Let’s say you discover your husband has been reading your diary. Do you (a) bop him over the head with it and tell him not be such an idiot, (b) leave, as the violation of trust is really creepy, (c) seek counseling, as there’s clearly a problem here, or (d) don’t tell him you found out, and instead start keeping a secret diary in a bank deposit box while writing adulterous scenes in the old one to torture him.
Irene America goes with “d” in Louise Erdrich’s almost unbearably powerful new novel, Shadow Tag. Since her husband, Gil, a renowned painter, suspects her anyway, Irene figures that she might as well give him what he’s looking for. Even before she realized Gil was reading her diary, Irene felt as if she had no privacy: For years, she’s been her husband’s model, spending hours literally naked as he painted.
“He’d done a series of landscapes, huge canvases vast with light, swimming Albert Bierstadt or Hudson School replicas, in which she’d appeared raped, dismembered, dying of smallpox in graphic medical detail.” And at some point, she discovers, he somehow stole her identity. “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.”
Irene’s only refuge is the bath, with its blessed locked door. (Even there, Gil wants to know how long she’ll be.) And at this point, she needs more than Calgon to take her away.
In “Shadow Tag,” Erdrich, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, strips away anything tangential. There are no exuberant bursts of magic realism, no naked women playing Chopin while being carried downriver in a flood. “Shadow Tag” is instead a tightly written close-up of the final months of a destructive marriage, written with great reserves of power and wisdom. Erdrich has always been a master of metaphor; here she uses the native American belief of shadows as souls to powerful effect.
The novel is told by excerpts from the two diaries – the real and fake – with details filled in by an omniscient narrator, whose identity isn’t revealed until the last chapter. Trying to live while always being watched has stunted Irene, as has her role as the “panther-like” half of an “important native American couple.” (She’s never finished her dissertation on 19th-century painter George Catlin, whose paintings of native Americans sometimes startled the subjects.)
For his part, Gil craves Irene’s love and cannot live without trying to repossess it. And he has his own label to deal with, having been pigeonholed as a “native American painter.” “Don’t paint Indians. The subject wins. A Native painter himself had said this. You’ll never be an artist. You’ll be an American Indian artist.” And so, Gil, because he paints his wife, is a “painter of the American West, even though he lived in Minneapolis.”
As “Shadow Tag” progresses, Irene struggles against inertia and alcoholism to free herself from her “iconic marriage,” while controlling Gil fights to breathe life back into it– no matter whom he hurts in the process. Huddled at ground zero between the two trenches are their three children.
Despite the shouting and bruises, they both somehow believe they’ve protected the children from any permanent damage. Meanwhile, 6-year-old Stoney draws portraits of his mother with a wineglass as an extension of her hand and carries a stuffed lion for protection. (After an especially bad fight, he shows up at his older brother’s door with the lion, “plus a bear, a moose, and an orange chicken.”) Riel, their 10-year-old daughter, looks for survival pointers from her mother’s biographies of 19th-century native Americans and keeps granola bars and water bottles ready in an old Barbie workout bag, in case of terrorist attack. Florian, a teenage math genius, lets his younger siblings sleep in his room and sneaks bottles of his mother’s wine.
If the kids aren’t affecting enough for you, then there are the family pets. Even the dogs are always on guard. “Irene thought they had gravitas. Weighty demeanors. She thought of them as diplomats. She had noticed that when Gil was about to lose his temper one of the dogs always appeared and did something to divert his attention.”
Erdrich’s characterizations in “Shadow Tag” are marvels of both economy and compassion. She doesn’t turn possessive Gil or passive Irene into bad guys, instead laying out what makes them fully human without flinching from the damage they do. It may be tempting to read parallels into Erdrich’s own “iconic marriage,” to poet and writer Michael Dorris, who committed suicide in 1997. But “Shadow Tag” doesn’t feel like a roman à clef, and it would be doing a disservice to limit what Erdrich has accomplished here by labeling it as such.
“Shadow Tag” resonates with an almost unbelievable power. Where some tragedies are coldly bleak, as if the novelist couldn’t put his characters through so much if he let himself care about them, “Shadow Tag” is just the opposite. It wouldn’t be able to break a reader’s heart so thoroughly if Erdrich hadn’t invested it with so much of her own.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.