Monday, August 13, 2007

going, going, gone indian

Gone Indian
by Robert Kroetsch

You open a new notebook to the first blank page, then notice he has brought along six of same, lest the dissertation should suddenly begin to write itself. A loafer. Not the ring-giver of old, not a leader of warriors, not a sound judge of good and evil. The eternal scrounging lazy unemployed bum of a graduate student --

You find the one notebook that is not quite new nor totally empty, raise it as if to close your -- and here I quote -- eloquent breasts therein: you bend your gaze to the first paragraph of the dissertation: "Christopher Columbus, not knowing that he has not come to the Indies, named the inhabitant of that new world --"

Then you read, aloud again, my own professorial comment: "Jeremy, my boy, you have used this same opening in two other failed, futile, rejected attempts at writing a dissertation. When will you begin?"

Imagine, if you will, that you are an American graduate student. You have been writing your dissertation for a cool nine years. You're a grad student in the 1970s, so you are by default male and by default having it off with all your undergraduate pupils. You're failing at everything, even teaching composition class, and your marriage is falling apart. Your stress is being quite handily symbolized through a frustrating case of impotence. You're a failure at the definitive checking-out-of-reality profession, and your personal life is in shambles. So you run. You run for the north, determined to 'go Indian' and live like your hero, Grey Owl, emulating the people you've been floundering around writing about for the last nine years. Along the way you cheat more on your wife, piss some people off, and die or possibly fake your own death.

And the only person left to interpret your story is your advisor.

Who is totally sleeping with your wife.

Just another day in grad school, ladies and gentlemen.

This is the story Kroetsch weaves for us in his novel, Gone Indian. The novel beautifully captures the strained advisor-advisee relationships that are so archetypal of the graduate school experience, and tells us in two voices the story of the last days Jeremy Sadness spends among the Aboriginal people of Alberta. We are given the story in tapes transcribed by the professor but told in Jeremy's voice, but we are also given Dr. Madham's interpretation of the events. All of this is sent to Jill Sunderman, who Jeremy had been carrying on with in Alberta, as a means of explaining the life and "death" of this man. Obviously, names are important here. "Madham" is the force that drives Jeremy north in his madness. "Sunderman" is the woman who divides Jeremy into his failed white self and his imagined but idealized "native" / Grey Owl-esque self. And Jeremy himself is names after Jeremy Bentham and lives a life in academia surveiling the world, to an extent that he must escape and discover an alternate world of his own.

But that's the novel, really. I wanted there to be discussion of what it is to appropriate a cultural identity for no reason other than to facilitate an escape from the self. In a way, the ambivalence of the ending reflects an ambivalence about this choice, I suppose. Carol, Jeremy's wife, is certain her husband is still alive; Madham is certain he is dead. The truth, really, lies somewhere in between -- Jeremy is certainly dead, but Jeremy's inner Grey Owl may well have survived the journey.

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