I stayed up late last night — very late, actually — to finish reading Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water, and yet, I’m not exactly sure what I want to say about it, or how I feel about it.
I really want to love it, to think it’s wonderful and run around recommending it to my friends. I do know of some people I think will really like it, in fact, though I’m not sure I know anyone I can suggest reading it who will fall for it.
The writing is, of course, solid. Thomas King knows how to set up a gag scene, how to make you laugh despite yourself at the most awful of things. Every semester that I get a chance to teach Multicultural Literature, I always give my students a few stories from his collection, One Good Story, That One, because there’s just so much to talk about in them. His work is, of course, very issues-oriented — he writes about politics, the politics of race and of racism, of literature and culture and injustices in both, as well as in the world in which they are situated. He’s hilarious at times, and at times he is quite devastatingly blunt — and thus powerful — too.
So what’s my problem with Green Grass, Running Water?
It’s not the characters: they’re mostly quite interesting. While Coyote is a familiar character — not just from King’s short stories, but from other authors who have adopted (or “appropriated,” though I don’t think that word always connotes a crime) the character and used it in similar ways (I’m thinking of Ursula K. Le Guin) — it is used to good effect here. Some of the characters, like Alberta and her baby-craze — her story is particularly affecting — and Lionel and his series of hopeless, ridiculous mistakes. The cycling back and forth between the stories of these characters and a number of others (including what seem to be a mythological set of four ancient Indian women, who break out of a hospital to set the world aright) is quite well handled, with transitions that lock together neatly, not to mention deftly.
It’s not the politics. I am pretty comfortable with hearing the things King has to say, because he’s right about a lot of them. Canada and America are racist places, as are most places. Canada has screwed over the vast majority of its aboriginal people, and still doesn’t really respect them, and the results for individuals and communities alike has been bloody devastating. I’m not comfortable with that situation, mind, but I’m comfortable to hear someone like King say it — in fact, eager to hear it said so effectively.
I can say I used to find the idea of “native fiction” somewhat offputting, not because of anything against native authors, mind, but because I had the idea that fiction that is self-consciously First Nations, or Aboriginal, or whatever term is used, would necessarily return to didacticism, to ideology and politics. It could not afford itself the freedom to do something, say, in the realm of the comedic, or of the radically speculative. (Like, say, the story I was working on in grad school, and never finished, in which Inuit and Dene people living in the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut end up calling the shots once global warming drives many North Americans into their territory.)
When I showed the film Smoke Signals to my multicultural literature class, I found the students didn’t find this discomfiting, and indeed for them it was an important part of the film — that it did consciously ask questions like, “Why is it Indian to have long hair? Why is it not Indian to wear glasses?” For Korean students, that hammering away at the issue was what helped them get it about the whole fact that, yeah, other people have serious questions about their postcolonial — or, very arguably, still-colonial — identities, too, and they struggle with them as much as Koreans do, if not sometimes more. Having heard conversations with people of King’s generation, yeah, sometimes having this stuff hammered into their heads is the only way it’s going to get in there.
(And, sure, I can imagine some people reading this and thinking, “Damn, we’re gonna have to hammer harder if this guy thinks he already gets it.”)
But I bring that all up to say, that stuff didn’t really faze me, though I know it would have at earlier points, if I’d come to the book in, say, grad school, or as an undegrad when it was recommended to me by a classmate.
No, now I think it’s something else: the self-conscious postmodernity of the book.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have anything against metafiction. I have a character named whose middle name is Babo, and is an African on a ship and who is plotting an uprising too. I’ve thrown other metafictional bitlets into my own writing, too, and for example when I recently ran across a reference to an apartment numbered 42 early in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it pleased me. I can guess Chabon was referencing Douglas Adams, but if he wasn’t, that’s fine, and if we was and some people don’t get it, they’re not missing that much.
I like metafiction when it’s a sort of literary Easter Egg — as they call those hidden levels in computer games, or the hidden features on DVDs; I’m cool when not knowing the reference costs the reader nothing, but knowing it sets off echoes. But I don’t quite get what this Babo character in King’s novel is doing there, other than being a postcolonial metafictional reference. I mean, I get it that the slave trade and the colonization of the Americas were coextensive evils. But why the Babo reference, and how does it tie to the Moby Dick stuff, other than, yeah, Moby Dick is a colonialist text and “Benito Cereno” is too, and they’re by the same author? I get the joke where the cars (a Nissan, a Pinto, and a Karmann-Ghia) are aural evocations of the three ships which bore the Columbus expedition to the Americas. I get the multiplex inversion of Moby Dick being a black lesbian whale, not a white sperm whale. But, uh, why? What am I supposed to get from this, other than the reference? I found myself at a bit of a loss, and wondered if this was a book written for literature underhgrads — sadly, I don’t suspect many other people would know “Benito Cereno” these days. (And, sad to say, even I have not yet read Moby Dick.)
While I admire his comedic chops — seriously, I learned from parts of this book — and I am very sympathetic to the politics and the argument I believe are implicit in the text, somehow the metafictional aspect of the book rubs me the wrong way: its academic standards, its literariness, its constancy, and the fact that anyone missing the references will likely feel lost. I can say with absolute certain that it’s not just because it’s a Native author doing postmodernist metafictionality, because this dislike is pretty constant: I don’t like it very much regardless of what colour the author is, or gender, or what genre he or she is working in. I always get the feeling that when a piece of fiction is overtly and devotedly metafictional, the author is really just trying to show off, or build some academic credibility or something.
And yet… and yet, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the book. Maybe it’s just because of my acaeemic training in lit, but there’s a pleasure to the puzzles, and King does keep you on your toes. Or perhaps I’m just overreacting again, wishing King had written some kind of book I had in mind, rather than the book he had in mind — I am learning as I get older that to some degree, reading is a kind of constant dance between accepting what authors want to do, and letting them do it, and drawing lines as to how much I’ll make myself read when they’re doing things that don’t quite work for me.
Or maybe it’s just my present state: I’ve been casting about these days, reading this and that. all full of anxiety and annoyance as every novel idea I’ve nursed over the last five years has crumbled when I attempted to write it, I may be looking for something to emulate, and my discomfort could be more with the way King’s model just is not going to fit anything I am working on this year.
I don’t know. The politics of criticism are such that I can’t help but feel like I’ve been unfair with the book… and I wonder how many other readers who felt sympathetic to King’s politics, and amused by the text’s humor, were similarly put off by that “postmodern” aspect of it. I do know I felt reticent to criticize it, like somehow I was perpetuating the unfairness King’s characters experience. That’s a thorny subject in terms of criticism, though, and I don’t know what to say about it except that I think I’m being fair, and I am trying to be honest here.
I mean, I’m saying I was left unsatisfied, but on the other hand, I was up until 5:00am last night finishing the book, and I did not nod off, though I was tired. That’s gotta say something. And I’d jump at any King novel that wasn’t so postmodern in execution, for sure!
Maybe I’ll come back to it in a decade, and see how I feel then. Maybe I came to it, still now, too soon. Alberta still haunts me. I hope she gets her kid. And George needs a punch in the head… if anyone sees him, would you do that?
In the meantime, if you’re looking for some good stories, I’d go for One Good Story, That One, which I do highly recommend.