- Figuring the Grotesque in Louise Erdrich’s NovelsOf Ojibwe Play, Modernist Form, and the Romantic Sensibility
Lipsha Morrissey, one of the many Ojibwe characters inhabiting the novels of Louise Erdrich, is obsessed with love, with being a good lover if not a good provider, and especially with being the singular object of another’s love.1 In The Bingo Palace his obsession is focused on Shawnee Ray Toose, who dances like a butterfly and has ambition in the area of design. She is also off limits to him, as far as Zelda, one of the reservation matriarchs, is concerned, for Shawnee Ray has had a child by Lyman Lamartine, the charismatic wheeler-dealer of The Bingo Palace and an earlier novel of the Ojibwe series. The relationship between Lyman Lamartine and Lipsha Morrissey is strained at times by their competition for Shawnee Ray, but it is a complicated relationship, not without respect and even camaraderie. After all, Lyman is Lipsha’s boss. Lyman is Lipsha’s uncle. Lyman is Lipsha’s cousin. They are family . . . family and tangles of family.
Lipsha is keenly aware of the “tangles” of family relationships. In a scene in which Lyman rescues Lipsha from drug charges due to his possession of a well-smoked sacred peace pipe, Lipsha says, “It’s less confusing to decide on one thing to call [family members] and leave out the tangles” (Bingo 38). But the tangles are ever with him, and it is such tangled relationships and obsessive characters that Erdrich plays with in her novels, to the extent that several of them exhibit characteristics of the midwestern grotesque novel genre.
For example, in The Plague of Doves one of the characters, Marn Wolde, feels the presence of a “stark bird that nests in the tree of the Holy Ghost descend and hover” over her body. She says, “it presses [End Page 17] itself into me, heated and full. Its wings are spread inside of me and I am filled with fluttering words I cannot yet pronounce or decipher. Some other voice is speaking now” (151). That ephemeral voice is given a body, as Marn experiences it, or two bodies to be precise, in the form of two snakes, one a rattlesnake, the other a copperhead. For Marn, snake handling is her way of “getting close to spirit” and “the mercy of spirit, loving me, sending a blood tide of power through me” (160). Marn’s compulsive snake handling is a response to life on a midwestern farm with rather inept parents and an uncle named Warren who appears to be a schizophrenic prophet, saying to her, “You’re gonna kill. . . . It’s on you. You’re gonna kill” (158). And indeed Marn does kill. In order to escape her abusive, controlling husband, Billy, who is the charismatic leader of a religious cult, she milks the venom of her rattlesnake, places it in a syringe, and caps the syringe with an apple. In the sexually charged murder scene Marn describes Billy as an “igniting wad” and she the “kerosene.” She says, “I took the needle filled with the venom of the snake and tipped with the apple of good and evil . . . and popped off the apple. Then I pushed the needle quickly, gently . . . right into the loud muscle of his heart” (177–78).
Such characters as Marn are common in the novels of Erdrich. They are variously obsessed: one character burning down a lover’s house in Love Medicine, another retreating into his stamp collection, and still another driven to master a spirit-world violin in The Plague of Doves. There is the one trying to outdo Christ as a savior in Tracks and her nemesis character, Fleur, willing to do anything to get tribal lands back . . . including marrying the man who stole the land in the first place. There is the sexually charged piano playing by a female passing as a Catholic priest in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse and three characters spoiling a “Dot” of a child to the point of pathology in The Beet Queen. In The Antelope Wife an Anishinabe baker is obsessed with finding...