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A Boccaccio in North Dakota
Louise Erdrich has fashioned a place for herself among America's elbowing fictionists. She has done this mostly in an unassuming way, by trusting to the strength of narrative to convey the essence of her characters, by loving those characters more than herself, and by leaning her work on the work of others. This is another way of saying she has chosen to rest on tradition, with its roots in realism, and to build on that rather than subvert her narratives with the metaphysics of metafictionists.
For a dozen years she has persevered in the quiet satisfactions of story, while the postmodernists, for the most part, have vanished. Those academics who bet their positions on postmodernism, on a Barthian or Cooverian variant of story, must now look for a new meal ticket. The self-conscious forms and practices of postmodernism now seem as dated as the work of the worst cubists, and senseless. Story, the bearer of good news and substance since the first books of the Bible, with its roots in oral tradition, has been redeemed, or has redeemed itself, by proving to be the only enduring means of communication between human beings. It is the form of the story itself, the narrative that unfurls from here to there, that has proved more durable, after all, than even the medium of language. Story has preserved its practitioners.
Erdrich herself has suffered the temptations of postmodernism, to judge from her work. All her novels are characterized by shifting points of view, with a variety of narrators taking up interrelated chapters or stories within each book. And she began as a poet, with a focused yet fractured lyricism that appears through her first collection, Jacklight (1982). Poets born to the task, such as Shelley and Rilke and Roethke and Thomas, compose in binges, it seems, with alternating binges of another sort, often destructive, and only those born to the task can bear the state of molten emotion that poetry demands. Several years after her poems began showing up in quarterlies, ...