By Madelyn Marie Schoonover
In part one of this two-part series on Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead: A Novel (1991) I began to speak about reader’s reception to the book and how this may be influenced by a misunderstanding of the storytelling style. Using a taped interview with Silko, I explained how a more gossip-based, communal storytelling narrative subverts audience expectations, deconstructing the concept of a ‘true’ objective history, and offering opportunities for readers to laugh at themselves and their perceptions of the world. Because of her writing style, rooted in a history and cultural understanding of the intricacies of oral storytelling, I posited that Silko’s work has been largely underappreciated, and that the subversive and potentially Gothic aspects of Almanac have been underexamined.
In this second part, I will go into more detail about the role of humour in Silko’s novel as well as the role of a trickster storyteller which, although Native American in its origins, could also be seen to share characteristics with the Gothic mode. Humour and trickster storytelling go hand in hand, although it should be pointed out that Western audiences often have trouble understanding the role of the trickster and, therefore, its function in a communal society.
The trickster storyteller is more synonymous with Gerald Vizenor than Silko in Native American literature circles. As Louis Owens writes in the Afterward to Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles (1990), the “duty” of the trickster, and therefore the trickster storyteller:
[I]s to amuse, surprise, shock, outrage, and generally trick us into self-knowledge. Whether in traditional mythology or Vizenor’s fiction, the trickster challenges us in profoundly disturbing ways to reimagine moment by moment the world we inhabit. Trickster tests definitions of the self and, concomitantly, the world defined in relation to that self. (248)
Both Vizenor and Silko have suffered criticism for their portrayals of Indians, despite being Native Americans themselves. Last week I quoted the Publisher’s Weekly review of Almanac and particular criticism here merits re-printing again: “there are virtually no decent nor likable characters here; even those of indigenous American descent have been corrupted by modern culture and ancient hate” (“Fiction Book Review”, emphasis mine). Apparently, it is frowned upon to show Native Americans ‘behaving badly’ aka, behaving in a manner that transgresses Euro-American expectations. There is a set identity that most white American readers expect of Indians and of their relationship to the Earth. Disrupting these expectations through trickster storytelling is not only distasteful to mainstream readers: ultimately, it is dangerous to the capitalist/colonial binary that defines Native Americans as Other and therefore easier to control.
To play with – or to laugh blatantly at – expectations is not only a function of the trickster storyteller, but also one of the Gothic mode. This is not to say, of course, that indigenous modes of writing are inherently similar to Western modes of writing, but rather to draw similarities between styles in order to speculate on how they might inform each other, purposefully or not. But is Almanac funny? Is it playful? I would argue, yes!
Consider, for example, the scene in which Seese first returns to the Stagecoach strip club to find Cherie to ask for a favour. She arrives just in time to see Cherie dance, watching along with Cherie’s current husband. Seese notes: “The husband moved forward in his chair, gathering himself like a rodeo cowboy […] For eight minutes he had to stay in his chair while the men at the edge of the tiny stage leaned over to pry their eyes into his wife” (68). Of course, an objection to this subject matter would be that Cherie should not have to dance for creepy men at strip clubs, and that the fact that she cannot seem to keep a husband or boyfriend because of the dancing is tragic. Those are not wrong observations, and indeed throughout the scene Silko highlights the lasciviousness of the men watching the dancers.
What is humorous, however, is the description of the husband who – for some unknown reason – has come to watch his wife dance for other men, even though it sends him into a spiral of jealousy. Seese observes:
The cowboy is sweating. Seese smells it – hard labor. Sweat, great exertion. His hands clenching and unclenching fists […] The right man would have been proud, would have had contempt for all the other men who did not have a beautiful woman […] Cherie’s blond cowboy did not appear confident that the others were only going to look (69).
Here we see the trickster storyteller at work. Readers are presented with a scene that is taboo: a woman dancing at a strip club while her husband watches. The woman is being exploited and objectified by the men. The trickster shocks us and perhaps makes us angry at being confronted by this image – “outrages” us, to use Owen’s definition (248). However, the trickster also forces us to see a hard truth about the world in which we live: that women are exploited every day for the benefit of random men. Additionally, if we see the moment in the Stagecoach for what it is, it becomes ridiculous to the point of the carnivalesque. We are invited to see the excess of the strip club and the emotions within it and to laugh at them. It is a dark humour, yes, but a trickster humour as well.
My personal favourite example of trickster storytelling in the novel is the character Menardo. Descended from Mexican Indians, Menardo forsakes his familial history and culture in favour of embracing capitalism and the social pecking order of the Tuxtla Guitérrez elite. In many ways, Menardo is a tragic figure: a pathetic man who constantly feels he has to prove himself and who is driven insane by his obsession with overcoming death. In other ways, though, Menardo showcases Silko’s mastery of dark humour and subversion of the image of what means to be ‘an Indian.’ One of the most idiosyncratic and darkly humorous elements of Menardo’s character are his internal musings on his chauffeur Tacho.
