'Shadow Tag': A Couple At War Locates Its Dark Side

'Shadow Tag'
Shadow Tag: A Novel
By Louise Erdrich
Hardcover, 272 pages
HarperCollins
List price: $25.99

Read An Excerpt

When my children were little, their territorial backseat battles once culminated in the memorable complaint from my daughter that her older brother's shadow was touching her. It's a grievance that Irene America, the artist's wife and model at the heart of Louise Erdrich's bleak new novel about a marital dance of death, might well understand. Erdrich borrows a useful metaphor from Ojibwe culture about shadows, mirrors and trapped souls to help describe her characters' suffocating relationship: Irene, no longer in love with her husband, Gil, feels that Gil "had placed his foot on [her] shadow when he painted her. And though she tried to pull away, it was impossible to tug that skein of darkness from under his heel."

Shadow Tag, Erdrich's 13th novel, follows The Plague of Doves, a finalist for last year's Pulitzer Prize. It's a departure for Erdrich, markedly different from her beloved, multigenerational sagas of revenge set on North Dakota reservations. Although it, too, involves mixed-blood Native Americans and searing descriptive passages, Shadow Tag is a narrowly focused domestic tragedy, a linear narrative about a Minneapolis family on the verge of implosion in 2007. Erdrich's portrait of this warped, obsessive relationship raises broader issues about art, privacy and identity.

Irene's struggle to free herself from Gil results in various cat-and-mouse power plays. One of the more intriguing — and chilling — iterations of shadow tag starts when Irene discovers that Gil has been reading her diary. She begins a secret Blue Notebook, which she hides in a safe-deposit box. But she also uses her original Red Diary, stashed where she knows Gil will find it, to insidiously manipulate his insecurities. She does this by planting supposedly confessional entries about the "real" fathers of their three children and vague suggestions that Gil might be right in suspecting her of having an affair.

Louise Erdrich i i

hide captionLouise Erdrich is the author of 13 novels and the owner of Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore in Minnesota.

Paul Emmel Photography
Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is the author of 13 novels and the owner of Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore in Minnesota.

Paul Emmel Photography

Erdrich alternates points of view between her doomed couple and Irene's two diaries. There is also another, omniscient voice whose source is revealed in a somewhat pat, cheapening disclosure at the end. Gil's transgressions, it turns out, go way beyond compromising Irene's privacy with his iconic series of invasive, often pornographic portraits that have brought him fame and fortune. Aggressive and controlling, he tries to make up for his outbursts of violence with lavish gifts. Irene, perpetually drunk on wine, is no better at protecting their children than herself. But the more she pulls away, the more Gil clings.

Erdrich captures not just Irene's misery and the children's lasting trauma but the often beguiling texture of domesticity — dinner, dishes, homework, bedtime. But Shadow Tag is so tightly controlled it feels as manipulative, in its way, as Irene's Red Diary. Reading about the disturbing dynamic between Erdrich's characters, you can't help feeling almost voyeuristic, particularly as you wonder what, if anything, of Erdrich's relationship with her late ex-husband — fellow writer Michael Dorris — is in this devastating portrait. In any event, what Erdrich wants us to take away is what she has Irene come to realize: that however flawed, mean, and crazy, "love is love."

Excerpt: 'Shadow Tag'

'Shadow Tag'
Shadow Tag: A Novel
By Louise Erdrich
Hardcover, 272 pages
HarperCollins
List price: $25.99

November 2, 2007

Blue Notebook

I have two diaries now. The first is the hardbound red Daily Reminder of the type I have been writing in since 1994, when we had Florian. You gave me the first book in order to record my beginning year as a mother. It was very sweet of you. I have written in a book like it ever since. They are hidden in the bottom of a drawer in my office, covered with ribbons and wrapping paper. The latest, the one that interests you at present, is kept in the very back of a file cabinet containing old bank statements, checks left over from defunct accounts, the sorts of things we both vow to shred every year but end up stuffing into files. After quite a lot of searching, I expect, you have found my red diary. You have been reading it in order to discover whether I am deceiving you.

