October 20, 2009KR Blog


Sorry to be a little late in getting this post posted–it’s a busy time at The Kenyon Review. Not least because we’re getting ready for the KR Literary Festival on November 6-7, which will be a total blast. And because Louise Erdrich herself, having just received the KR Award for Literary Achievement, will be coming to Gambier and giving the Denham Sutcliffe Memorial Lecture–the capstone to the whole event–on Saturday night. It will all be great fun.

This week’s discussion covers three sections of LOVE MEDICINE: “Scales,” “Crown of Thorns,” “Love Medicine.” And I have to say that I’m truly delighted at the engagement of so many students in this ongoing project. It opens up the individual classroom and brings other readers into the conversation. It creates a larger community of people sharing and struggling with a challenging and quite wonderful novel.

I’ll confine my own comments here to “Crown of Thorns,” which is a remarkable story, it seems to me. The others definitely are as well–I’ll just have to leave them to others.

“Crown of Thorns” reminds us that no one belonging to the extended families in this novel is truly alone. No, that’s not quite right. Some can be terribly isolated–many are, think of Henry, Jr.–but their actions, their ultimate fates ripple through the community in powerful and unexpected ways. Although June Kashpaw in the very first section seemed so alone and exhausted as she walked away from a truck and its drunk driver into the wilderness of a terrible blizzard, an apparent transcendent experience that leads to death, she is far from the only victim. What we learn these 200 pages later is that Gordie Kashpaw, her lifelong best friend and former husband, is missing her so badly that he is drinking himself toward oblivion: “A month after June died, Gordie took the first drink, and then the need was on him like a hook in his jaw, tipping his wrist, sending him out with needles piercing his hairline, his aching hands.” The decline is quick and all but absolute. “‘You gone too far now,'” his Uncle Eli tells him when Gordie comes back to a consciousness of sorts at Eli’s table. Gordie stumbles out into the darkness and sets off in pursuit of more alcohol, perhaps echoing June’s own final journey. Yet Gordie survives the cold and ice and makes it back to his isolated cabin. And there he commits a grievous sin:

“‘I love you, little cousin,’ he said loudly. “June!’ Her name burst from him. He wanted to take it back as soon as he said it. Never, never, never call the dead by their names, Grandma said. They might answer. Gordie knew this. Now he felt very uneasy.”

Gordie begins hearing disturbing sounds from the night outside. He tries to block them out by making noise of his own, but ultimately “something made him look at the window. . . . Her face. June’s face was there. Wild and pale with a bloody mouth. She raised her hand, thin bones, and scratched sadly at the glass.”

Terrified, poisoned by booze to sickness and despair, Gordie rushes outside once more to escape this vision. He climbs into his car and drives off warily into the night–he knows he’s out of control.

The cascade of horror is unrelenting. One thing after another. When will it stop? It doesn’t stop. Next thing you know, Gordie has run into a deer.

Which brings me to my point: as awful and disturbing as this all is–and this may shock you–somewhere along the way it also becomes funny. Yep. One simply horrible, terrifying, revolting thing after another. How much horror can keep accumulating? More apparently. Plenty more. You’ve got to shake your head. You’ve got to stifle a laugh, despite yourself. But the horror isn’t relieved. I believe readers are totally caught up in the narrative–it feels true–it feels sad. It’s funny.

There’s actually a literary-technical term for this awkward feeling: the grotesque. It’s a familiar word we employ from time to time. But mostly we use it in a vague or general way, a gesture at a strange or eerie feeling. Well, what the grotesque really invokes–and this goes back a long way into history and the history of art–is precisely this kind of awkward, discomfiting, eerie conjoining of horror and laughter. It’s powerful stuff.

And it’s very, very hard for a writer to accomplish. The finest of fine lines not to teeter off. Because if it goes wrong, the whole story will collapse into bathos or slapstick or just plain stupidity.

Not here though. We keep going. First, what does Gordie do? He decides he can sell the venison and buy booze. But of course he can’t unlock his own trunk, so he drags the animal into the back seat and sets off driving again. Pretty awful. But not so awful as the sudden discovery: “He sensed someone behind him and glanced in the rearview mirror. . . .What he saw made him stamp the brake in panic and shock. The deer was up. She’d only been stunned.” As it stares into the mirror and into his eyes, he imagines the deer can see into the innermost recesses of his soul. “She saw how he’d woven his own crown of thorns.”

What Gordie do? He turns and slams a tire iron between the deer’s eyes, killing it once and for all. Are we there yet? Has this gotten sufficiently awful? Oh no.

“In that clear moment it came to his attention that he’d just killed June. . . . She was in the backseat, sprawled, her short skirt hiked up over her hips. . . . He was cracking, giving way.”

Suddenly the story shifts its point of view entirely. We are made acquainted with one Sister Mary Martin de Porres, a nun at the convent that is a recurring site in this novel. She too is an easy mark for humor, with her defining characteristic: “she played the clarinet and sometimes, when she was troubled or sleep was elusive, wrote her own music.” This is such a night, when she is wandering through the halls of the convent alone, playing her clarinet, trying to capture the music she makes on paper.

We are not even surprised when a man shows up banging at the window, drunk, unable to stand or speak or make sense. Gordie has come to confess the murder. Is this funny? No, no it’s not. But yes, it is.

We know it’s a deer in the back of the car. But Sister Mary doesn’t. Instead she smells the man: “a different, specifically evil, smell came from his clothes, along with the smell of something undefinably worse. . . . Finally it became real for her also. He had just now killed his wife.” She agrees to follow him to the car and see the body. She believes.

“Mary Martin had prepared herself so strictly for the sight of a woman’s body that the animal jolted her perhaps more than if the woman had been there. At the first sight of it, so strange and awful, a loud cackle came from her mouth.” Horror and a kind of laughter: Mary Martin is experiencing the grotesque in a most visceral way.

How to end such a story? Surely an overwhelming challenge. Erdrich is right, it seems to me, not to reach for comfortable resolution or enlightenment. When Mary Martin turns back to Gordie, having overcome her own frozen disbelief and disorientation, he fears her. He runs toward the apple trees, and she “lost him there, and all that morning, while they waited for the orderlies and the tribal police to come with cuffs and litters and a court order, they heard him crying like a drowned person, howling in the open fields.”

Remind anyone of Lear?