When an author names a character “Irene America,” chances are the name has not been randomly chosen. Irene is a a woman, but she is also a symbol – fo...moreWhen an author names a character “Irene America,” chances are the name has not been randomly chosen. Irene is a a woman, but she is also a symbol – for a country, a culture, a part of history. And when that character is also Native American, her symbolic impact becomes even more nuanced. And when that character’s husband is a famous artist whose paintings are all inspired by Irene’s image, then suddenly the conceptual framework intensifies and individual interpretation of Irene - of her image, of the real woman behind the image, of her artist husband, and of America itself - becomes not only the key to our understanding of the character, but of the story as a whole.
Irene America regularly writes her thoughts and life story in a hidden red diary. Upon discovering that her husband has found her diary and begun reading it in secret, rather than confront him, she decides to continue writing in her diary, but writing lies and half-truths and quizzical thoughts that will make her husband question their marital history and their life together. Additionally, she obtains a secret safety deposit box, and begins writing a blue diary to be kept and updated there, filled with her actual story, the truth of the matter as she believes it to be. Her husband, a possessive and occasionally abusive man, a brilliant artist, but desperate and insecure, becomes haunted and enraged by the deceptive passages he reads in the red diary, and Irene uses the betrayal as a sort of belated revenge against the man who has exploited her for all these years. It is a twisted scenario, particularly when viewed in the context of a dysfunctional marriage in which three children also get to witness their parents’ issues, and equally disturbing when utilized as a reflection of America and the revisionist history that has become an inherent part of both its mystique and its corruption.
The theme of revisionist history is woven into the story in several different ways. Irene is completing a doctoral thesis on George Catlin, an artist whose early paintings of Native Americans became controversial symbols of exploitation to some, valuable depictions of early life to others, and were a source of both fear and wonder for the subjects of those paintings. Irene tells stories about Catlin to her husband, and often those stories are filled with half-truths, imagining occurrences that never actually happened. We are given glimpses of Catlin's character that we need to reassess when we later discover Irene’s falsifications. We are left to decide if our feelings about the actual man have changed given the information we now have at our disposal, some of it true, some of it created. Catlin comes to stand for the history of America as a country and the way much of what we learn in history classes is myth, a history written by the victors, legends passed down through centuries that may have little or no basis in fact but become true by numerous retellings. Similarly, like visitors to a gallery, we are given small glimpses into the lives of our main characters, scenes that show both their weaknesses and strengths, their moments of light and dark, and then we must ask ourselves if the information at hand gives us a complete enough portrait to make an assessment about their true selves.
The fine line (or at times, vast chasm) between truth and mythology, art and reality, depiction and exploitation, image and distortion, are all images Erdrich plays with throughout the novel, often with startling and disturbing results. The material is ambitious, but Erdrich handles it deftly with sharp prose and surprising imagery. When Irene discusses the way Catlin’s portrait subjects were worried that their images on canvas contained trapped pieces of their souls, she begins to see her own image, captured so often on canvas by her artist husband (Gil), as another soul trapped in captivity, a distortion of the real woman, now altered to suit the motives of the painter and the interpretations of those who view her. Irene’s ancestors, like Catlin’s subjects, believed a soul could be captured through a shadow, a mirror, a reflection. Irene begins to see herself in Gil’s paintings as a double that has been released into the world, one that her husband now owns. Erdrich writes, “Gil had placed his foot on Irene’s shadow when he painted her. And though she tried to pull away, it was impossible to tug that skein of darkness from under his heel.”
There are other thought-provoking points made in the novel, particularly when we are made privy to Gil’s favorite artists (Rembrandt, Bonnard – both renowned for their portraiture) and asked to consider Rembrandt’s portrait of Lucretia (the doomed faithful wife who took her life rather than bear the shame of having been raped). Gil obsesses over this portrait of a woman who has been represented in art and literature throughout the ages. We know this obsession foreshadows something unfortunate for Irene and Gil, as well, but in essence, we are being asked ahead of time to judge the depiction and decide if the story has been told accurately or if it is a fabrication that has achieved nearly mythological status. Likewise, in descriptions of Bonnard's paintings, we are given small scenes from a life and asked if we can judge the truth from those few small moments in time. This theme resonates in the larger story as we are given a series of incidents, a spate of domestic moments, a handful of facts, and then are asked to discern, by virtue of just these details, if we can ever truly know the motives of the people involved in these scenes. Erdrich seems to want us to arrive at the conclusion that we all have shades of light and dark within us, we all carry the full spectrum of colors, and most of us have reflected all of them at one time or another. No single glimpse, no moment in time, ever tells the whole story. Every soul is open to interpretation.
I would have loved to have given this book four, or even five, stars. I have been pondering its stunning themes for days, and I am enamored of Erdrich’s writing style and her bravery in taking on such a breadth of philosophical matter. Unfortunately, the book itself isn’t fleshed out enough to take on such expansive themes. For starters, it is simply too short. Usually, I am apt to complain if a book is unnecessarily too long, but this book needed at least another two hundred pages to fulfill its early promise. By the end of Part Two, at just over two hundred pages, it was clear that Erdrich was rushing her narrative. Either the book had become too harrowing for her, its subject matter too difficult to explore any longer, or she was merely under a deadline and needed to wrap it up. Several veins of rich material needed to be further mined, and the impact of certain story lines was vastly diminished by the quick wrap-up. I almost want to call “Shadow Tag” Erdrich’s "unfinished" novel, because if only it were twice as long, it might be the best book ever written.
(Three and a half stars – and well worth reading for the conceptual framework alone.) (less)