- Shadow Tag
Louise Erdrich's Shadow Tag could be read as a roman à clef, or just as easily as a novel of ideas. Portraying successful Native American characters who live in a Midwestern urban area, it also comments on the operation of culture at large, of zeitgeist. A bold, uncensored snapshot of a marriage in trouble, it nevertheless selectively presents only part of the story at any given time, deliberately skirting the full complexity of the situation. Fame and shame, image and appropriation, fate and free will battle it out between the covers. Divided into five sections, each shorter than the previous, suggesting an inexorable scaling back to essence, Shadow Tag traces the inevitable dissolution of a family. Meaning arises from happenstance, neglect, and coincidence in this elliptical yet driven narrative, and in that respect this book, despite its many surface differences to Erdrich's previous novels, engages in a significant dialogue with them.
The story of Native American writer Irene America, who is researching nineteenth-century portrait artist George Catlin for her dissertation, and her husband Gil, an artist who has built a successful career from painting portraits of Irene, Shadow Tag abounds with distorted reflections, appropriated images, and eerie doubles. More simply, it shows a great but mystifying love between a disturbed and occasionally violent man and a woman who wants to escape for the sake of her children. Unfortunately, she can't fight the caretaker instinct within herself and let go of her potentially self-destructive man. [End Page 219]
Although readers might be tempted to see art imitating life, Erdrich mischievously distorts her fictional representations, throwing in a few red herrings for good measure. For instance, just as we reflexively fall into the assumption that Irene is the fictive counterpart to the author, Erdrich introduces a character named Louise. In a sense, she's commenting on the reality that famous authors must maintain public images, even as they strive to protect individual privacy. In another nod to deliberate artifice, part two contains vicious, fanciful renditions of the couple's visits to a therapist, openly referred to by Gil as a "functionary." Similarly, in a climactic showdown, the family's housecat is described as disappearing "like a stage ghost" (226). In the end, part of the novel's achievement is to replace sensationalized reporting with a consciously crafted, artistic statement.
Set in the Mount Curve neighborhood of Minneapolis, a wealthy enclave of historic mansions overlooking downtown, Shadow Tag portrays two prosperous, professional, urban, Midwestern Native Americans and their children, telling an echo story of the setting more often featured in Erdrich's novels, rural North Dakota. Shadow Tag is not the novel of stories that The Plague of Doves (2008) is nor does it mix narrative viewpoints to the extent of Love Medicine (1984). The plot is relatively linear, consisting largely of omniscient narrative fragments describing Irene's thoughts and actions. However, external textual elements inform and interrupt this narrative, as in Erdrich's previous novels, here in the form of diary excerpts. When Irene discovers that Gil secretly reads her private journal, rather than confront him with the truth she decides to falsify entries, so as to play with his head and throw him off his guard. Leaving this red notebook in its usual place, she opens up a safe deposit box at her local bank, where she writes her true feelings in a blue notebook. The notion of split selves recorded in color-coded journals is a sly nod to an important feminist novel, Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (1962). Excerpts from these books, along with occasional shifts of focus to the three children—the youngest, Stoney; the oldest, Florian; and, notably, the middle child, Riel—borrow the collage method of Erdrich's previous novels.
The narrative requires some of the same hunt-and-gather functions of the brain familiar to loyal readers. Shadow Tag is a collection of puzzle pieces Erdrich asks readers to solve. Irene excuses an extramarital affair with this explanation: "History is two things, after all. To have meaning, history must consist of...