Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag is a brooding, intense novel about love, hate and the thin line that often exists in between. A dysfunctional and unhappy marriage slowly dissolves, but in the entangled roots of love and family are the complex bonds that make it difficult to get out for the ones trapped in its destructive coils.
The story begins with a diary entry by Irene America, an intellectual married to Gil, a famous painter known for his intense and closely intimate nude portraits of his wife, portraits that Irene feels are stealing her soul. After Irene discovers that her husband has been reading her diary, another form of identity theft, she creates a Red Diary to fool him into believing that she is not the person he thinks he knows. Irene keeps another diary in which she reveals her true self, the one she feels is slowly disappearing in their unhappy marriage. Through these diaries, which are scattered throughout the novel, we see two sides of a marriage: the lies both Gil and Irene tell each other and the truths neither are brave enough to admit.
The truth is neither Gil nor Irene know each other, and their inability to bridge the gap in the lack of intimacy that has developed in their marriage creates the tension that sends them over the precipice. Irene hates Gil. Gil is obsessed with Irene and hates her for his obsession and fears losing her to another man with whom he thinks she’s being unfaithful. Irene isn’t, but the lies, half-truths, fears, obsessions, and hatred become the foundation that now support this tragic union. Caught in the between are their children, fourteen year old mathematical genius Florian, eleven year old Riel, who learns to become a true survivalist, and the youngest Stoney, the unwitting product of Gil and Irene’s marital disintegration. While the children cope with their parents’ destructive behavior, Gil slips further into madness and Irene turns to alcohol and an unfinished doctoral thesis on nineteenth century painter, George Catlin, whose own meddling portraits into Native American life and culture mirrors Gil’s portraits of Irene.
Erdrich is unstinting in her portrait of a dysfunctional family, refusing to offer excuses or take the sentimental route for her characters’ behavior. She refuses to portray Irene as a victim to her controlling and obsessive husband, revealing the ways in which she herself feeds into Gil’s obsessions. She knows she must get herself and her children out from under Gil’s emotional and physical abuse, but she does not, instead offering herself as the ultimate sacrifice to their marital bond. Nor does she portray Gil as a monster, even though she doesn’t shy away from his monstrous behavior. Rather Gil is a man torn by insecurity and fears, one who is self-aware enough to know his behavior is destructive but is unable to stop. He wants to paint the perfect portrait of Irene, to achieve his ambitions as an artist but also to hold on to his wife, who has become the signature reason for his artistic acclaim. In the end he seems more pathetic than monstrous, and one can see how Irene’s own obsession with him can arrive at such an ambivalent state.
Erdrich ably avoids taking sides in this story by presenting the points of view of all the characters, with the exception of Stoney, who is too young and oblivious to know what is going on. Her portrayal of a marriage gone horribly wrong is sharply observant, and is especially effecting when even the most mundane aspects of married life, like preparing a meal or punishing children, can become potent with the unspoken anger and hatred lurking underneath. Riel's inventive way of coping with her family by preparing herself to survive a 9/11 terrorist attack through survivalist techniques developed by her Indian ancestors, seems a fairly obvious metaphor, and yet it does offer Erdrich a chance to reveal how far removed this family has become from their native heritage. Florian hates his father, his relationship with Irene is strained, and he uses his love of mathematics as a way to bring order into his disorderly universe, but he isn't as fully rendered or proactive in the story as Riel, preferring to drink and get high instead. A subplot involving Irene finding out that an old friend of her husband's is in fact her half-sister is a random inclusion, despite the fact that this character plays a significant role in the family's life. It's an off-key note played in a rather finely tuned tale, and certainly isn't distracting, but does bare mentioning.
Erdrich's use of the image, whether photographed or painted, as the perfect metaphor for loss and identity ties the entire story to its thematic foundation. Native Indian lore holds that a photograph steals something of the essence of a human being, and Gil’s portraits of Irene, at once beautiful and shockingly revealing, steals a bit of herself with each succeeding painting. She is desperate to save her soul, not only from Gil but herself. How can, Erdrich seems to ask, a muse survive under the constant scrutiny of the spectator, be it the artist or his admirers? Where does one's identity end under such scrutiny and the perspective of others take over? Given the story’s ending, these questions only leads to more unsettling questions about the role the artist has toward his art and his inspiration.
Shadow Tag unfolds at its own leisure, creating a creepy, unsettling tension that inevitably explodes in violence, madness, and destruction. It’s hard to sympathize with characters like these, but Erdrich is such a master storyteller that she forces you to care about them and what happens to them. There is a hard nugget of truth in this story and I could not help but feel that Erdrich drew from her own life to create this uncompromising portrait of marriage, love, and family.