November 29, 2012

Alexie makes comedy from tragedy

The Laughing Indian

By Lindsey Catherine CornumUsually when Indians make prime time it’s in a parade of dire statistics about poverty, alcoholism, and suicide on reservations. In his stories, Alexie does not directly challenge this image of a broken people naturally prone to self-destruction and struggling to survive in the modern world, but he writes about the child abuse, alcoholic fathers, and dead-end lives in tones light and breezy. He says when an Indian dies of alcoholism it should be considered “natural causes,” and he says it so you laugh.

That line, a flippant address to the very unnatural death by destitution common in Indian populations, appears multiple times in the latest collection of Alexie stories, Blasphemy. Every zinger Alexie writes must be written at least twice, so this career-spanning collection of new and selected shorts is full of one-liners stretched beyond their means. Just a shade away from cliché to begin with, Alexie’s language becomes a parody of itself. Blasphemy is a repetitive catalog of ways in which Alexie has made comedy from tragedy. The stories are mostly in the first person, mostly involve men, who mostly talk in the exact same way, and who are struggling with one or all of the following problems: women, fear of death, and absent fathers. They are almost all “funny.”

Despite cycling and recycling the same old tropes told in the same voice, Blasphemy has received not one poor review. Is Alexie really such a flawless writer that critics cannot go beyond praise as repetitive as his oeuvre itself? Or are most reviewers seduced by the charming prose of an Indian who eases their guilty consciences? The latter seems much more likely.

In a wonderful triumph of multiculturalism, Alexie can get famous writing about one of the most brutally repressed people in and because of America—just as long as he supports the popular perception of Indians and is friendly enough to have a good laugh about it. The laughter is key. Angry Indians do not win National Book Awards very often unless their anger is masked in metaphor, contained in the beautiful intricate prose of a Louise Erdrich or, in the case of Alexie, delivered with a punchline. Not only are his stories shot through with humor, almost every image of Alexie shows him laughing. On the cover of Blasphemy, in his twitter avatar, in the first images of a Google search: the guy is almost always buckled over in laughter.
Comment:  I've read four or five of Alexie's books. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is probably the best.

I hadn't noticed this problem before, but I did notice it in Absolutely True Diary. It was a central part of my reaction. I thought the depiction of a teenage Indian's life was spot-on--possibly the best we'll ever see. But Junior's sharp wit sounded too much like adult humor put in a youngster's mouth, not a youngster's natural reaction to events.

In other words, the witticisms weren't always believable coming from a teenager. They made Junior seem more like a shallow TV character than a fully realized literary character. That limited the story's impact.

But that's a minor criticism for an otherwise excellent book. I'd probably give Absolutely True Diary a 9.0 of 10. It doesn't get much better than that.

For more on Sherman Alexie, see Why Alexie Is Voting for Obama and Best Teen Novels Are White?

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