Tragedy and Young Boys: The Round House

lo_res_bks_photo_louise_erdrich_-_the_round_house_hcI finished Louise Erdrich’s The Round House a few days ago but couldn’t get around to writing the review because of festive events. I really liked this novel and read it in a few long sessions because Erdrich has a clear sense of how to build suspense and keep readers turning the pages. I should say that this is impressive given that her narrative roughly follows a murder mystery plot, a style of plot that I have not necessarily been on board with this year. The Round House is narrated by Joe, a 13 year old Ojibwe boy on a North Dakota reservation, and it follows the massive fallout from the brutal assault and rape of his mother on the reserve. I will try not to spoil the plot as I think everyone should go out and read this book because it is easily in the top 10 books I read this year. Joe’s father is a Native judge, and he takes the case quite personally, leading Joe to also band together with his friends’ in their own attempt to solve the crime. What makes the crime so heinous is that the criminal has carefully planned it so that any justice is going to be difficult to achieve. Erdrich highlights how Native tribes in the US have a very difficult time operating their own judicial systems because of the legal quagmire that surrounds their rights and sovereignty. The crime, depending on where it occurred, would have to be tried before a tribal court, the county court, or the federal court because parts of the federal government still lay claim to native people as wards of state.

What makes The Round House so good, for me anyways, is the way that Erdrich digs deep into the violence of rape and the fallout that occurs, but she also does not let this kind of trauma freeze readers into emotional paralysis. Like Joe, we are left trying to grapple with a mother who enters into a catatonic state while all of his friends are just beginning to enter puberty in an eventful summer on the reservation. Joe is caught between two worlds: the adult one of his parents and the youth of his friends with no easy way to reconcile them. This tension drives the narrative alongside Joe’s quest to find the killer.

Yet The Round House is also about the everyday lives of the Ojibwe on their North Dakota reservation. We come to know how the social world of the place and the important role that the Round House plays in keeping Ojibwe traditions alive. Even though Joe’s world is shattered by the violence done to his mother, he is still a thirteen year old boy and Erdrich illustrates how this event forces him to mature. She also throws in a fair bit of humor (including some hilarious dirty scenes where two old Ojibwe exchange what I can only guess are tall tales about their past sexual lives). Erdrich carefully balances the novel with poetic description, narrative plotting, and witty dialogue so that The Round House  is a very readable book where it easily could have been a very difficult one. This is not say that The Round House does not offer challenges, but rather that it does not sink into the quicksand of heavy-handed pathos. Erdrich asks difficult questions concerning justice for North America’s indigenous peoples but she also delights in the vibrant world we live in.

I highly recommend this book for all readers.

Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. New York: Harper, 2012. Print.

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Less Shocking Than the Film, But Still: A Clockwork Orange

orangeI admit that I approached Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange with a fair bit of trepidation. Watching Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel was a shocking revelation for me a number of years ago. However, I seemed to have missed the point in the film, but, thankfully, the book corrected this for me. It is easy to focus on the ultra-violence of Alex and his droogs, nadsat for henchmen or gang members, rather than on the overall moral questions that Burgess asks in the novel. For those who have not had the experience of either novel or film, Alex is the first person narrator of A Clockwork Orange and he leads a gang of four youth who terrorise the streets of England (at least that’s where I think it is set) at night. The novel can be quite difficult to get into at first because Burgess has completely adopted Alex’s nadsat, teen slang, that takes at least several pages to get used to reading. Alot of the controversy over Kubrick’s film and Burgess’s book focuses on the ultra-violence (Alex’s term) they commit, and, trust me, this is not family friendly material.

What this criticism misses are the second and third acts of the book. In the second act, Alex is put in prison for killing an elderly woman and, once there, he undergoes a radical new therapy to cut his sentence. The new therapy is a form of extreme aversion therapy whereby he is drugged to feel sick to his stomach while he is forced to watch films of violence, rape, and brutality. Eventually his body takes over and he becomes violently ill with the thought of or sight of any form of violence. His problem now “fixed,” being unable to commit any crimes simply because his body will not let him, he is free to go. The third act concerns his attempts to return and re-enter society. He is caught by some former victims and beat up several times before he tries to take his own life. In the hospital, doctors manage to reverse the psychological treatment and the Government is saved from a growing scandal that Alex had become an unwitting centre of. The film ends with Alex once again able to enjoy listening to Beethoven’s music, but the book does not end here. It gives a final chapter where, and I think this is important in terms of what the novel is doing, Alex grows out of his violent youthful ways.* Although he blames what he does on youth, he decides to leave that life behind and find a wife so he can have children.

At the heart of A Clockwork Orange, then, is the question of free will and choice. If a human, even a criminal, has no ability to choose, then are they really living a moral or full life? The epilogue of the novel suggests that Alex must choose to leave his violent ways behind and that any attempt to short-circuit violence by removing Alex’s ability to choose is short-sighted. I am convinced that Burgess is not interested in indulging in violence for its own sake (unlike say Fight Club), but instead uses Alex as an extreme case for a moral dilemma concerning the human condition. Yes, Alex is an evil man, but does this legitimize totalitarian measures including the removal of the human ability to choose? This question nicely sidesteps many issues including whether Alex should be allowed to continue brutalizing others so that his free will can remain intact and what forms of punishment are appropriate or necessary.

I should say that I think the novel does a much better job of addressing this question because Kubrick’s film can be construed as revelling in the violence and rape. In many ways, the visual impact of the film can prevent access to the deeper questions of free will and choice whereas Burgess’s novel often sidesteps direct depictions of what Alex and his gang do. Moreover, there are a number of parts, including the final chapter, that do not make Kubrick’s film and hence make it easier to construe in a manner it was not intended. This is not to say that Kubrick’s film is not good in its own right, but rather that the two works achieve very different things and that each should be judged on its own merit.

I would not recommend this book to sensitive readers, but for those interested in a controversial yet deeply thoughtful philosophical book, I would say jump in.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. 1962. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2011. Print.

* Apparently the early American versions of the novel omitted this chapter, so be sure to look for a copy that includes a 21st chapter (part 7 of part 3) if you are going to read it.