The Haunting of Louise Erdrich

In an article about W.G. Sebald for The New York Review of Books, Ben Lerner recently tried to
grapple with the fact that the author, so inspired and tormented by
the evils of Europe’s history, had no qualms about upsetting its inhabitants.
In his novel Austerlitz, for example,
Lerner writes, “Sebald repurposed Susi Bechhöfer’s experiences in the
Kindertransport as she’d described them in a BBC documentary and in her book Rosa’s Child, which led her to publish an
objection titled ‘Stripped of My Tragic Past by a Bestselling Author.’” Sebald lied
in interviews repeatedly about real people. Lerner concluded that he was so
obsessed by textuality and manipulation and the constructedness of reality by
language that he simply acted out that obsession in his work. Without wishing to re-autopsy the Bad Art Friend’s much-rummaged-in corpse, it’s fair to say literary conversation lately has focused
on the negative side of borrowing from one’s real-life milieu for writing fiction.
The very extremity of Lerner’s Sebald example, however, invites the question of
whether the opposite is true.
What about the writer whose real-life relationship to her literary subject is
close and complicated, yes, but not
tortured? Somebody like that might have something to add to the “whose story?”
discourse, but that something might be harder to spot than the bad stuff, since
writing about your community in a nonaggressive way is an intrinsically
unassuming act.Unassuming, nonaggressive, close, complicated but not
tortured: These are all words that describe the uniquely generous fictions of
Louise Erdrich, which are just as concerned with oppression as Sebald’s but
told with a completely different attitude toward human relationships. Her 2020 work, The Night Watchman, which won
the Pulitzer prize for fiction, was her seventeenth novel for adults and loosely
corresponded to the facts of her own grandfather’s life. Erdrich was born in
Little Falls, Minnesota, in 1954, and grew up in North Dakota, where her
parents were teachers at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school. Her mother’s
father served as tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa
Indians (an Anishinaabe people also known as the Ojibwe), of which she is also a member. Now based in
Minneapolis, where she owns and runs the independent bookstore Birchbark Books,
Erdrich places many of her characters in a similar but fictionalized social
scene. “I try not to parse it out too much,” she told The New York Times a few years ago. “I’m just writing about the world
that I live in and the world that I know.”Next week, just after Halloween, we get Erdrich’s eighteenth
novel, The Sentence, a ghost story.
Like the preponderance of Erdrich characters, the novel’s narrator and
protagonist, Tookie, is Native American and a dweller of the upper Midwest.
Like Erdrich (although they are clearly very different from one another), she
also works at a specialized bookstore, where her colleagues are her close
allies and the books they stock and discuss
with customers (Tookie mentions selling Paul Chaat Smith’s Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong to
well-meaning, offensive white customers) represent a key resource to the
community. It’s in that bookstore, a place of commemoration and communication,
that the haunting takes place; one that inverts the “Indian burial
ground” horror trope to make a new kind of story, where white ghosts torment
the Indigenous living.Tookie begins her story with memories of “a perilous age” in
her life, already into her thirties but “drinking and drugging like I was
seventeen.” Written in that mixed register of surreal hilarity and doom that
all the best drugs-writing sports—“I gave her a dish towel for the crying. It was the same dish
towel I’d tried to kill the ants with even though I knew I was
hallucinating”—this first section recounts a crime she committed in that period
of her life. Once incarcerated, Tookie recalls, and abandoned by her chaotic
friends, she received a dictionary from a former teacher: “The first word I
looked up was the word ‘sentence.’”Tookie had “received an impossible sentence of sixty years
from the lips of a judge who believed in an afterlife,” since her crime had
some tricky compounding factors to it, and yet it says right there in the
dictionary: “The door is open and Go! are sentences.” Her sentence is later
altered, and
she walks free, but from the
novel’s start Erdrich
writes Tookie as a woman whose relationship with language and literature runs
parallel to her history of imprisonment and oppression, as if her own life has
shown how multiple forces can fight each other within the semantics of a single
word.It would spoil the novel to explain exactly how the haunting
she experiences relates back to the crime she was imprisoned for. Suffice it to
say, The Sentence next flits from
Tookie’s wayward youth to a “present day” when Tookie, now seeming to be somewhere in her fifties, works in that
Minneapolis bookshop. It’s here that she introduces us to Flora, a white
customer whom Tookie pegs as a wannabe,
“as in this phrase I’ve heard many times in my life. I used to wanna be an Indian.”

