Gerald Vizenor Essay - Critical Essays

Gerald Vizenor American Literature Analysis

Vizenor, a heterodox and demanding writer consistently produces work that is important for its social commentary (which is usually stinging), for its subtle use of story lines (which are sometimes so subtle as to be almost indiscernible), and for its linguistic invention (which is still in the formative stages). A postmodern, poststructuralist writer, Vizenor does not concentrate much attention on individual characters in his novels. Their motivations and development are secondary to Vizenor’s other, more pressing artistic concerns, which have to do with the broader culture and with the conflict between the two major societies upon which his work focuses. The influence of his growing up on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota is evident in most of his writing.

Readers probably absorb Vizenor’s novels best if they read them in chronological order. This is partly because characters recur from novel to novel but also, more cogently, because occurrences from the earlier novels are alluded to meaningfully but with little edifying detail in the later novels. Not having read the earlier novels can limit one’s comprehension of the later ones.

Having suggested a sequential reading, one can then say that in a novel such as The Trickster of Liberty it is not necessary to read the various episodes within the work sequentially. Many of the chapters are independent essays that can be read in any order without reducing the reader’s comprehension and appreciation of the work as a whole. These chapters fall within a narrative frame of prologue and epilogue, but the structure reflects a non-Western mind-set, which the author consciously strives to depict.

The American Indian frame of reference is a bewildering one for most members of the dominant culture. Such readers struggle with Vizenor’s books until they begin to understand Vizenor conceptually. He does not aim to write Native American stories adapted to the sensibilities of Anglo culture; rather, he attempts to be true to the culture he is depicting and from which he sprang.

Vizenor is not the sort of literary purist who confines his writing to the oral sources through which so much Native American culture has been transmitted and preserved. He uses his extensive literary background to draw upon sources from many ages and from many cultures as he develops his stories. He does so unabashedly and without apology. His writing is much more than a mere extension of the oral tradition of his forefathers.

In conventional American and European literature, actions are expected to result from specific, identifiable sources. In Vizenor’s work, however, the causes are often neither articulated nor hinted at, a fact that can create problems for uninitiated readers who approach his novels. The literary reference points on which most readers rely are often absent or, at best, considerably distorted in Vizenor’s writing, as he strives relentlessly and intelligently toward developing new modes of expression.

In his first novel, Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart, Vizenor chooses an apocalyptic setting several decades in the future. This cautionary novel foresees the environmental destruction of the United States and, with it, the complete economic collapse of society. Here Vizenor displays the extremes of irony of which he is capable and demonstrates as well his considerable gift for satire. He interweaves Native American culture with sociopolitical elements of the dominant society, producing a chilling effect. His biting social satire and keen sensitivity to the contradictions and absurdity of much of modern life—particularly when viewed from the Chippewa perspective—continues in his later novels and is most strident, perhaps, in The Trickster of Liberty, where the humor has an underlying element of sadness.

Vizenor does not avoid sexuality or violence in his writing and has been criticized for his concentration on both. He has confirmed in interviews that he includes violence and sexuality in his work because he believes it is unhealthy to suppress these aspects of the human experience. He claims that to deny violence is to create victims who can be controlled by the symbolic appearance of violence: People cannot fight things that they do not know.

In its presentation of violence, Vizenor’s work does not depart significantly from much of the folk literature of the past—the tales of the Brothers Grimm, the Mother Goose rhymes, many of the stories in Greek and Roman mythology. In approaching Vizenor’s novels, one must keep in mind the philosophical reasons for the violence that pervades the author’s writing.

Judging from some of his public utterances, Vizenor has given considerable thought to developing new ways to work with the English language. He would like to break the bonds of grammatical convention, to imagine ways in which language can be pushed to new extremes. He has experimented with using an intermixture of tribal languages with the English in which he writes. He first attempted such experiments in his collection of stories Wordarrows, with results that left many readers confused and frustrated. In Griever, Vizenor introduced elements of Chinese into the mix with moderately successful results, perhaps because Griever is structurally a more conventional novel than any of his other work.

In The Heirs of Columbus (1991), Vizenor exercised his authorial prerogative to bend history to his own fictional ends, an approach that distressed some of his more literal readers and critics. Vizenor, however, is indisputably daring, interesting, and enticing in everything he writes. If his literary experiments do not always succeed, he must nevertheless be admired for the originality of his attempts.

Griever: An American Monkey King in China

First published: 1987

Type of work: Novel

The story of a Native American teacher, a trickster, who teaches in China.

In order to comprehend Griever: An American Monkey King in China, Western readers must consider Vizenor’s statement that tragedy is a Western invention. Native American tales emphasize the comic with little overlapping toward the tragic. With this in mind, one can consider Griever de Hocus (as in Hokus-Pokus) the sort of trickster protagonist Vizenor set out to create.

Griever, a Native American teacher, himself a consummate trickster, finds himself teaching at Tianjin University in China, just as Vizenor, also a consummate trickster, did for a while in 1983. Griever considers himself a reincarnation of the legendary Chinese Monkey King. He has arrived in China at the precise moment that a surge toward Western-style capitalism and consumerism has been loosed upon the country, transforming it from a communistic to a capitalistic state.

Having little allegiance either to Western values or the communist state, Griever, in a series of lively adventures, has a light-hearted affair with the daughter of a government official. The affair takes an ominous turn when the young woman becomes pregnant and is murdered.

Vizenor, well schooled in ancient literature, employs his broad background to shape his story. He draws on a classical Chinese story, “Journey to the West,” and a version of the story, “Monkey,” to structure his own tale. In “Monkey,” the title character is born when a huge boulder the gods have impregnated bursts open and releases him. He develops into a religious person who goes to India in quest of sacred writings. This story has been influential not only in Vizenor’s writing but also in Ishmael Reed’s Reckless Eyeballing (1986) and in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989).

Much of Griever involves dream sequences in which truths are revealed to Griever, although Vizenor does not always identify crucial actions in his novel as being dreams or reality. In one such sequence, which is obviously a product of a dream, Griever, his face painted to make him look like a monkey, performs acts of charity and heroism like freeing the chickens from a large market. In two other such acts, he frees a bird from its cage only to have it fly back in, and he frees prisoners on their way to execution from the truck carrying them to their doom only to have many of them refuse to flee.

As such acts prove futile, Griever, who has constructed a tiny, ultralight airplane, flies it across China with Kangmei, the sister of Griever’s dead lover, a crossblood. This flight ends in a mixed-blood marriage between the two. Despite such fantastic turns, Griever is a satirical indictment of communist rule in China. It comments on everything from bound feet to governmentally sanctioned murders.

The Trickster of Liberty: Tribal Heirs to a Wild Baronage...

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