Monday, 1 March 2010

Late to the party

Since the publication of Three Day Road in 2005, Joseph Boyden has been Canada's literary darling. Well, he was until Lawrence Hill published The Book of Negroes and now Hill is the darling; now, I guess, Boyden is viceroy darling. But still, being second in command when it comes to making serious readers say and write things like "SQUEE!" is a good position to be in.

I am not going to squee!!! about Three Day Road, although I think it's pretty good in lots of ways. The thing about arriving so late to a squee party such as the one inspired by Boyden's first novel is that there's been five years' too much hype; all I've heard since 2005 is how AMAZING and BRILLIANT and PERFECT it is and HOW MUCH I WILL ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT. Well, no.

The novel certainly had some really good moments - Niska's narrative interventions in particular struck me - but it's wildly uneven. There were points at which I was absolutely enthralled and didn't notice as I plowed through 50 or 100 pages without looking up. On the other hand, there were equally long stretches in which I counted off every page and wondered what the hell had gone wrong. Boyden is certainly too young in his career to be suffering from an unearned case of the Haruki Murakami syndrome; he shouldn't yet have an editor who's become sleek and fat and lazy on his past successes and does no work because people will buy up his author's publications no matter how un-good they are. Whether or not Boyden has an editor of questionable ability or energy levels, there were several key things which worked against me loving this book.

First, I suspect Boyden's primary talent is in short story writing, for the best parts of Three Day Road could have been plucked out and read as self-contained examples of such (like that amazing first windigo tale near the beginning or Niska's dramatic and hilarious rescue of Xavier from the residential school). These segments just possessed so much more narrative energy and good writing than the larger parts of the overall narrative set in France.

Second, it's really hard to do anything narratively unique with World War One. In Canada at least, images and stories of the first great war are so ubiquitous as to constitute cultural memory. We have these heritage moments that throughout my childhood and still now are played on the t.v. with regularity. Images of trench warfare, in particular, are here, I think, just as familiar as images of the Vietnam War in the US. So, writing about World War I requires some other perspective, something to make such history seem unfamiliar, or it must be used only as the narrative's background - the latter of which Pat Barker does so well in Regeneration. Boyden does nothing new with the details; he studiously hits key points in Canadian military history in the war in such a way that I felt Boyden and I watched literally all the same WWI movies and tv heritage moments over the years.

Yes, the focus on two native snipers is original BUT here's the third problem: the primary narrator, Xavier Bird, is about as flat as they come. There is nothing either memorable or unique about him; in fact, he is almost, but not quite, allegorical (if I want to be generous and not simply say cliché - for not only does he play the cliché soldier who naively falls in love with a whore, but he also plays the cliché young native displaced from home and trying constantly to hold on to his connection to the earth and nature, etc). It's not that either of these things couldn't be done well, because I'm sure we've all read books in which authors take clichés and make them entirely new and seem entirely real; but Boyden doesn't achieve this here. Conversely, Xavier and the novel's other characters while sometimes functioning either almost mythically or allegorically, don't do so completely enough to dispel the negative aspects of being, essentially, ciphers.

Fourth problem: This book tries too hard to be "literature" instead of just being a really good yarn, and yarn-making is where I think Boyden's talents really lie. He is not good at creating characterological interiority; he is good, when he allows himself to do so, at writing really good stories.

Finally, there's the issue with how this book is marketed. While Xavier is the primary narrator in Three Day Road, his aunt Niska sometimes tells the overall tale from her point of view. As a bush Indian born in the 19th century and entering upon old age when Xavier returns from France in the 20s', she is firmly steeped in traditions threatened, but not entirely destroyed by, European settlers. This is a book about Canada and the war, but it's also about how one maintains native identity in the face of a ruthlessly encroaching imperialist culture. In this country, this is something that should not be forgotten as one of the only forms of racism that is openly tolerated here is racism against natives. I'm not objecting to the subject matter, obviously.

I feel a little weird about how strenuously Boyden's heritage became integral to the novel's reception. He is listed in the author bio as of "Irish, Scottish and Métis roots" and this was repeated ad nauseum whenever the book was discussed on tv, in the paper, etc. On the one hand, this assertion of a shared cultural history with the subjects of his book separates him from writers of the dominant culture (in Canada, like the problematic W.P. Kinsella) who "write" native culture without really knowing anything about it, or just as importantly, without respecting it.

On the other hand, Boyden's status as both an insider and an outsider - for he is partly Métis, and Métis can very often "pass" if they so choose - complicates his position as representative of an oppressed native "culture" (and, it must be said, there are many distinct native cultures in this country). This marketing move brought to mind a biting poem of Sherman Alexie's, first published in 1996 in The Summer of Black Widows. Alexie is American but I think the point applies:
"How to Write the Great American Indian Novel"

All of the Indians must have tragic features: tragic noses, eyes, and arms.
Their hands and fingers must be tragic when they reach for tragic food.

