Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

So, I thought I'd go ahead and start discussing The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. There are a few spoilers, so proceed at your own peril!

"All right," she said, having no idea what she was doing. "Here goes."

So, I first became acquainted with Sherman Alexie after watching the beautiful movie
Smoke Signals. The movie was based on his book of short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, so I read that next-- it's magnificent, I recommend both book and movie. I mean, where does he come up with his imagery? Here are a few lines from Lone Ranger, just to show the gorgeousness of his writing for the adult market (and I assume you know that when I use that term I'm not referring to the XXX market ;):

"James's voice sounded like a beautiful glass falling off the shelf and landing safely on a thick shag carpet."

"Sometimes I still feel like half of me is lost in the city, with its foot wedged into a steam grate or something. Stuck in one of those revolving doors, going round and round while all the white people are laughing. Standing completely still on an escalator that will not move, but I didn’t have the courage to climb the stairs by myself. Stuck in an elevator between floors with a white woman who keeps wanting to touch my hair."

"Diabetes is just like a lover, hurting you from the inside. I was closer to my diabetes than to any of my family or friends. Even when I was all alone, quiet, thinking, wanting no company at all, my diabetes was there.

(No, I didn't just find those and type them out; I already had them typed out; it's this habit I've developed solely for the purposes of torturing myself.) :)

Anyway, I'm talking about the wrong book, so I'll move on to The Absolutely True Diary, which also has some zingers:

"I'd been thinking about her breasts and she'd been thinking about my whole life." (127)

"I hate to argue with a Russian genius, but Tolstoy didn't know Indians. And he didn't know that all Indian families are unhappy for the same exact reasons: the fricking booze." (200)

"As the coffin settled into the dirt, it made this noise, almost like a breath, you know? / Like a sigh. / Like the coffin was settling down for a long, long nap, for a forever nap." (209)

The writing speaks for itself, don't you think? He's fresh and honest and precise and wonderful with his language. But here's the question I want to bring up-- maybe inappropriately, because I don't know if anyone else in the Misfits has read any other Alexie? Anyway, I'll state my question, with the caveat that I'm just trying to get a discussion started, and we don't need to discuss my specific issue at all if no one else is interested:

Is there anything wrong with Alexie writing a new book that is very much made up of the exact same themes and even plot points he's already written about in the past?

Here are some common themes in both books I've read: an Indian playing on a white high school basketball team and destroying the competition; a nerdy Indian kid with a tough and mean Indian friend; an Indian falling in love with a white woman; death by the combination of alcohol and fire; senseless death in general; a single Indian leaving the reservation. Reading The Absolutely True Diary, I had the feeling-- constantly-- that I'd read it or seen it before, that he was writing the same thing a different way (and personally, I liked the Lone Ranger version better!). Don't get me wrong-- I'm actually quite ambivalent about this. I'm really, really unwilling to be outrightly critical, because I think Diary is a wonderful book, and besides, part of the whole point is that the reservation life is the same thing over and over. I mean, above, I quoted the Tolstoy parody line: "
All Indian families are unhappy for the same exact reasons." And remember Junior's reaction to his sister's death: "OF COURSE THEY HAD A BIG PARTY! OF COURSE THEY WERE DRUNK! THEY'RE INDIANS!" (205)-- the idea being that any story about life on this reservation is going to be the same story.

But? Am I nitpicking, because I can't find anything else to say about it other than glowing praise? I think this book is beautiful and important, and maybe Alexie's just trying to tell to young adults a story he's already told to adults. It's a little like Woody Allen, I suppose-- it seems like the same movie over and over, and yet I watch every one, because it's so much yummy goodness that why would I complain when he makes more of it? Or Jane Austen, for that matter.

Thoughts? Or other things to talk about?

(And has anyone ever read Reservation Blues or Ten Little Indians? Do they tell the same story? And does it matter?)


rebecca said...

this is a very interesting question. i can't answer it about alexie in particular, because absolutely true diary is the first book of his i've read (though i HEART the film smoke signals). but it's an interesting question overall, and i think it applies to lots of artists. my goodness, think of samuel beckett! or julius lester!

my gut feeling is that in a generic sense, it's not something i would condemn. i wouldn't feel comfortable trying to create a formula or statement about repetition being a problem. but i would certainly be willing to condemn it in a specific piece of art or literature, saying that a certain new piece feels old because of previous work, or doesn't add anything to the person's oeuvre.

which brings the question back to alexie personally, which i can't speak to. what do y'all think?

rebecca said...

another example of an artist it could apply to: georgia o'keefe!

Amanda said...

i have never read anything by alexie prior to this, but really enjoyed this book. and, for me, if his other books are (or at least one other book is) similar in theme and style, i will read more of him. i tend to like that about an author--if they sort of recycle and rehash characters and plots (i think that's why i'm such a big fan of series fiction). it doesn't bother me. it doesn't feel lazy. and now i'm trying to think of other adult authors who have then ventured into the land of YA and basically written a "teen" version of one of their adult titles. i'm coming up blank, but feel like there must be some/many. like kristin, i only have nice things to say about this book. it was great, i always like a nerdy protagonist, and it made me laugh outloud at times.

one of the discussion topics listed in an unofficial readers' guide on the web says this book shows "a different side of American Indian life than many other books do." i haven't read native american fiction very widely (erdrich, jim northrup, silko), but i wonder if that's true. i mean, his story revolves around what seem like very common themes: alcoholism, poverty, rez life, white people vs. native americans, struggling to fit in with either culture, etc. having not read enough books about native americans, i'm curious to know why someone would feel this is different. even if it is somehow new or different, it felt very familiar, which i think speaks exactly to kristin's point: "all indian families are unhappy for the exact same reasons."

and can i just say, the illustrations? i loved them. i really felt like i got to know junior so much better by seeing "his" art.

kristin said...

rebecca-- ha ha! and degas with his ballerinas! and monet with his hay stacks!

amanda-- apparently my own instincts bely (belie? what is that word?) me, for at the library yesterday i found myself checking out smoke signals (which i plan to watch tonight) and another of his short story collections (which i plan to take with me to key west this week).

off i go...

Jess said...

Good question! It's been a long time since I've read the other Alexie books and watched "Smoke Signals," but I do remember them feeling similar to this book (if that makes any sense). Of course it makes sense for individual pieces of an author's body of work to feel similar. In my opinion, in this case, it isn't a problem at all (and, like you guys, I don't really find it much of a problem in general). Even if many of the plot elements are similar, Alexie's done something new with his story and themes in terms of format, and this book will/does reach a different audience than the readers of his adult books (Kristin, it does always seem strange to say "adult," doesn't it!!). I love the illustrations too! This IS like the work O'Keefe and the other artists (and authors) in a way. Good point! It makes a lot of sense to re-examine something from a different perspective and/or in a new format. Anyway, I feel like I'm repeating everything that's already been said, but like you guys, I can't think of anything but praise for this book and I want to discuss it!

Amanda, I'm not very familiar with much Native American literature either, but you're right, these do feel like common themes. I wonder if this book feels different to the person who wrote the guide because of the way in which the themes were addressed, maybe voice or style? I don't know. I'd love to hear from somebody who has read lots of Native American fiction.