Wednesday, November 22, 2017
In the busy field of cli-fi, Louise Erdrich’s ''Future Home of the Living God'' stands out for its wit and complexity.
In the busy literary field of ''cli-fi'', Louise Erdrich’s ''Future Home of the Living God'' stands out for its wit and complexity. [you can read here:] *hat tip David Reid in Australia
''Future Home of the Living God''
''Future Home of the Living God'' is another example of the growing genre known as climate-change
fiction or cli-fi.
Louise Erdrich is a multi-award-winning American writer whose mother is First
Nation (Chippewa) and whose father is German-American, and who identifies with both lineages.
Erdrich is a prolific writer of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, but she is best known for her novels and
stories in the modes of science fiction and magical realism. This cli-fi novel brings these two modes
together, merging a dystopian vision of America’s future with magical and uncanny happenings.
Like Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, Erdrich’s cli-fi novel adopts an indigenous perspective in its
vision of environmental devastation and social chaos. The narrator, Cedar Hawk Songmaker, is a
young First Nation woman who was adopted by white middle-class parents. Cedar’s adoptive
parents, “happily married vegans” who wanted to celebrate the heritage of their “Indian princess”,
are the ones responsible for her stereotypically “Indian” name. Her status as someone “part wild”
also earns her special authority at school: “My observations on birds, bugs, worms, clouds, cats and
dogs, were quoted. I supposedly had a hotline to nature.”
The first “apocalypse” in Cedar’s life occurs when she is deprived of those myths of her identity
through a meeting with her birth mother, who “had no special powers or connections with healing
spirits or sacred animals. We weren’t even poor.” She also meets her teenage sister, known as Little
Mary, who affects a postmodern “Goth-Lolita” look and is praised by her mother for being the
“only girl who doesn’t fuck and do drugs in her whole class”. The reunion is largely played for
laughs. To complete her fall into ordinariness, Cedar discovers that her birth name was Mary Potts,
after her birth mother.
Cedar’s fall from grace – in a novel in which Christian myths circulate, as per the multiplication of
Marys – also coincides with the unmarried protagonist becoming pregnant. Pregnancy and
childbirth are likewise figured as apocalyptic and redefining events, their potential for danger and
renewal stressed in a narrative context in which the human species is apparently devolving,
evolutionarily speaking. On TV, Cedar sees “a swirling set of graphics – humanoid figures growing
hunched as they walked into the mists of time, while in the background Beethoven’s Fifth
Symphony dissolves into a haunting series of hoots and squawks.”
In fact, Cedar had sought out her birth family to ask: “Are there illnesses in the family? Anything
my baby might inherit?” She puts these questions to her elderly and invalid grandmother – another
Mary – who switches on like “a pinball machine” and starts telling fantastical stories.
I hear the Story of the Two-Faced Child, the Tooth-Spitting Grave, the Talking Drum, When the
Frogs Sang Like Birds, the Story of the Dog That Shit a Diamond Ring, the Unholy Mirror, the Nun
Who Fed Her Baby to a Sow, the Nun Who Swallowed a White Ribbon and It Came Out the Other
End White Too, the Twenty Dead Who Appeared at Mass, an Avalanche of Fish, the Much
Confused Sister, How One Twin Killed the Other, a Weightless Apple, Boiling Rain, and others
which I can’t just now recall.
Erdrich’s tone is typically irreverent and comic when it comes to relating First Nation stereotypes,
but it also plays with Christian and, in particular, Catholic myths. Often the two merge, as in the
figure of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first First Nation Catholic saint, who begins appearing outside the
reservation casino. Cedar’s First Nation mother strategically builds a shrine for Saint Kateri in the
parking lot in order to capitalise on “pilgrimage crowds”. When Kateri reportedly materialises to a
feckless gambler, her message is sobering: “All of you are nothing but a bunch of idiots.”
Erdrich is ultimately uninterested in upholding the tenets and comforts of identity politics and faith.
Her interest in contemporary issues around reproduction and women’s bodies becomes apparent as
the plot takes an Atwood-esque turn, with an increasingly religious and fascist government hunting
down and detaining pregnant and fertile women for reproductive use. The pregnant Cedar finds
herself a fugitive, desperate for a haven in which to give birth to her child. Thus, Cedar’s story
repeats the story of Christianity’s Mary as well as the experience of her First Nation birth mother.
The ways in which First Nation people have already experienced an apocalypse is a point made but
not overplayed. Notably, Eddy, married to Cedar’s First Nation mother, is unfazed by the prospect
of change: “Indians have been adapting since before 1492.” In fact, as the country descends into a
state of emergency and people flee to the cities, tribal leaders reclaim their ancestral lands.
However, the sense that the world is regressing to a former state has a different resonance for the
pregnant Cedar. While confined, she sees a feathered creature with wings and a head that is
“beakless, featherless, lizardlike, rosy red” in the garden outside. Observing this prehistoric
creature, Cedar reflects on her pregnancy as a primordial experience that links an unknown ancient
history with an unknown future: “I have that sense of time folding in on itself, the same tranced
awareness I experienced in the ultrasound room. I realize this: I am not at the end of things, but the
beginning.” If Cedar conceptualises her pregnancy as steeped with a sense of magical history and
possibility, this is intimately linked with wonder at the natural world: “Dear baby, I want you to see
this world, supernal, lovely. I want this world to fill your eyes.”
Future Home of the Living God stands out in its genre due to its wit and complexity. It is also
unique for its sustained first-person portrait of the drama and profundity of pregnancy and birth. P.
D. James’s The Children of Men attempted something similar, but was ultimately distracted by its
male characters and a masculine plot. Erdrich shows that there is enough material in women’s
experience of childbirth to support cli-fi literature of dramatic intensity and philosophical scope.
Corsair, 432pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 18, 2017 as
"Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God".
Louise Erdrich ''Future Home of the Living God''
Posted by DANIELBLOOM at 8:47 PM