Writing (and reading) fiction about difficult, aka “unpleasant” things can be, well, difficult. Generally , it seems, readers look to fiction for reassurance, escape, uplift and validation, and perhaps rightly so, given how hard it is just to stay alive.
I, too, read for these reasons. However, I also take great comfort and inspiration from work which is challenging, even frightening, repulsive, or, that most commonly-used adjective: depressing. Why is this? Perhaps because it gives me hope when someone has the courage to tell it like it is; also, because reading such work provides a welcome break from the nullifying social obligation to be cheerful all the time. I feel so much less alone afterwards. Smiley face.
In the mid to late 90s, I was not having a good time. One of my coping mechanisms became reading “difficult’ books; arguably, it still is. One of the books I read at that time was Laguna Pueblo poet and novelist Leslie Marmon Silko’s monumental epic, Almanac of the Dead. Published in 1991 and clocking in at 763 densely-packed pages, Almanac of the Dead takes as its focus the unremitting evil that is White European colonial culture and the damage it has wrought in the Americas. Or rather, more significantly, the long-predicted and much-awaited future collapse of said culture, and return to indigenous sovereignty and values as symbolized by the emergence of a giant, stone snake at the mouth of a uranium tailings mine in the Laguna Pueblo. Geographically the novel centres on Tucson, Arizona, but ranges as far as the Caribbean, Mexico and the US East Coast in its depiction of vast criminal and insurgent networks.
With over 70 significant protagonists, the novel manages to convey a complex, multi-dimensional communal reality, while also focusing in on unforgettable events and individuals, including Sterling, an older Laguna Pueblo man who functions as a sympathetic touchstone at the heart of all the intersecting narratives. Innocent and trusting, Sterling has nevertheless become infatuated by toxic elements of White culture and begins the novel in exile from his community after guiding a Hollywood film crew onto its sacred lands. By the end of the novel Sterling has returned to the Pueblo with a new perspective: “Sterling saw them over and over in dreams; ghost armies of Lakota warriors, ghost armies of the Americans leading armies of living warriors, armies of indigenous people to retake the land.”
Upon its publication, Almanac of the Dead received both praise and criticism. Some critics expressed outright disgust and revulsion toward not just the form and content, but the underlying message of the book. One of the key elements of the novel is its focus on spirituality, psychic powers and what might be termed witchcraft, i.e. the harnessing of spiritual or paranormal energies to enact social (as well as individual) change. This particular element of Silko’s panoramic realism also unsettled many, not least because it unseats White Romantic notions of a human-centric, benign Nature, not to mention Christian god: “The snake did not care if people were believers or not; the work of the spirits and prophecies went on regardless.”
More recently, the novel has been criticised for its depiction of queer characters. It’s true that two of the more prominent characters, Beaufrey and Serlo, are upper-class gay men who participate in drug trafficking and sexual exploitation. Like many of Silko’s characters, it could be argued, their marginalization has rendered them vulnerable to the delusions of the dominant culture. Ultimately, however, I believe the novel’s restless structure teaches the reader not to identify with or draw conclusions about individual characters but rather to engage with the larger psychic, cultural and moral forces that are, in a sense, its true protagonists.
Silko herself acknowledges the novel’s power. “If you make it all the way through Almanac, it makes you strong. It’s like one of those stronger remedies. You do have to tell some people, hey, if it starts to bother you, put it down. Rest.”
When I read Almanac, it was the summer and I was on my (first and only) road trip down the West Coast. The conditions under which I first read books are often forever intertwined with my feelings about them. Almanac accompanied me through long, sleepless nights in KOA campgrounds. My progress through it was interrupted by grocery runs to Californian health food stores where undernourished white hippies, clearly stoned, complained about the lack of probiotics. And while in its midst, I fondled the giant varnished balls on a roadside statue of Paul Bunyan’s ox, survived a night surrounded by black bears in a redwoods wildflower meadow, and viewed the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time. Throughout, I was hungry for truth, and to know that the presence of a clear-eyed yet passionate witness could somehow facilitate change, even for those who might never live to see it.
Today I’m still grateful for the courage and vision that led Leslie Marmon Silko to embark on the perilous journey of writing this novel. It’s a challenging read, and evokes visceral reactions in many–how could it not?–yet it’s a world I return to again and again for mental renewal and, believe it or not, comfort. In June 2020, its multi-faceted depiction of our current condition appears more accurate and necessary than ever.