Although Menardo and Tacho share similar ancestry, Menardo consistently paints Tacho as an Other. Menardo thinks, “Tacho, like all the Indians, finds it easy to make jokes about the problems of others. They could[n’t] care less about their own situations. No wonder they were such a poor and ignorant lot, although Tacho could at least interpret dreams” (323). For anyone whose image of an Indian is rooted in the image of the wise ‘noble savage,’ Menardo’s blatant racism undoubtedly outrages and surprises readers – once again, a trickster method of storytelling. Indeed, without the context of the myriad other stories in the almanac, Menardo’s thoughts would seem simply ignorant and racist – which, again, is not to say that they are not also these things. With these other stories however, Menardo’s thoughts become laughably inaccurate.
Tacho – and indeed the many other indigenous activists in the story – care deeply about their own situations, although caring does not impact their ability to laugh sometimes. As stated before, Menardo is also an Indian – one of those he calls “poor and ignorant” (323). In fact, Menardo is far more ignorant than Tacho, as he is unable to interpret his own dreams, which ultimately leads to his death. If Menardo was not so obsessed with Othering Tacho and indigenous peoples at large, he would easily see that Tacho is toying with him by giving him inaccurate dream interpretations. But Menardo, so removed from his own culture and identity, so obsessed with becoming like the colonising capitalists in Tuxtla, so worried about appearing acceptable in the eyes of others, is blind to all else.
The character Menardo expresses these trickster attitudes that force readers to look at unsavoury truths about our own cultures, lives, and identities. At the same time, Menardo’s expression of these unsavoury truths is deeply Gothic. In History of the Gothic: American Gothic (2009), Charles L. Crow states:
The Gothic exposes the repressed, what is hidden, unspoken, deliberately forgotten, in the lives of individuals and cultures […] The Gothic insists that humans are flawed and capable of evil, and that the stories we tell ourselves in our history books may leave out what is most important for us to understand (2).
Menardo has lost touch with his indigenous upbringing because of his own personal choice. He purposefully represses – deliberately forgets, to use Crow’s terminology – his cultural heritage and the community that comes with it in order to succeed in Euro-Mexican capitalist society. However, while Menardo meets an unhappy end that is a direct result of his choice to erase his own history, it would be wrong to write off Menardo as a racist, gross caricature from the mind of an angrily rambling Native American woman. Doing so is to align oneself with the very culture and ideology that Menardo embodies, as it is ignoring the significance of Menardo’s choice and the wider cultural impact of colonialism that harms not just indigenous peoples, but everyone who comes within its grasp. To say that Menardo is a ‘bad Indian’ is to be as disturbing and disconnected from history and identity as Menardo is himself.
Menardo is not someone to emulate – the text is indeed clear on that point – but to simply reduce him to an unlikeable character is missing a deeper, more important observation Silko asks us to make as readers. Imagine that instead of reading the novel, Silko was telling you the story of Menardo as you sat with her on her front porch with the sun setting over the mountains. Imagine she painted for you the picture of a Mexican Indian so puffed-up with his own self-importance that he cannot recognize a prophetic dream even if it danced naked in front of him. Imagine her face as she embodies the oblivious Menardo, speaking about the merits or demerits of Indians as he fights so hard to separate himself from his own status as an Indian. Would you laugh? Would you reflect on how we, as people, can be so driven by the demands of society that we do not realize our own ridiculousness?
Perhaps not. And perhaps I am entirely missing the mark with what Silko intended with Menardo and the overall trickster nature of her writing style. Still I cannot help but feel that to dismiss a 763-page masterwork as a one-note, bitter indictment of white people is a little absurd in itself. Perhaps it is easier for us as readers to distance ourselves from that horrific spectacle of Dead-Eye Dog we all participate in, just as Menardo distances himself from his identity. But one thing Almanac shows us is that forgetting history, alongside forgetting who we are and where we have come from, is not a rational or neutral choice.
As the almanac itself says: “An experience termed past may actually return if the influences have the same balances or proportions as before. Details may vary, but the essence does not change” (574, original emphasis). Without characters like Menardo to illustrate the follies of forgetting, Silko shows that we are doomed to repeat history. Seeing ourselves in the worst of people is difficult, but it is important work if America is to ever recognize itself for what it is. That recognition, I would argue, is the first step in a journey away from Dead-Eye Dog mentality. Towards what, Silko does not – and could not – know, but I cannot help but think the road leads somewhere brighter.
Crow, Charles L. History of the Gothic: American Gothic, University of Wales Press, 2009.
“Fiction Book Review: Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko, Author Simon & Schuster.” Publishers Weekly, https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-671-66608-8
Owens, Louis. Afterward. Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles, by Gerald Vizenor, 1990, pp. 247-254.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Almanac of the Dead: A Novel. New York, Penguin, 1991.
Madelyn Marie Schoonover holds and MLitt in the Gothic Imagination from the University of Stirling, UK, where she is currently in her first year of PhD research. She studies erasure and depictions of Native Americans in contemporary American and Native American literature with a particular emphasis on masculinity studies, Eco-gothic, and cultural hybridity.