Porcupines and China Dolls
By Robert Arthur Alexie. Theytus Books, 306 pp, $24.95, softcover
It’s been a long time since I’ve encountered a novel as hard to come to terms with as Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls, at least in the early going.
It’s not that this is a complex or experimental book. Far from it: it’s a relatively simple story, although it focuses on such difficult subjects as love and survival in the Canadian North, and the past brutalities inflicted on that land’s Native inhabitants. Apart from a few hallucinatory passages of magic realism, it’s told in a straightforward, conversational style. Despite the Inuvik-based Alexie’s honesty and his story’s importance, though, there are points where it’s tempting to give up on his protagonist, James Nathan—as I nearly did, circa page 52.
Nathan has just walked into the bar where the desirable Karen works. Her inner voice, and his, are shown in italics, as per the original:
“ ”˜What you like?’ she asked and smiled. Know what I’d like? Like you to stick your head between my legs, take a deep breath ’n go for it.
I’d like to rip your pants off ’n eat you. ”˜Two Blue,’ he said.”
It’s not the first time in the book that Alexie employs this awkward convention, nor is it the last. The banality is maddening. But, over time, it becomes clear that Alexie is using these terse, sluggish encounters to represent the public reality of characters whose inner lives are considerably more complex, even tortured.
The result is that we feel the stifling burden that the residential-school system has laid on Nathan’s fictional First Nations community, now three generations removed from its self-sufficient roots. Many of its members, including Nathan himself, are also battling the legacy of the sexual abuse they suffered while “in care”; they have no hope for the future and no faith in their fellow man, Native or otherwise. Small wonder that many in the story turn to casual sex and copious amounts of booze for comfort, or contemplate the more complete oblivion of suicide.
Porcupines and China Dolls is a book about redemption, however, and Alexie slowly teases both a small flame of hope and a larger blaze of rage from Nathan’s story. Like any recovery, whether from alcoholism or abuse, this journey encompasses longueurs and passages of harrowing pain—but, ultimately, it’s worthwhile.
Robert Arthur Alexie will be a guest of the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival for two events: a discussion with fellow novelists Joseph Boyden and Cathleen With on Saturday (October 24); and a panel on Sunday (October 25), alongside writers Annabel Lyon, Ashok Mathur, Maile Meloy, Monique Proulx, and Michael Turner.