In The Beet Queen Louise Erdrich has returned to the setting, period, narrative techniques, and to some of the characters, of her admired first novel, Love Medicine, and has made something even richer out of them. Once again we are in North Dakota, at various times between the Great Depression and the present (chapters in Love Medicine are dated between 1934 and 1984, those in The Beet Queen between 1932 and 1972). The Beet Queen of the second book’s title is Dot, a girl we saw later in her life in Love Medicine; in the second as in the first novel, some chapters are narrated in the third person, others by one or another of the characters – a technique which may at first seem unnecessarily elaborate or insufficiently exploited, but in time comes to seem right, a gesture of respect for even small differences in perception. Miss Erdrich is as shrewd about complex long-term human bonds in The Beet Queen as she was in the earlier novel, and her sense of comedy is more interesting than it was before. Most of the central characters are now whites rather than Indians, but these new characters and the book they inhabit have taken over one important quality of the Indian experience we saw in Love Medicine: to live in one sort of reality most of the time and either be able to enter into another or imagine how one might be able to enter into another: more specifically, to live in what seems in many ways an ethnically anonymous, junk-food culture, and yet be able to believe – at least sometimes, at least a bit – that there is or that there was a different, richer sort of reality of which one might partake, though its categories and language are now elusive or available only in pieces, and therefore almost certain to be distorted. How great will the distortion be? How much will it matter? In such questions there is potential for considerable comic intricacy.
We might consider, as a sampling of the ironies and complexities involved in trying to get from here to there, the experience, in the title chapter of Love Medicine, of Lipsha Morrissey, who believes he has ‘the touch’, that he can heal magically. Wishing to make a love medicine which will bring his erring grandfather’s affections back to his grandmother, Lipsha goes out to shoot and take the hearts of a pair of mated-for-life Canada geese. He waits in a slough for the geese, watches the cattails move above his head, watches the blue herons fish, eats ‘a few of these soft baloney sandwiches Grandma made me for lunch’. Lipsha fails to shoot the geese, and then he cheats: he substitutes the hearts of frozen supermarket turkeys for the hearts of the Canada geese. Canada geese and frozen turkeys: that is a nice, very clear contrast, and Lipsha understands its meaning perfectly well. But then there are the difficulties, the intricacies, around that nice clear contrast. Baloney sandwiches, and especially soft baloney sandwiches, are as anonymous, as uninteresting in texture – as secular as a food can be. On the other hand, these are Grandma’s soft baloney sandwiches, and this fact further complicates things. It was Grandma who first suggested the search for a love medicine. But Grandma also denies that she has any Indian blood – though surely she must have, thinks Lipsha, gifted as she is with second sight, having seen a catastrophe to come ‘in the polished-up tin of her bread toaster’. Which modern ways violate the old magic, which are indifferent, which might lead us to it? The Chippewa gods will do a favour, says Lipsha, ‘if you ask them right’. But the need to ask in the right way ‘makes problems’. Lipsha meditates on the nature of faith.
The issues we find amusingly and affectingly presented in the tale of Lipsha Morrissey and the love medicine are generalised and made into a different kind of comedy in The Beet Queen – a kind of comedy in which the reader and the author have difficulties which are like the difficulties of Lipsha Morrissey. Where we had wondered about Lipsha eating soft baloney sandwiches, about faith and works in magic, we are now given reason to wonder about ourselves, and the way we have been taught to see the wonderful. In the last chapters of The Beet Queen we have the episode which gives the book its name. Here Dot, adored by the major characters of the novel, but considered unattractive by most of the citizens of Argus, North Dakota, and possessed, certainly, of a taste for the sleazy, is named Beet Queen, the first Beet Queen. Her election has been rigged: Wallace, Dot’s godfather, first convinced his townspeople that Argus ought to have a beet festival and elect a beet queen, and then falsified the votes so that Dot would win. Dot’s name would even be sky-written above the town: ‘Queen Wallacette’. This godfather Wallace, civic booster, assiduous joiner of fraternal organisations, collector of glass bells and Hummel figurines, is reponsible for this festival in a more profound sense. Wallace Pfef brought to Argus the large-scale growing and refining of sugar beets, an innovation which in turn brought supermarket shopping and ended the planting of a more basic crop: ‘sugar beets had taken over, mile after mile, and no one grew grain around Argus anymore.’
