Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Unsettling: When Books Become Bothersome (Part One)

Sweet cover too, I might add
Towards the end of one of my university classes, we read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The book is something of a classic within the Young Adult literary canon, in as much as the discipline has one. YA is still very young as a distinct category, but if there are "foundation" works, Alexie's is surely one of them. The book is semi-autobiographical and deals with issues of race and poverty in the life of a young boy growing up in the Pacific Northwest on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

I knew from the moment I finished the book that I'd read something powerful and wonderful, but when I got to class, I still couldn't shake the feeling of being deeply rattled by it. I piped into the discussion a few times, but the bulk of my thoughts about the book waited until after class when I was talking to one of my friends.  I asked her one thing in particular that was really bothering me.

"Where's the closest reserve to Pittsburgh?"

She paused and thought for a moment. "You know, I'm not sure," she said at last. "I think probably upstate New York. There aren't any nearby."

At that point it clicked as to why, though I enjoyed the book, it hurt in a more personal way than it seemed to strike my East Coast classmates. I knew where Spokane was. I could point to it on a map. And further to that, I had friends and family who had lived through situations similar to the ones portrayed by the book. Of course I had other friends of First Nations decent who lead very different lives, but those who had experienced similar trials to Alexie's autobiographical main character weighed on my mind that night. It had been, for a moment, too close for comfort.

It wasn't until after talking through the book with my friend that I really came to an opinion on it. I love the book now. It's both profoundly tragic and hopeful. It's funny and serious. It's also deeply unsettling.

I don't think that was an accident. Alexie's story was not only something intensely personal, but also one that a lot of people in North America have the luxury of ignoring. There are very few reserves in the Eastern United States compared to the West, and so - tragically, but understandably - First Nations issues are rarely top of mind for a lot of city slickers (and believe me, I can be guilty of this too).

I certainly don't think I had the market cornered on being unsettled by the book. A number of my classmates were. They expressed how glad they were that the book existed, because even though the story took place in America, it was so beyond their experience.  Perhaps the best thing about it is that it's a book that prompts questions, which I think is exactly what Alexie wanted. It's the kind of book that demands to be talked about. I'm not sure you could read it and then go "aw, ain't that nice?" and move on to make a cup of tea.

There are often two competing horses trying to pull your chariot in art. One is trying to point out what's wrong with the world and the other just wants to have fun. I've seen them characterized as escapism versus realism, but that has never seemed right to me. Cat videos on youtube are highly escapist, but their humor completely depends on their realism. (SEE? Cats really ARE that dumb!) To me, the real dichotomy is whether or not a book is escapism or... unsettlism. (Can that be a thing now? I want to coin a phrase. Let's make that a thing.)

Art can either comfort and entertain you or prod you to DO something. Maybe think or empathize or vote or something! Just something! An unsettling book is one that does not want you to "relax" but to wake up. An escapist one wants to entertain you and make you happy. It doesn't care what you do next. Granted, most art tries to achieve a mixture of both. Something that offers no call to action can seem trifling and unimportant while something that gives us no entertaining escape can become so unpleasant, we want nothing more than to toss it across the room.

Alexie accomplishes a fair degree of balance in his novel. The story falls more on the "unsettling" side of the spectrum, but it's offset by a bunch of funny pictures and a humorous narrative voice. He offers the reader that "spoonful of sugar" to go with the medicine.

Still, I've been thinking lately about a pair of other books that did not walk the line so neatly as the The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian did. (I mean, just look at the title. It screams non-committal!) They're both older books, and they both firmly planted their feet on either side of the dichotomy.

They are:

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome
Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

One of these books I love. One of these books I hate. But I'm (grudgingly) starting to admit to myself that both have been incredibly important in my development as both a reader and a writer.

So the next post I put out is going to deal with Jerome and his rampant silliness. Following that, I'll tackle Hardy and the depress-fest that is Tess. Maybe by the time I talk this one through, my opinion of it will improve.

So stay tuned, readers! And in case you were waiting for the final word, yes! Consider The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian heartily recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I have also experienced the feelings associated with a story set in a place that I knew. The book that came to my mind is called The McIntyre Liar, by David Bly (also apparently a distant relative of mine).

    The story is about a city kid (from Calgary) sent to work at the McIntyre Ranch (which exists a little ways south of Cardston) in order to keep him out of trouble.

    It was some time after I read the book that I started working on a ranch myself. It was sold and I was involved with the move of the ranch and family to a new spread, which was not too far from the McIntyre Ranch. I remember the first time seeing the McIntyre sign and that twinge of excitement at recognizing the place and realizing how much I could associate to the story now that I had already been doing similar work for a year.

    You made me want to read it again, and that's saying something. I rarely read books twice; as in I can count the number of books I've read more than once on one hand. I should see if my parents still have it someplace.