The hero must be a half-breed, half white and half Indian, preferably
from a horse culture. He should often weep alone. That is mandatory.

If the hero is an Indian woman, she is beautiful. She must be slender
and in love with a white man. But if she loves an Indian man

then he must be a half-breed, preferably from a horse culture.
If the Indian woman loves a white man, then he has to be so white

that we can see the blue veins running through his skin like rivers.
When the Indian woman steps out of her dress, the white man gasps

at the endless beauty of her brown skin. She should be compared to nature:
brown hills, mountains, fertile valleys, dewy grass, wind, and clear water.

If she is compared to murky water, however, then she must have a secret.
Indians always have secrets, which are carefully and slowly revealed.

Yet Indian secrets can be disclosed suddenly, like a storm.
Indian men, of course, are storms. The should destroy the lives

of any white women who choose to love them. All white women love
Indian men. That is always the case. White women feign disgust

at the savage in blue jeans and T-shirt, but secretly lust after him.
White women dream about half-breed Indian men from horse cultures.

Indian men are horses, smelling wild and gamey. When the Indian man
unbuttons his pants, the white woman should think of topsoil.

There must be one murder, one suicide, one attempted rape.
Alcohol should be consumed. Cars must be driven at high speeds.

Indians must see visions. White people can have the same visions
if they are in love with Indians. If a white person loves an Indian

then the white person is Indian by proximity. White people must carry
an Indian deep inside themselves. Those interior Indians are half-breed

and obviously from horse cultures. If the interior Indian is male
then he must be a warrior, especially if he is inside a white man.

If the interior Indian is female, then she must be a healer, especially if she is inside
a white woman. Sometimes there are complications.

An Indian man can be hidden inside a white woman. An Indian woman
can be hidden inside a white man. In these rare instances,

everybody is a half-breed struggling to learn more about his or her horse culture.
There must be redemption, of course, and sins must be forgiven.

For this, we need children. A white child and an Indian child, gender
not important, should express deep affection in a childlike way.

In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written,
all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.
There are tropes, used by non-natives to write native culture that Alexie responds against, in this poem and elsewhere, and Boyden uses many of them. Does it make it okay that Boyden does so but has some personal connection to native culture? I don't know. See, this poem both elucidates the marketing problem I'm trying to get at and it confirms it! It confirms it by suggesting that only natives can writes native characters and that others are co-opting something that isn't theirs and that this will have real results in terms of destroying the culture of real natives. Which means people like Boyden must be framed as really native in order for their works not to be automatically assumed to be the product of cultural imperialist co-opting...And this could just go on forever without us getting anywhere.

Maybe what I disliked most about the choice to "market" Boyden's ethnicity is that it suggests to me the publisher's distrust, both in Boyden's book to be suitably respectful and complex on its own, and in readers who I think ought to be treated like they're not stupid-heads, even if it's not true. People don't get less dumb and uncritical by being treated as though they are completely lacking in the ability to think for themselves. Having Boyden's heritage displayed so prominently is like the publisher is telling us it's okay if there are some questionable moments of representation here because look!, he's brown-ish! I don't know who should feel more offended by this - Boyden or his readers.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

I think that the implication that only browns can write about browns or men about men or whatever is doubly insulting, assuming a homogeneity that would actually confirm the validity of stereotyping rather that confirming the "authenticity" of the author.

heidenkind said...

I agree with rhapsodyinbooks. And I'm glad you read this book instead of me.

Colleen said...

Well, I think I was being dramatic. Or not dramatic maybe, but focusing in on the wrong issue, likely because my disappointment with this book was clouding my critical view.

Perhaps the most important question is, how ensure that minorities and other disadvantaged persons aren't egregiously misrepresented at the same time that minority writers aren't forced to become the representatives of "their" "people"? Unless they want to be representative, but that's another sort of problem...

Anonymous said...

I find your comment about Joseph Boyden's talent for short story writing quite interesting, considering his collection Born With a Tooth is very, very strong. Have you read it?

Colleen said...

Anon: I have not read Born With a Tooth, but have heard elsewhere that's it's excellent. I think my second try with Boyden will be with that rather than Through Black Spruce.

I wish short stories were given their due. Brilliant short stories are very much rarer, in my experience, than brilliant novels and so I wish those gifted at writing short fiction would be given the incentive (in all its forms) to stick with it instead of having to "graduate" to the novel.