wants you
to know that as a child they slept in a tipi made of blankets, fought cowboys,
tied a sister to a tree. The person is proud of having identified with an
underdog and wants some affirmation from an actual Indigenous person.… At its
most fervent, this annoying impulse, I
used to wanna be an Indian, becomes a kind of personality disorder. It
turns into a descriptive noun if this fascination persists into adulthood.Flora does all kinds of good works for the community—“Flora
fostered Native teen runaways, raised money for a Native women’s refuge”—but
she suffers from this disorder, one that has over time caused her whole self to
disappear “into her earnest, unaccountable, persistent, self-obliterating
delusion.” First Flora “told people that she had been an Indian in a former
life.” Then, when she grasped that “‘Indian in a Former Life’ was a much
ridiculed cliché, she changed her tune,” and began showing people a photograph
of a supposed great-grandmother who, Tookie says, “looked Indianesque, or she
might have just been in a bad mood.” To explain the belatedness of this
discovery, Flora claimed embarrassment had kept it hidden—“another common
identity trope,” which Tookie calls the “shamed-out grandma” phenomenon. In
short, she’s one of those race fakers one hears about far less frequently than
your Rachel Dolezals or your Jessica Krugs: the New Agey white lady in search
of an origin story.When Flora,
“a striking woman in her indeterminate sixties,” mysteriously passes away while
reading in bed, Tookie begins to sense her presence in the bookshop: the
rustle of a down coat here, the clink of a doubly pierced ear’s jewelry there.
What she wants is unclear. In an echo of her behavior in life, in death Flora
is at first simply present, and makes her presence known: Her  haunting takes the form of a refusal to
absent herself. Tookie is alive to the irony of the situation, since it’s
usually angry Native American ghosts who crop up in the popular fictions of
American entertainment, seeking vengeance on living whites. “Many books and
movies had in their plots some echoes of my secret experiences with Flora,”
Tookie notes, since it is “standard” to depict a place “haunted by unquiet
Indians.”Referencing The
Shining and The Amityville Horror,
Tookie runs through the trope and its usual meaning: “Hotels were disturbed by
Indians whose bones lay underneath the basements and floors—a neat psychic
excavation of American unease with its brutal history.” From these 1970s
origins, Colin Dickey wrote in his
book Ghostland: An American History in
Haunted Places, “the trope of a haunted Indian burial ground took root and
spread throughout the rest of American culture,” cropping up in Poltergeist II “and in countless
lesser-known films, novels, and TV shows.” But “what about unquiet settlers?”
Tookie asks. “Unquiet wannabes?”When Tookie finally consults her colleague Asema about the
problem, she replies, “We’re haunted by settlers and their descendants. We’re
haunted by the Army Medical Museum and countless natural history museums and
small-town museums who still have unclaimed bones in their collections.”
Instead of the bones being sunk into the earth, invisible and offended, Asema
points out, the actual bones of Indigenous people seem more often to be kept
prisoner above ground, in plain sight. She reconfigures the spatial logic of
the “unquiet Indian” trope, from a sedimentary one that imagines America as a
series of layers, vertically stacked on top of each other, with the Indian
bones at the bottom and the haunted house at the top, into a dimensionless and
infinite space.In his 2017 profile of Erdrich for
Buzzfeed, Rumaan Alam observed that she has a knack for
“inventing what is not strictly real to access some place of hidden meaning.” Speaking with Alam, writer
Karen Russell agreed that there is “something about the overlapping worlds
inside of her novels.… Somebody’s head starts rolling after you, and it simply
feels undeniable as written.” Erdrich’s confidence with such moves is part of
why this works so effortlessly, Russell went on: “It’s not a registered
shift—it’s the way that the entire world feels.”Erdrich’s
fictional worlds bristle with the awareness that we are all ghosts-in-waiting and that the written word is a way to communicate with people both long dead
and not yet born. This confidence is what makes Erdrich’s shift from the
supernatural to the events of last year—specifically the movement for Black
lives and the coronavirus pandemic—in the latter part of The Sentence so smooth. Outraged by the killing of George Floyd,
the young characters of the novel take to the streets in protest, which stirs
up more ghosts in Tookie, as she recalls “the early days of the American Indian
Movement,” when “they listened to the police radio and showed up with tape
recorders wherever there was about to be an arrest.” Back then, the police in
Minneapolis, so central to the conversation around defunding law enforcement in
2020, “regularly took our people down to the river for a beating.” The
struggles of Native American people for sovereignty and freedom from harassment are, in this novel, so obviously aligned with the goals of the protests that
Erdrich barely needs to explain. She writes, “We were a haunted country in a
haunted world,” and that seems enough.Amid the spectral fog of tear gas, memory and video become
ghosts, too, intermingling in Tookie’s life story. She is haunted by the footage
of Philando Castile’s death, his girlfriend and her child in the car with him.
She is also haunted by the time she was “extracted by a team of men” from her
cell in jail: “I’ve been tackled and throttled, the terror of that was in me,”
she writes. The coronavirus, in Erdrich’s hands, becomes a ghost, too, haunting the
streets, making more ghosts wherever it goes. “Sometimes late at night,” Tookie
writes, “the hospital emitted thin streams of mist from the cracks along its
windows and between the bricks,” which take on the “shapes of spirits freed from
bodies.” Amid spreading disease and acts of police violence, the world seems to
be “filling with ghosts” for Tookie in a way that almost lessens the burden of
her own face-off with the spirits. In the
racist trope of the unquiet Indian in modern American horror, the dead are
violent by default and stuck in a kind of death match with the living. This is
not what the dead do in Louise Erdrich’s writing. Nor does Tookie make Flora
into a monster, even though she sort of was one in life. Instead, Erdrich’s
fictional worlds bristle with the awareness that we are all ghosts-in-waiting and that the written word is a way to communicate with people both long dead
and not yet born. This is how Erdrich can write a haunting story without
invoking even the slightest hint of the gothic; how she blends contemporary
politics with myth without breaking stride. In the end, Tookie
learns, “Ghosts bring elegies and epitaphs, but also signs and wonders. What
happens next?” To find out, she opens the dictionary and finds the sentence.

2021-10-29 | critical mass, Culture, Books | English |