At the start of this year, I was hoping to learn how to write a novel. Having spent most of 2020 writing – and editing and editing and proofing – an essay collection, I knew how books could be formed, but the enclosure of a novel seemed so seamless, so impenetrable, and I longed to figure it out. I know not all novels are like this; there are some that show you how they’re made, and others so uniquely constructed they don’t feel like novels at all. But that was the kind of novel I wanted to write, the fully-fledged, elliptical, inherently-itself kind, and I didn’t know where to begin. Everyone has themes, things we’re born with and drag around in a bag for the rest of our creative lives, trying to wedge them into our art, and I knew mine: family, inheritance, and revenge.
During a Zoom call with a classmate at Bennington, where I’m currently working toward an MFA in fiction – I really do want to figure out this novel thing – she recommended Louise Erdrich’s The Round House as an example of a book about a family. I’d never read Erdrich before, but she had long been on my to-read list, and I love any excuse to buy a new book, so I picked up a copy, settled on my parents’ couch – I was home for a week – and dove in. I read it in one sitting.
The Round House begins with an act of unspeakable violence, committed against the protagonist’s mother, Geraldine Coutts. After being raped, Geraldine sinks into a deep depression, and Joe – the narrator, a thirteen-year-old boy – and his father, Bazil, a tribal judge, are left to seek their own version of justice. The Coutts family lives on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, its setting inspired by Erdrich’s own childhood. Yet their lives take them to sites owned by the state as well as those that belong to the tribe. Because Geraldine does not know where she was assaulted, her case poses a legal difficulty. It’s unclear which group has jurisdiction: the tribe or the state. Joe takes it upon himself to figure out what happened to his mother, including who did it. The novel is written from his point of view, the dialogue set in commas as opposed to quotation marks; the effect is poetic, nervy and tense.
So much swirls around the world of The Round House – Erdrich sets the novel at the intersection of multiple forms of violence, the reaction to which brings out multiple forms of community and care. There’s the relationship between father and son, as the two pore over case files that might provide a clue; and there’s the relationship between peers, as Joe embarks on his own missions, aided by his friends, the charming, eagle-eyed Cappy among them. Throughout the book it was a relief to witness the tight family bond, with the tension of the novel coming from outside forces both personal – the assailant – and structural.
And the greatest strength of the book might be that tension, the shivering thread upon which its beads are strung. Joe, as a narrator, has a necessarily limited view of the world. He only knows what he knows; he only sees what he sees. The story unfolds, as all novels do, line by line, but those lines are shaped by the naivety and desire of a thirteen-year-old. In a 2012 interview with Erdrich in BookPage, she described her method for creating suspense: ‘I keep answering questions all through the book. There’s always something unanswered,’ she said. I’d noticed how Erdrich seeds information throughout the book – there’s a crime, so who did it? There’s a suspect, but is Joe’s hunch correct? There’s a motive, but is it really true?
Erdrich’s genius for synthesizing suspense, character, and action arrives when Joe begins to formulate a plan. She writes: ‘…[I]t came to me what I must do. A thought descended into me as I lay beneath my own soft old quilt. I pushed it out. The thought fell back. Three times I pushed it out, each time harder. [….] The thought came again, more insistent, and this time I let it in and reviewed it. I thought this idea through to its conclusion. I stood back from my thought. I watched myself think.’ In this moment, we see Erdrich’s machinery of making things happen: we see Joe thinking, and we see his hesitancy, his fear and his eventual cold, nearly calculating deliberation. But what is left unsaid is what precisely Joe will do. We can only anticipate it, and fear it. The book is contained within his thoughts, his impulses; it comes alive with character.
Reading The Round House, I was thrilled at what a novel could do – no didacticism, no gimmicks, every forward thrust motivated by its characters. It reminds me that storytelling has a force – and that it can be done with force. And I can’t get over the dialogue, pitch-perfect, floating eerily on the page, the space between the lines reverberating like silences in a conversation. Like the way certain lines of poetry seem not composed, but born. The Round House opened my mind to what books could be and what they could grapple with, and it gave me – yes – the strength to begin to compose my own text. Nine years after publication, Erdrich’s text still feels timely, even urgent.
Photograph © meknits