The fact that Miss Erdrich can make us respond in complex ways to such characters as Dot and Wallace keeps the satire here from being quite as familiar as it appears in my summary, but it is fundamental to the way the novel is written that we should be made to feel a little too comfortable in our enjoyment of this exposure of the often exposed. What one wants especially to notice, though, is that this vision of the banal and fraudulent is, in the best modern way, combined with a mythic vision: Wallacette, the illegitimate queen of a newly-invented festival, is also a true queen of the crop. Her aunt senses this: ‘Mary thought that her niece resembled an ancient pagan goddess. She had been reading about Atlantis in her Book of the Unfamiliar, and she could picture Dot touching the waves with an iron sceptre.’ Dot is wearing an ugly but ‘plantlike’ dress on which the other candidates for queenship are described as ‘feasting their eyes’. There has been a drought in the Argus region, and as Wallace puts it, ‘we needed a kind rain, a blessing rain.’ Dot contrives to be a passenger on the plane which is to proclaim her victory in the skies over Argus; she is terrified and nauseated as the plane moves through the letters of her name, but manages to help the pilot shoot silver iodide into the clouds. In the last paragraphs of the book, the needed rain begins to fall.
The point, it seems to me, is that we must take this late 20th-century vision of a queen of the crop, not only as a combination of the ordinary and the archetypal, but as that combination in turn complicated by a sense of modern literary history where the perception of the eternal in the local and ordinary is both valid and a literary banality. Here The Beet Queen as a work of our literary culture, a work not of the early but of the late 20th century, acknowledges in itself (or in its author) something like the difficulties faced by Lipsha Morrissey in Miss Erdrich’s earlier novel: not just the ordinary and the extraordinary but the trite and the profound are most perplexingly mixed; the queen wears an unattractive dress; to show archetypes is to deal in clichés.
The Beet Queen begins with Mary and Karl Adare, a brother and sister who, as children, make their way to Argus in a railroad boxcar. They have been abandoned by their mother, Adelaide, who suddenly went for a ride in an aeroplane at a fair, and persuaded the pilot to keep going, taking her away from her former life. (The children’s father was Mr Ober, a wheat-dealer smothered in an accident.) Adelaide leaves at the fair not only Mary and Karl, but an infant son, who is almost immediately carried off by a stranger. Young Karl leaves Argus almost immediately, but Mary remains. One winter day when she is at school, Mary is involved in a miracle. In a playground accident her face hits the ice covering the ground, and in that ice, at the point of impact, appears the likeness of another face, which she identifies as Karl’s and others take to be Christ’s. On another occasion Mary’s hands glow during the night ‘with a dead blue radiance’. Mary never marries or has children, but is fiercely devoted to her niece, Dot, the beet queen-to-be. She is interested in the various forms of the occult loved by publishers of cheap paperbacks. Karl reappears from time to time, disreputable and attractive, weak and manipulative – ‘the devil’, in the opinion of some. Karl is the father of Dot.
The Beet Queen almost seems designed as the focus for an examination question on Alternatives to Realism: the extraordinary must not only appear to us through the ordinary, but must be imagined by us in ways we have been taught, in the language and categories we know embarrassingly well. Here, then, are fertility myths, of a sort: the beet queen is the granddaughter of Ober, who ‘owned a county of Minnesota wheatland’ and died smothered in grain. Her grandmother vanished into the sky one day, and Dot herself will fly as her queenship is announced. In good romance fashion, the second Adare son is taken off as an infant, to reappear portentously, if inconsequentially, later on: he will become a priest, and show up in Argus on the day of the festival. The miracle of the face in the ice may be taken as an allegory of the artist: the marvellous work is produced through intense suffering, and has a meaning for the artist which is different from the meaning it bears for others. (Is the face Karl’s or Christ’s?) But it is not granted to the artist, the visionary artist, to continue meeting the extraordinary only on her own terms, personally and privately: one must, once again, use what is at hand: for Mary, Ouija boards and books on Atlantis, the soft baloney sandwiches of mysticism; for Miss Erdrich, much that she and we learned in literature classes – and, every so often, something else.