The second diary, what you might call my real diary, is the one I am writing in now.

Today I left the house and drove to the branch of the Wells Fargo Bank that is located in uptown Minneapolis beneath the Sons of Norway Hall. I parked in the customer lot and walked in, through two sets of glass doors, down a spiral staircase, to the safe-deposit desk. I tapped a little bell and a woman named Janice appeared. She assisted me in the purchase of a medium-size security box. I paid cash for a year's rental and signed my name, three times for signature verification, on the deposit-box card. I took the key Janice offered. She matched my key to another key and let me into the safe-deposit area. After we slid my box from its place in the wall, she ushered me into one of three private little closets, each containing no more than a desk-height shelf and chair. I closed the door to my private room and removed this blue notebook from the big black leather bag that you gave me for Christmas. Ten or fifteen minutes passed before I could begin. My heart was beating so fast. I couldn't tell if I was experiencing panic, grief, or, possibly, happiness.

As soon as the sound of Irene's car motor vanished into the general low din of the city, Gil sat up. The towel he used to shade his eyes slipped off his face. He often lay down on his studio couch when he needed to refresh his eyes, and sometimes dozed off. He could sleep there for as long as an hour, but more often he jerked awake after fifteen minutes, refreshed and startled, as though he'd been dipped in a cool underground stream. He sat up patting for his eyeglasses, which he sometimes balanced on his chest. Sure enough, the wire ovals had fallen onto the floor. He retrieved them, hooked them behind his ears. His thick hair started low on his brow and he swept it straight back, smoothed and retied his short, gray ponytail. He stepped up to the painting of his wife and regarded it. His eyes were close-set, cold, curious, and dark. He pressed a knuckle to his chin. His thin cheeks were flecked with yellow paint.

He peered at Irene's likeness, then he frowned and looked away, blinking like a person who can't quite make out some figure in the distance. Suddenly he bent over, and added a few tense strokes. He stood back, wrapped his brush in an oiled cloth, then put the brush and palette into a Ziploc bag. He deposited the bag in a small refrigerator. Descending hungrily, he left his studio and went downstairs to the kitchen. He took the one can of Coke he allowed himself per day from the refrigerator. Sipping, he descended the rest of the way and entered his wife's basement office. He went at once to the sand-colored metal file cabinet and opened a drawer labeled Old Accts.


November 1, 2007

Red Diary

What an odd day this is with the house so empty and Gil upstairs endlessly reworking a painting. I expect he is having trouble asking me to sit for him again. Flo and Stoney are okay now after fever. Riel never gets sick, but she is having a difficult time at school this year. Stoney is making a board game for some afterschool project that involves the habits of black bears. Very Minnesota. I think I'm going to lose my mind over what I'm doing.

He actually thought he could feel the blood drain from his heart when he read those words. I think I'm going to lose my mind over what I'm doing. He put his head down on the cool oak of Irene's desk, but then thought, as he always did when he came across some hidden reference to the other man, what the hell did I expect? I let myself in for this. I looked for this. He tried to discipline his reaction, and forced himself to consider other explanations: she could be referring to her history thesis. Or that old article on Louis Riel. Before the children, she had published several pieces that were considered brilliant; she was a very promising scholar. Her work had included new material that shed light on Riel's mental states. She'd kept working after Florian was born. But after she became pregnant again, she had abandoned her work — except that she'd named their daughter after the depressed Metis patriot, a man to whom his own family was distantly related. Riel was eleven. And now that Stoney was in first grade, Irene was trying to finish her Ph.D. thesis, so that she could start looking for a job. Her subject was now the nineteenth-century painter of Native Americana George Catlin.

Perhaps she was suffering from academic frustration? Losing her mind — over George Catlin's clumsy, repetitive, earnest depictions of people — all of whom would sicken and die soon after. Gil himself could not bear to look at Catlin's work. The tragic irony of it offended him. And for Irene, a poor excuse.

From Shadow Tag: A Novel by Louise Erdrich. Copyright 2010 Louise Erdrich. Reprinted by permission, HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

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