The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian
By Sherman Alexie
There a hilarious bit in an old episode of the Simpsons where Homer wakes up suddenly and turns to Marge and says:
"Marge! I think I hate Ted Koppel!"
It happens without any context and adds nothing to the story-line of that particular episode, but I couldn't stop thinking about that particular snippet while reading The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, except in my head I kept repeating:
"Marge! I think I hate Neil Gaiman!"
It turns out that every book I have ever read that has merited praise from Neil Gaiman has turned out to be a real dud. This book has a big, splashy blurb from Gaiman right on the cover, so it should have been a tip-off, but I wasn't really paying attention when I picked it up, so... my bad.
What really galls me about Gaiman (aside from the fact that his novels are atrociously over-rated) is that he uses his cache as an eccentric writer to promote extraordinarily mediocre work by other authors. Gaiman seems to have gained his reputation from Sandman and has spend the last 20 years spending his karma like a expense-account. It's sad. His endorsement of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian ("I have no doubt that in a year or so it'll be winning awards and being banned.") is simply baffling. I can't imagine why this book would win any awards or garner enough attention from anyone to be deemed worth banning. But what do I know?
As far as I can tell, The Absolutely True Diary of A Part Time Indian is a pretty straightforward underdog story about a native kid named Arnold Spirit who grows up on a hopeless reservation in Washington State to two hopeless parents in a community of hopeless friends. His future doesn't seem to be very bright until he is suspended on his very first day of high school. His teacher encourages Arnold to leave the reservation and go to school in a nearby "white" town. What follows are the expected trials and tribulations of a poor, "non-white" outsider trying to fit into the richer, "white" society. What could have been a really nifty little book about indigenous issues from the perspective of a teenage boy turns into a morass of extraneous sub-plots without any clear resolutions.
In fact, this book fails in spectacular fashion. As I mentioned in my review of Henry's Sisters way back when, The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian suffers from Too Many Issue Syndrome. Alexie addresses a myriad of issues in this book including: alcoholism, drunk driving, eating disorders, teenage violence, family violence, racial inequality in education, gender inequality in the community, deep-seeded community racism, native on native racism, and a host of other issues relating to natives as well as the failed reservation system.
When I say tat Alexie addresses these issues, that's exactly what I mean. He mentions them, often in passing, in a matter-of-fact tone and offers less than nothing in terms of resolution for any of them. Sub plot mysteriously appear and disappear, often on the same page. Penelope's bulimia is presented and then categorically forgotten. Most of the characters are mere cardboard caricatures of real people. Arnold's parents are two-dimensional stereotypes who are left under-characterized but the reader is expected to empathize with them at various points throughout the book.
In such an extreme case of Too Many Issue Syndrome, I would hardly expect the author to resolve all the issues raised, but it would be nice if he were to get around to resolving at least one. If not one, perhaps he could resolve the narrative. Provide closure to the story? No such luck. Which begs the question: What is the point of this book? What was I supposed to take away from this reading? What is Alexie trying to say to his reader? There is nothing to indicate that they have moved from point A to Point B in the story. The book was akin to watching the first half of an especially bad after-school special before the cable goes out.
I suppose the Diary of a Wimpy Kid drawings that parallel the story are supposed to lend a certain cutsy-edginess to the book (hmmmm...). "Look, it's not one of those typically stuffy, morally straight Young Adult novels we have all grown up to hate. It's got drawing along the way to illustrate the finer points." Sorry. It wasn't clever when Jeff Kinney did it and copying the idea verbatim reeks of Percy Jackson vs. Harry Potter.
Of course, I'm not really one to talk on this issue. I simply don't understand the existence of YA fiction. Marketing books specifically at the teen demographic seems counter-intuitive. When I was a teen my friends and I could smell out anything that was being geared toward the "youth market" and I would have avoided it like the plague, opting for more adult choices in music, literature and movies. Who wants to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer when you can just read Dracula or watch Blade. Seriously, real teenagers don't read YA fiction.
Furthermore, YA fiction is completely devoid of creativity. As I mentioned earlier in relation to Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, YA fiction writers all seem to sit around and wait for someone to write a successful book, then they all bump on the bandwagon and write virtual copy-cat narratives, just changing names, settings and the species of the cute little pet.
Call me a curmudgeon, but I'm going to stick with adult books. I suppose anything that gets people to read is great, and I'm certainly trying not to be judgmental but I suspect that the vast majority of YA fiction is bought and read by adults suffering from arrested development and deluded school librarians who honestly believe that teens go in for this sort of rubbish.
Oh, and Neil Gaiman.