An enjoyable summer reading type of book. One doesn't want to find fault, but there are certain weaknesses in the narrative, even though they don't di...moreAn enjoyable summer reading type of book. One doesn't want to find fault, but there are certain weaknesses in the narrative, even though they don't diminish the reading experience of thie book. After reading several of Kingsolver's books, I'm beginning to wonder if she can get to the depth of her male characters. The ones here are interesting, but they remain flat, unmotivated, and peripheral to the female-dominated plot. I wish they'd be more alive at times. (less)
Although it's a book written primarily for a teen audience, it contains subtleties that an adult reader can appreciate. Beginning with the novel’s tit...moreAlthough it's a book written primarily for a teen audience, it contains subtleties that an adult reader can appreciate. Beginning with the novel’s title, where the contradictory qualifiers ‘absolutely true’ and yet ‘part-time’ prepare the reader for what is to come - the hyperboles are much more than teenage angst, the tongue-in-cheek humility, all that is ridiculous and yet so true of life on the ‘rez’.
The accompanying cartoon illustrations are instrumental in highlighting the sardonic aspect of the narrative. And yet, while browsing numerous reviews of the novel online, I find that readers tend to focus on the text as if it were indeed autobiographical, or else they tend to interpret Arnold/Junior’s experiences as an inspiration/role model for teen readers, and in so doing, disregard the obvious jabs Alexie makes at the prevalence of white/Anglo stereotyping both in fiction (literature or cinema) as well as in politics.
I’m not so sure Junior is meant to be (primarily) a teen role model, someone who despite all the hardships, drawbacks, and limitations, makes a success of himself. The way in which he becomes an instant hit - teenage stud, star athlete, academic achiever - is an obvious exaggeration that neither adult nor teen readers should take at face value. It’s obviously every teenager’s fantasy – success is the best revenge for every insult and indignity foisted upon the individual by life or by one’s own peers – but here the message is more political than educational. While reading I was mindful of the author’s mockery the realities of life in the USA, by playing up the conventions and misbeliefs prevalent in mainstream American culture. Maybe one needs to listen to the author reading from Absolutely True… in order to grasp the right tone of the narrative (here and here).
What gives Junior away is how he is portrayed as being wise beyond his years despite obvious limitations, like not knowing how to deal with girls, or even the meanings of certain words. He is cast as the stereotypical sagacious Indian, mouthing one aphorism after the other in the manner of Black Elk Speaks, etc.
Alexie further mocks this Anglo-white stereotype of the sagacious native, by making the grandmother mouth certain ‘truths’ that mainstream America may not care to hear ("Gay people are like Swiss army knives") and, more tellingly, with the incident of Billionaire Ted and Grandmother’s powwow outfit that has the whole rez roaring with laughing at her funeral. On a more subtle level, the stereotype is turned upside down, by having Junior embody the traits of the typically white-European American highschooler that's a mainstay in Hollywood teen comedies, that of a teenager who delights in crass bodily functions – this story is full of talk about vomit, farting, and other eschatological goings-on. Lest we still think the rez residents are the downtrodden yet proud race, the repository of ancient wisdoms despite their unfortunate history, here’s Junior proclaiming their humble humanity: “We Indians like to talk dirty.”
Junior’s troubles go beyond his adolescent awkwardness, his hydrocephaly and other biological characteristics, or his economic situation. What’s bugging him is that as a ‘native’ American he is treated as if he’s an immigrant in his own country. I would go so far as to say that the protagonist’s dual name is a sly jab at the phenomenon whereby someone like ‘Conan the Barbarian’ can become governor of a U.S. state, while so-called natives are not as prominent in the public eye, unable to garner respect and attention.
Another socio-politically charged theme of Absolutely True is that of students from underprivileged socio-economical backgrounds being welcomed by educational institutions mainly because they display star athlete potential and not for their overall performance or personality. It doesn’t really make a difference whether Junior has a high GPA, and can go against the resident geek of the ‘white’ school one-on-one; it’s solely his athletic capabilities that are his entry ticket to escape the rez. Of course, one wonders how many native Americans have actually made it ‘out’ in this particular way, compared to the degree that African Americans migrate from poverty and into the sports hall of fame. What preoccupies Junior is the contrast between his successful escape and his sister’s failed migration. Potential writers like her, with hopes of becoming a writer (albeit a romance novelist) aren’t going to be noticed by the ‘mainstream’ establishment, and that’s the real shame.
The final irony is that Alexie has succeeded in writing an award-winning book, and Absolutely True has become part of the school curriculum (in spite of motions to ban it for its supposed prurient content), a feat symbolic as well as transformative. It's a feat that transcends Junior's throwing of the outdated textbook straight into Mr. P's face. (less)