The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie- A fantastic novel. Also, fantastically unstructured. The premise is that a Native American kid in Washington state who decides to leave the reservation and attend a hoity-toity white high school in a nearby town. And the plot is just a bunch of stuff that happens throughout the year. There are some throughlines about how the reservation feels betrayed by him and about how he gradually wins the acceptance of the whites, but it’s mostly isolated instances. And that’s fine, because on a sentence by sentence level, this book is utterly gripping. Somehow, it’s not even a question of being well-written. Books can be very well-written without doing that thing where they stick their hooks into you and don’t let go. In fact, sometimes good writing gets in the way of that. I really challenge anyone to be “gripped” by, say, Henry James. No, this novel has a very calculated bestseller style. It’s composed of short, declarative sentences. Maybe of the paragraphs are only one sentence long. There’s not much in the way of long descriptions. Things happen very quickly. The only trick that Alexie doesn’t use is some kind of suspense element.
There are so many marvelous set-pieces in the novel, like the clueless white billionaire who comes to his grandmother’s funeral and talks about how he feels such a kinship with all the Indian peoples. Or the strange teacher who comes to his house to tell this hair-raising story about how he (the teacher) used to try to beat the Indian out of his students. It was a joy to read. I started it and then in an hour and a half, I was done. I don’t think I even looked up.
However, I will say that the book made me feel really funny. Does the world really need another story about a colored person who is rejected by his own people and lives love and acceptance amongst the whites? I mean, I understand…that’s the way it is (and this novel is, apparently, heavily autobiographical). But it kind of seems to ignore a few nuances of the situation. For instance, the whites only accept you insofar as you become one of them. They accepted the narrator because he went to their high school and learned to look and act like them…but they did not accept any of the other people on the reservation. Somehow there has to be more to it than that…something in me cries out for the whites to be hit harder. I don’t think that white people are the audience for this book. I think it’s largely trying to tell colored and disenfranchised people that there is hope for them, but, at the same time, I don’t want the white people (and upper-crusty people like me who) who are reading this novel to think, “Oh yeah, if some strange kid came to our school, we’d totes accept him.” That’s not true. I mean, sometimes its true. But sometimes its untrue.
The book does struggle with this problem at times. The narrator’s final basketball game against the reservation’s team is heart-breaking…but…there’s still something very troubling there.
Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty – Structurally, this one’s actually really similar to Alexie’s novel. It’s the diary of a girl whose best friend has moved away, leaving her to face her sophomore and junior years of high school in relative isolation. As I noted back when I read Bridget Jones’ Diary, I love how the diary form gives the author the freedom to leave out huge chunks of the main plot or to just hint at them obliquely and, instead, to focus primarily on the details of everyday life.
In this case, the plot proceeds in a very oblique fashion. For a long time, we only get the barest hints that something is wrong, like how the protagonist persistently notes that she’s stopped menstruating (no, she’s not pregnant, just very troubled).
Fun things about the novel:
- Have you ever noticed that the protagonists of YA novels always have sooo many love interests? This girl spends the first half of the novel pining over some dude and complaining about how isolated she feels, but she has so many other dudes queuing up for her that it’s a bit dizzying. Somehow, this does not feel true to life.
- Also, YA novels have a penchant for describing the grand social world of high school in a very Breakfast Club sort of manner: in this novel, the cliques and groups are the Hicks, the Dregs, the Jocks, the 404s, the IQs, the Wiggaz, etc, etc. I’ve also seen this in Glee, Ten Things I Hate About You, and Freaks and Geeks. Is this a real thing? Or just something that gets copied from YA novel to YA novel? My high school had like 120 people, so our social graph was not very detailed. But I am still a little suspicious. I mean, I went to college. There were many groups and types of people in college. But there wasn’t all this crazy detail. I mentally categorized folks into four types of people: fraternity/sorority people; co-op people; people who lived in row houses; and all the other people (who I mostly never ever saw). I have my doubts that any student would ever have enough perspective to identify all these social groups. Still, whether it’s real or not, it’s always fun.
- The thing that I don’t doubt is real is all the sex that the kids have in this book. If people were getting laid all the time at my (tiny, all-boys, catholic) school, then I definitely didn’t hear about it. However, from looking at health surveys, it’s clear that a lot of sex goes down in the modern American high school. It’s interesting to see a YA novel that is honest about that and puts things into perspective. Sex is still a big deal, but it’s not an unknown.
- The absurd plot elements. I guess I don’t want to ruin it, but this book is just full of crazy random curveballs. Nor does it really resolve in an organized manner. The year is just over and then the book ends. In fact, the central premise is a perfect example. I understand that the narrator feels distraught over the absence of her friend, but what is the narrative function of all these emails that she keeps writing to her friend? Her friend is kept alive, in a very artificial way, within the story, but is never given any voice. We never see the friend speak a word of dialogue or hear even a sentence from her return emails. It made me wonder what the point was.
Anyway, yes…I wish I had some overarching comment to make for this book like I did for Alexie’s novel. But I don’t. It was interesting and quite satisfying. And I enjoyed being able to finish it in a day. I don’t think I’ll ever write a condemnatory blog post about a book that I was able to finish in a day.