In her new novel Joyce Carol Oates appears to make use of some of her own background and history in forming her heroine’s life, but, rather puzzlingly, the thing doesn’t work. It tells of the experiences of Marya Stokes, an intelligent girl born into a wretched, violent life: her father is beaten to death by mining company goons; Marya’s mother drinks, whores, and abandons her children; Marya must submit to the sexual experimentation of her cousin Lee when she is eight, nine and ten years old, and is the victim of an attempted gang rape the night before she leaves home to go to the State University. But she does succeed, is a successful undergraduate and graduate student, a college teacher and, when we last see her, in her thirties, a famous cultural commentator. The matters which centrally concern the author are authentic enough: the psychic defences and the outlets for hostility someone like Marya finds, the pattern of experience and need which brings her, in the last part of the novel, to try to find again the mother who rejected her. What is wrong, then? First, Marya seems always to be claiming a vitality it doesn’t have. It is symptomatic here that in descriptive passages driving rhythms repeatedly draw our attention to series of unremarkable words. More important, however, are the clichés of characterisation and what one wants to say are simply mistakes in characterisation. These accumulate, and the successes in character-drawing (Marya’s mother, for instance) are not so great as to make the failures insignificant. It matters, then, that Maximilian Fein, Marya’s brilliant, urbane, European lover and graduate-school teacher, is preposterous: Humbert Humbert as he might have appeared to the neighbours. Earlier on, Marya as an undergraduate had come to know Imogene, who is popular, well-to-do and sophisticated. Imogene comes for the first time to Marya’s room:
‘So this is where you live,’ Imogene said, drawing a deep breath. Her eyes darted mercilessly about; she would miss nothing, forget nothing. ‘You’re alone and you don’t mind, that’s just like you. You have a whole other life, a sort of secret life, don’t you,’ she said, with a queer pouting downward turn of her lips.
What Imogene says here is what every lonely adolescent hopes some glamorous and discerning person will drop by to say: the trouble is that no one ever does drop by and say it. The novel’s chief weakness, however, is the heroine. Miss Oates can make one care about Marya’s situation, but not about Marya.
David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of Cranes is a coming-out novel. Its story is basically simple, but artistically risky. Twenty-five-year-old Philip Benjamin brings himself to tell his parents, Owen and Rose, that he is a homosexual. Owen, the father, then comes to find the courage to tell, first, Rose, and then, in the novel’s final scene, Philip as well, that he, too, is a homosexual. Rose Benjamin says, when her husband makes his confession to her: ‘For God’s sake, my life is like the punch line of a stupid joke.’ But the joke, or parody, is rather elegant, with the out-of-the-closet, confrontation-of-generations scene played first forwards and then backwards. On the other hand, it seems to be part of the meaning of the novel that the pull towards comedy, whether high or low, is efficiently resisted: a small counterweight to all the thousands of stories and plays in which anything involving homosexuals was automatically funny. In Mr Leavitt’s novel homosexuals need not be comic or, for that matter, tragic. Or timeless. The Lost Language of Cranes is very much interested in setting: Leavitt’s characters and story don’t just happen to be placed in the New York City of the 1980s. What one is most struck by in the characters is the high general level of niceness, a niceness which, at least among the homosexuals, seems to have a good deal to do with childishness – or with the continuity of childhood and adult experience.
In The Lost Language of Cranes there is a Great Writer Philip longs and gets to meet: this is Derek Moulthorp, author of Philip’s favourite children’s stories and, it transpires, the homosexual foster father of Eliot, the young man Philip is in love with in the earlier part of the novel. Brad, the young man with whom Philip is entering a serious erotic relationship later in the book, yearns for stability and fidelity, lives in an apartment furnished with the bunk-beds and other furniture of his childhood, and is a devoted and knowledgeable fan of Star Trek. In an interesting scene, Philip has returned to his parents’ apartment and is lying on the floor of what had been his room, looking through his old children’s books. His mother suddenly comes in, and Philip is badly startled: ‘Only after a few seconds did he realise that the worst nightmare of his adolescence was not coming true; that he had been caught in the act of nothing for which Rose might find him guilty; that he was sitting surrounded not by pornographic magazines, but by the books of his childhood, the most innocent books of all.’ The important thing would seem to be that for the good Philip, loving and love-seeking to the point of spooniness, the categories childhood books and pornography do allow themselves to be confused with one another. But niceness is not found only among Mr Leavitt’s homosexuals. The last major character we meet in the book is Winston Penn, thought to be gay, but not: pleasant, in any case – fun, very decent, enlightened. Even Rose, who is bitter, and cannot meet the disclosures of her son and husband with great generosity of spirit, is not nearly so harsh as such a character might be. Under its urban realism, The Lost Language of Cranes is a sort of idyll, but it isn’t necessary to like the book less for that.