The Round House
Louise Erdrich
(Harper Perennial)
I usually don't bother with interviews with authors. What they eat, where they come from, who they live with, how many cats they have, how many lovers they have: none of this has any bearing on their writing. In other words, their words should stand alone; anything funny or strange (or even normal) in their lives is of no concern of mine. Nor should it be for a reader.

Still, since the interview with Louis Erdrich was tacked so conveniently at the end of Round House, and since I had gotten so fond of the way she laid out the story, I went along with her question-&-answer just for the ride. And I found out a couple of interesting things that didn't turn up in the novel.

One is that she writes because it "transforms the madness in me" (from what into what she doesn't say). This makes us envious. Out here in lit-land there are many of us who have written novels and finally had to give it up as a bad career decision, not because of incipient madness.

Further, to comfort us, and perhaps herself, she explains that even failures may work out. She tells us that she found a wonderful use for her first novel, the one that was rejected by all those lunchheads in New York City. She kept the manuscript "the way people keep a car on blocks out in the yard --- for spare parts." And when the book now named Tracks was finally published (after the success of her later books), it came out thin, much truncated, "because all of the spare parts got used in other vehicles."

Ms. Erdrich collects other oddments in her operating philosophy. She says that the two major influences on her writing were "Shakespeare and the Three Stooges." In addition, she admits that she believes in lactating men. "A man nursing a baby?"

    What's strange about that? There are several documented cases of male lactation. It sometimes uncomfortable for me to read that scene [from Antelope Wife] in front of mixed audiences. Men get tense. But I think it's a great idea. It would solve about half of the world's problems.
(For another slant on that, see our Paradox of the Week.)

Finally, Ms. Erdrich has an interesting word or two about the English language. She believes it to be "a very powerful language, a colonizer's language and a gift to a writer."

    English has destroyed and sucked up the languages of other cultures --- its cruelty is its vitality.

§   §   §

As I say, I probably would not have stuck around to read Ms. Erdrich's interview, but I got terribly sucked in by Round House. And once you get swept up by this author's words, you might also find it hard to let go. The novel is about growing up in Ojibwe culture, and revenge, and being concerned with justice, and the experience and influence of an extended family

Although it isn't what I would call a didactic novel, Erdrich never lets us forget that American Indians were colonized fairly ruthlessly, to the point that many lost their customs, their language, their land and, often, their children, who got packed off to BIA schools to rid them of their "pagan" culture. Round House treats extensively with the loss of Indian legal and judicial and social systems, and also about the self-victimization that flows from being conquered.

Along with these elements, and in contrast, we are offered an introduction to the (now) more acceptable sides of Indian culture, those that managed to survive the forced integration. Such as their belief in our innate ability (if we so choose) to communicate with animals, even how one can, if one wants, become a fish, a buffalo, a turtle, or a heron.

As a bonus, Erdrich gives up a warm picture of the interconnectedness of characters who appear here, including an old drunk who has the ability to wake in the middle of the night to recite exact historical facts of Ojibwe subculture. Also, there are some merry, wrinkled old ladies who are delightfully crude, manage to shock even the young.

There's even the fascinating story of the reservation's in-house Catholic priest who just happened to be in Dallas in 1963, standing atop a grassy knoll to watch this president go by in his limousine.

Did he feel guilty about the events (even though he was only a child?) Of course he felt guilty. For in Objibwe culture it is said that even children can anticipate what is to pass, how one can affect the outcome:

    This so gnawed at him on some nights that he lay awake wondering just how many unknown and similarly inconsequential accidents and bits of happenstance were at this moment occurring or failing to occur in order to ensure he took his next breath, and the next. It gave him the sensation that he was tottering on the tip of a flagpole.

Finally, we have a mystery here, one involving both murder and rape. Our young Ojibwe Joe Coutts feels he must right this wrong by finding the man responsible. This need for justice turns him from a fairly responsible and more-or-less normal young man into a sneak, a liar, and thief. The demand for revenge afflicts him as it did the young Hamlet: it must be done, humanity demands that there be action just to set the world order back to rights again. And as with Hamlet, it just isn't in his nature to take the life of another, no matter how vile the perpetrator may be. With this comes ambivalence, and that ambivalence comes to be part of the problem. And part of the solution.

The Ojibwe belief is clearly stated: when you kill an animal, part of that animal will migrate into your soul, your being, your persona. The same with killing another human. Joe's murder of Linden Lark, his mother's rapist (and presumed killer of another woman), means that, at the moment of death, the dying man's spirit will move inside of him.

Thus, there is a price to pay for murder --- just or unjust --- and Erdrich shows just how high the price is. Joe, Joe's friends, Joe's family ... all must suffer the consequences of his righteous actions.

§   §   §

As much as I admired this one, there were times that Round House seemed to ramble. There are asides that go on for pages, putting one in mind of Cervantes at his most meandering. There is, for example, a long riff on Linden's twin sister (a story deemed good enough to have appeared separately in The New Yorker). These digressions do make one want the author to cut to the chase.

She does, albeit belatedly; and at the end, we are willing to give her credit for a job well done, a novel which, I think will not --- after you've gotten into it --- set you down until you've straggled (perhaps as the sun is peeping up over the horizon) to the very last act of madness that Joe and his friend Cappy embark on.

One other complaint, albeit a very minor one. We would petition the author in the future, when she is embarking on her next novel (she's produced fourteen so far, shows no sign of stopping): when the time comes to pick out the name of her next heinous villain, we ask that she observe a little care for the feelings of others. When she comes to name her least lovable character in novel #15, we beg that she do her best to avoid a handle that may be too close for comfort for some of us: names forever to be associated with unmitigated evil.

Like the moniker Linden Lark.

    --- Lolita Lark                    
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH