By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; C01
By Louise Erdrich
Harper. 255 pp. $25.99
Louise Erdrich's new novel is a tense little masterpiece of marital strife that recalls her tragic relationship with the poet Michael Dorris. Gossips will trace the story's parallels to the author's life, but for all its voyeuristic temptations, "Shadow Tag" is no roman à clef, no act of spousal revenge on her estranged husband, who committed suicide in 1997. Instead, Erdrich has done what so many writers can't or won't do in this age of self-exposure: transform her own wrenching experience into a captivating work of fiction that says far more about the universal tragedy of spoiled love than it reveals about her private life.
After the vast, swirling canvas of "The Plague of Doves," which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize last year, Erdrich has departed from her multilayered stories about an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. "Shadow Tag" stays trapped in a bitter Minnesota home where Irene and her older husband, Gil, are nursing what they know is a dead marriage. Irene wants a divorce, but Gil won't agree, and so they bicker and make up, fight and forgive, convinced -- foolishly -- that they can keep their enmity from poisoning the lives of their three children.
If you haven't lived through this sad story yourself, you know someone who has. And of course it's the plot of a library's worth of domestic novels, but Erdrich distinguishes her own version in a variety of exquisite ways. For one thing, she keeps "Shadow Tag" tightly focused, abandoning entirely the discursive style of her previous books. What would have been oppressively grim in a longer work remains arresting in this taut tale, which comes to us from three narrators as a series of finely cut moments, each just a page or two long.
As is often the case in Erdrich's novels, the way the story is told and who's telling it are crucial to its meaning. In this case, the person behind the cool omniscient narrator isn't revealed till the final chapter, but both of the other two narrators are Irene, who opens the novel by confessing, "I have two diaries now." In her real diary, stored in a safe deposit box, she records her fury and frustration with Gil, who won't agree to dissolve the marriage that's tormenting them. But in another diary, a faux one hidden at home where she knows he'll read it, she makes up affairs and sexual escapades, all carefully designed to enrage and aggrieve him. As a story of aggravated jealousy, it's as though the same person were playing Desdemona and Iago.
"Shadow Tag" fascinates us because its sympathies, like Irene's, are so unstable. The man she hates is also the man she loves, and his passionate desperation to win her back is alternately endearing and repellent, eventually threatening. It's a devastating portrayal of the circular insanity of romantic obsession. He clings to the hope that a grand act of generosity will somehow make everything fine, an expression of his "obtuse innocence" that only infuriates her more.
Their union is further complicated by Gil's work, which demonstrates once again Erdrich's extraordinary ability to explore the mingled strains of abuse and affection. As one of the country's most successful Native American painters, Gil has always relied upon Irene to pose as his subject. Their famous collaboration has "become known as an iconic marriage," a fraught phrase that comes as close as any in "Shadow Tag" to the nature of Erdrich and Dorris's celebrated literary partnership. But the marital relationship in this novel is decidedly unbalanced. While Irene is an alcoholic, working haphazardly on a graduate degree, Gil is a famous painter who over the years has depicted her "in all of her incarnations -- thin and virginal, a girl, then womanly, pregnant, naked, demurely posed or frankly pornographic. . . . She had allowed him to paint her on all fours, looking beaten once, another time snarling like a dog and bleeding, menstruating. In other paintings she was a goddess, breasts tipped with golden fire. . . . She appeared raped, dismembered, dying of smallpox in graphic medical detail."
It's a peculiar relationship, for sure, but Erdrich frames it as a classic feminist theme and a queasy reenactment of the exploitation of American Indians: Irene can't shake the realization that's she's been used by her husband, objectified by him in ways she can no longer endure. "She had to shed the weight of Gil's eyes," she thinks. "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." Considering how people look at her image in his expensive paintings, she tells him, "I feel like I'm being eaten alive."
But what's remarkable is Erdrich's fidelity to the unpredictable rhythms of marital discord, the way tender moments can arise even amid their hurtful battles. "There were times," she writes, "that Irene and Gil grew so exhausted with the struggle that they simply walked out of their trenches and embraced over the heads of their children."
And those children appear in spare, deeply affecting scenes as they try to preserve their known world no matter how violent or untenable it becomes. The daughter retreats into nightmares of national disaster and fantasies of saving her family with well-honed Indian skills. The littlest child, born on Sept. 11, 2001, expresses what everyone in this family knows when he hugs his mother fiercely and cries, "It's too hard to be a human." This profoundly tragic novel captures that lament in some of Erdrich's most beautiful and urgent writing.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.