Saturday, 10 December 2016

Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie

Image result for blasphemy alexieIf I may borrow a metaphor from my favourite author, this is the sort of short story collection that should be served with a whisk brush, so you can dust yourself off after you pick yourself up off the floor. Blasphemy was my first introduction to Sherman Alexie, and it certainly won't be the last.

These short stories are intense, often funny, often devastating. Some are a mere couple of pages long, others much longer, but they are universally really good. This is one of those books I can't wait for my husband to read so we can discuss it.

I am of two minds as to how to place this in my head. Do I compare it to other books by native authors? There's a value to that, for sure. But it also seems unnecessarily reductionist, relegating this to a division that should be acknowledged, but which this book both inhabits and encompasses.

Alexie is undoubtedly writing from a Native perspective, specifically a Spokane perspective, most of the time. But it also entirely his own, coloured as it is with all the experiences accumulated in a lifetime, and those are not experiences that are necessarily easily separated into neat piles of Having To Do With Race and Not Having To Do With Race.

I'm explaining this badly. I guess what it comes down to is that this is a fucking amazing book by a Native author, but if people try to put into a little pile of books that should only be read if you're interested in that specific genre, I would be prepared to fight them.

I think what this book most immediately puts me in mind of (maybe just because it's also comprised of devastating short stories and I read it this year) is Lucia Berlin's A Manual for Cleaning Women. The stories are vastly different, but there's a similar feeling of circling around moments, incidents, in multiple stories, trying them out with new characters and focus. And they are similarly difficult, although Alexie certainly has more humour.

What is the place of humour? That thread runs throughout many of the stories as well, with maybe a best guess coming at an answer in one of the later stories (I don't remember which one) when talking about humour from Native and Jewish people, that sometimes humour is the only possible reaction to genocide.

(One of my favourite stories was about the man who couldn't stop making jokes while he was dying of cancer, even at the cost of his marriage.)

It's the phrasing, though, whether witty, or funny, or simply a sentence shaped like a punch in the gut. Alexie's authorial voice is strong and merciless, even when it's also funny.

The stories circle around violence, around relationships to parents (particularly fathers), marriages, pining for a lesbian Native woman, basketball, and looking for that thing that defines you in a world that doesn't care whether or not you find it.

I highly recommend these. To everyone.

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