SPOILER ALERT.) I won't hint at the dramatic surprise, but if I tell you the technical one, I don't think my whispering will spoil the read.
At the end of the novel, we learn that what we've been reading is "first fiction" by the daughter of two bloodied marital warriors who are at the heart of the novel. She's completing an MFA degree and what you've just read is her thesis. I really dislike that ending because it seemed to me it was a kind of literary sleight of hand vastly beneath Ms. Erdrich's powers. What the young lady admits at the end is the horrors of growing up with her parents--how their storming about killed her. The redeeming value of their lunacy (the major conflict is immensely interesting), however, was that it gave their writer-daughter something to write about. Okay, but pardon me as I roll my eyes.
Just what every writer needs--really abusive parents.
That conclusion reminded me of a poem--can't remember poet or title--about a woman seeing a picture of her parents' college graduation, when the two of them were young and idealistic and in love. That picture looks nothing like the parents she knew--always fighting. Oh well, the poet says at the end, at least it gave me something to write about.
Same chapter, same verse. I liked the poem, but I hated the cheap ending to Shadow Tag.
I've been reading a new biography of Emily Dickinson, Lives Like Loaded Guns, a bio that investigates two earthy stories in this unearthly poet's life, stories too real to be easily understood in light of the caricature (was it that?) of the flighty, ethereal "Belle of Amherst."
One is the almost public infidelity of her brother, who lived next door, and Emily's own closeness with her wronged sister-in-law, Sue. In an attempt to explain how an affair like that could happen to such significant figures in the Amherst community, Lyndall Gordon goes back a couple of generations and tells the story of Ms. Emily's mother, who was, Gordon insists, one of those early 19th century women who so shocked de Toqueville in his American sojourn, young women capable of so much freedom before marriage, and unrequiting servitude thereafter.
The fact is, of course, that Emily rarely wrote anything about her mother, who must have been something of a non-presence in her life ("my mother does not care for thought," Ms. Emily once wrote). Apparently, little is known about Mother Dickinson at all, unlike her husband (Emily's father) who cut quite a swath in the little college town, but who was of such stern New England character that someone--was it Emily?--once wrote that "he was known to have smiled once."
What Gordon argues is that Ms. Emily learned well the lessons her mother taught her, although in contrary measure. In a way, Mrs. Dickinson's apparent coldness may well have created the complex fiery emotional character her daughter internalized and turned into some of America's greatest poetry. Maybe her mother's legacy in her was that Ms. Emily was not--at all costs--her mother. Let's put it this way: Ms. Emily inherited absolutely nothing from her mother, but learned everything.
Maybe I'm overstating.
I don't know--I just find it all very interesting. Identity is such an incredible puzzle, isn't it?