by Tania Hershman
editor of The Short Review, I am always on the lookout for new voices
in short fiction, and I review a short story collection in each issue.
This is partly for my own benefit. Reviewing helps me see what I like
and, more importantly, why I like what I like, and over the past 13
issues this has had a direct impact on my own writing. Lise Erdrich's
debut collection, Night
Train, is the latest book that has arrived
without me having any idea what I might expect, and the latest book to
both stun me into awed silence and set my brain abuzzing at Erdrich's
linguistic acrobatics: each sentence original, each paragraph knocking
me sideaways again and again, sometimes too much for me to recover and
I have to put the book down.
the middle of the Erdrich sister-writers (the other two being Louise
the novelist and Heid, a poet) has published two books for
children and perhaps this has freed her from constraints that one might
feel in what is called "literary fiction". Reading Erdrich's stories is
akin to being on a roller-coaster: you are not sure until you stumble
off exactly what it is that has just happened to you. For example,
this, the opening paragraph of Vroom:
years later when you motor into town there he is again at
the stoplight, same as last time, sixth grade, twelfth grade, it's a
wonder they passed him: the very wet-chrome fishtail aquamarine 1950s
sedan still in perfect running order, the very one, with his mien of a
debauched nobleman, idiot savant, long and narrow dot-eyes."
is one-quarter of the entire story, under two pages in length, but a
whole life encapsulated within. Erdrich doesn't need space: Night Train
fits 31 (alphabetically-arranged) stories into 158 pages. The shortest,
Indiviaul, is just two sentences: "The sun came up, I saw
it! After that I fucked up everything but the sun comes up again." To
me, this is as powerful as that overquoted Hemingway six-word "story",
sale: baby shoes. Never worn".
geographical setting is most often North Dakota and, as a member of the
Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, many of her stories take
place with this community, which was interesting but you do not read
Erdrich's stories to learn about the Indians and to pigeonhole her as
such would be to do her a grave injustice. You read her stories for
something far more universal. One of my favourites in the collection, XXXL, is one of the
most astonishing stories about domestic abuse, love and weight that I
have ever read, which takes places entirely in the aisles of a
supermarket as the main character shops with her new love, marvelling
as he doesn't hesitate to purchase "giant foodstuffs":
tells me that underneath everything, as the layers come off day by day,
until the day we are irreversibly naked and natural with one another
getting showered and dressed for an important occasion, he is never
going to come foaming at me like a low-budget horror show,
waving a bathroom scale 'trying to sneak some on huh, what do you weigh
now, get on here', until there's nothing left to do but poke him in the
balls with a toilet plunger, pop his creepy-dirty bad mouth."
of Erdrich's stories were too much for me, required too much effort to
attempt to decode. But with 31 to choose from, a few less successful is
a small price to pay for a collection with such voices and currents.
to the first story in the collection, Attention, told
from the point of view of "the author", I see that Erdrich is telling
something at the start, perhaps a warning, perhaps simply a hint of
things to come. At the Q&A after "the author" has given a
someone in the audience asks a question:
do you think of these
things?' and the author explodes in loud delight, laughing. 'Good god
how do you not
think of these things?' and sees a brick wall of puzzled eyes zooming
may be puzzled by much of "these things" that are contained in my book,
Erdrich seems to
be saying, but this is what I have to write because this is
what I think about and what I must get down on paper. I was sometimes
yes, but mostly dazzled and delighted at having discovered yet another
writer in love with language, a fearless writer who who makes
the reader work hard, and, when we do the work, worlds open
front of our shining eyes.
one of the stories
from this collection in the Newport Review.
Hershman is the
editor of the Short Review. Her first collection, The White Road and Other Stories,
is published by Salt Modern Fiction.
Publisher: Coffee House Press
was born in Minnesota, lives in Wahpeton, North Dakota, and has worked
in Indian health and education for over twenty years. A graduate of the
University of North Dakota and of Minnesota State University-Mankato,
she is the author of the children’s picture books Sacagawea and Bears
Make Rock Soup.
Stories from Night Train, her first collection for adults, have
received many awards including the Minnesota Monthly Tamarack Award,
the Many Mountains Moving Flash Fiction Contest, and Best of Show at
the North Dakota State Fair, where the story “Zanimoo” was exhibited
between a pig and the pickles, jams, jellies and preserves. Erdrich’s
essays and stories have also appeared in several journals and
anthologies including Sister Nations: Native American Women Writers on
Community, and Visit Teepee Town: Native Writings After the Detours.
with Lise Erdrich
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Publisher's Website: Coffee House Press
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