It's hard to find a hero in Louise Erdrich's new novel, Shadow Tag. But it's also hard to look away from its wrenching portrait of an unraveling marriage and family.
In her previous novels, from Love Medicine in 1984 to The Plague of Doves in 2008, Erdrich has painted on broad canvases, populating her stories with expansive casts, many of them American Indians, living in the upper Midwest. Tragic and boisterously comic by turn, tinged with magical realism, they are rich, inviting and adventurous books.
Shadow Tag is closer to the spare, hard lines etched on a tombstone. Compressed in time and space, with only half a dozen characters, it is a tense and claustrophobic novel, that proverbial car wreck we can't help but watch — but finally a bitterly wise book, and masterfully written.
From its first sentence, Shadow Tag is about duplicity, secrecy and the elusive self: "I have two diaries now." The writer, Irene America, is a wife, mother and the constant model for the paintings of her husband, Gil, a successful artist.
The two diaries are a symptom of how their marriage has gone bad. Irene keeps her red diary in a file cabinet at home where, she knows, Gil has found and read it. It is filled with hints that she may be unfaithful, egging on his suspicions and anger, perhaps as a passive-aggressive way of ending the marriage. Her blue notebook, stored in a secret safe deposit box, is her real journal.
They weren't always this way. When they married they were a kind of American Indian artistic super couple: he a promising painter, she a scholar of Indian artists, both identifying strongly as Indians although they also had white ancestors, both madly in love with each other.
But as their three children are born and his career takes off, she becomes a full-time mother and muse. Gil paints her obsessively, in myriad guises. Sometimes the paintings are tender, showing a lovely young woman, a nursing mother. Sometimes they are brutal, depicting her as a symbol of genocide and exploitation, dismembered, raped, snarling like a dog.
Her image seems to her no longer her own: "Irene America. Her name was now a cipher joined to simulacra." It's as if that fabled Indian belief that a picture can steal one's soul has infected them both.
Erdrich does not splash her canvas with drama all at once. Shadow Tag reveals the fault lines in the marriage gradually and skillfully; just when we feel that we know what to think about Gil and Irene's relationship, Erdrich adds a detail, a shading, a new shape.
The audience and victims of it all are the couple's three children. Teenage son Florian reacts with a protective shield of sarcasm, while middle daughter Riel becomes obsessed with mastering survival skills, sure that "if Indian killers or born-again Nazis or nuclear winter took over the U.S. government, if any of these things happened and the family had to flee, she would be left behind." Sweet-natured 6-year-old Stoney draws his mother over and over, as his father does, always with her hand holding "a stick with a little half-moon on the end of it" — a wineglass.
Moving among different points of view — Irene's, Gil's and Riel's — Erdrich keeps us guessing about how deep the troubles lie. Is this just another nasty breakup fueled by alcohol and jealousy, or something worse?
Readers who are aware of Erdrich's biography will no doubt make connections between her life and Irene's. Erdrich was married to anthropologist and author Michael Dorris, best known for his memoir The Broken Cord, about the first of three children he adopted, an American Indian boy with fetal alcohol syndrome.
Erdrich and Dorris collaborated on several books and had three daughters together. But the marriage collapsed amid accusations of child abuse; investigators were preparing to charge Dorris when he committed suicide in a motel room in 1997.
Certainly there are some parallels between that story and Shadow Tag. Like Irene, Erdrich grew up with a rich awareness of her Indian background, while Gil, like Dorris, was raised mainly by the white side of his family and learns about his heritage only as he grows up. But although Erdrich might have been a muse for Dorris, she was hardly a passive one like Irene — she was more prolific and eventually more acclaimed as a writer than he was. And the story of Gil and Irene has a different (and shocking) ending.
Picking apart fiction to pin down its biographical contents is pointless, in any case. If Erdrich had wanted to write a memoir, she would have.
Maybe this novel is exorcism or atonement, or maybe it's just Erdrich doing what novelists always do to some degree: drawing on her own experience, then reshaping and coloring and polishing it to make powerful fiction. In Shadow Tag the author's past is just one more shadow; the novel's dark picture of a marriage imploding stands on its own.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.