If you’ve glanced at the union regulations for Native writers, you’d have seen this one coming: Eden Robinson explains that it’s a requirement.
“It’s also a union regulation as a Native writer that you have to write a Trickster story at least once.” (This is from an interview by Anita Bedell in Prism international)
Her fourth book covers her off. But even if you didn’t see this one coming, there will be many familiar elements for Eden Robinson’s returning readers, particularly for readers of her award-winning Monkey Beach.
Most notably, her capacity to create credible characters who invite you to share their emotional highs and lows. Invite, or compell.
Son of a Trickster made me laugh out loud, but it also tore me up.
Several times. All together. I’m not breaking down the count for you.
Mostly, the humour is situational and character-driven. The lines don’t seem as funny when they’re taken out of context.
But here’s a peek at the running debate between two characters as to the Hallmark-y-ness of their family. Perhaps not the kind of greeting cards with the higher prices and the over-sized envelopes that cost extra to send. More like Shoebox smart-assed-ness.
“Only cheap booze and leaky condoms will get me grandchildren.”
“You see? That’s a Mother’s Day poem right there. Hallmark doesn’t know what they’re missing.”
Family relationships are at the heart of this novel (which will also be familiar to Eden Robinson’s long-time readers).
Honest and raw. Impassioned and imperfect.
All their rough-cuts showing. Sometimes gleaming like a gem, sometimes cutting along an edge.
Take Jared’s mom. “She’d forgotten he existed. Jared didn’t think he was that high on her give-a-fuck list anymore. He was running a distant second to whatever she was using, so far back it was like they weren’t even running in the same race.”
Given that the mothers aren’t necessarily the Hallmark variety, children are left to fend for themselves sometimes (defend for themselves) too often. Nonetheless, women claim their share of the decision-making (as flawed as it may be). And even though Jared appears to be the main character in this volume, this feels like a woman-soaked story.
Jared is still figuring out the plot, too, along with readers. Whereas it feels like the older women in the story (mothers and grandmothers) already know how it ends and they’re just trying to survive to see if it all plays out as expected.
“Jared shut off his phone. He wanted to stay with Sarah, but watching Mr. and Mrs. Jaks slowly dying was brutal. He wanted to believe his mom was sorry, but his dad was always sorry and he still kept doing crap he had to say sorry for. He didn’t want to be a sucker, but he didn’t want to be alone. Everything ached and all the choices felt wrong.”
Sarah, who moves in next door for a time, is another key player in the story. Her burdens weigh heavily on her young shoulders too. She and Jared find common ground and common comfort; their banter offers readers some relief from the chronic disappointments hovering in the backdrops of their lives.
The dialogue is smart without crossing into too-clever-for-its-own-good-a-la-Gilmore-Girls exchanges. The older generation is as likely to cuss as to be reaching for a bar of soap for a younger cusser’s mouth (not that such threats aren’t made with a good-natured nod to hypocrisy).
This glimpse into a telephone conversation comes from the depths of the novel but doesn’t contain any spoilers and does display the brilliant scenic writing, the kind that likely took a lot of doing but looks effortless on the author’s part.
“Hey,” he said. “Do you know how to cook a pot roast?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Because I’m secretly a housewife from the fifties.”
“Do you have a cookbook?”
“Gran?” Sarah shouted. “Do we have a cookbook?”
“Of course we have a cookbook!” Mrs. Jaks shouted in the background. “Why? Are you getting off your lazy ass?”
“Yup, we gots one. Just a sec. Okay. Got it. Thanks, Gran.”
“What’s it say?”
“Pot roast…pot roast…Here we go. Preheat oven. Sear the flesh of a traumatized cow that spent its entire life in a factory farm. Throw-”
“Wait. Sear? What’s sear?”
But the power hovers behind these domestic scenes. Literally.
“Did you ever pour a little Elmer’s glue onto your hand, spread it around, wait for it to dry and then peel it off? Once it dries, the glue holds a clear imprint of the lines of your palms. Imagine our universe is the dried glue. All the beings on earth and in the sky, all the endless blackness of space, all the heavens in their great spinning chaos, everything we know exists in this thin copy of a completely different layer of reality.”
In Son of a Trickster, there are multiple layers of reality.
But this glue image is an excellent introduction to this aspect of the story.
Because you might think that you’re not the kind of reader who likes stories about other realities, but if you have ever played with glue in your hand, even as a young child, then you are that kind of reader. (Although you might have forgotten.)
And, even if you’re not, you won’t be the only reluctant or refusing believer in the group.
Even some of those people who catch a glimpse of another reality would rather look elsewhere.
Would rather turn up the music and turn off the world. Listen to Elvis.
Because that’s another rule in the Native writers’ handbook.
(This one pulled from an interview by Taryn Hubbard in Room.)
“Also, there’s an unspoken rule in Indigenous fiction that you must have one Elvis reference or face union sanctions.”
Son of a Trickster‘s superpower is its exuberance.
Even in the face of darkness, Eden Robinson’s prose swells with an undeniable energy. The Giller jury has recognised her fiction previously: her debut novel, Monkey Beach, was shortlisted for the Giller in 2000. This year’s jury has selected a relatively diverse longlist (compared to other Giller longlists) and chose to advance this to the shortlist. They are poised to celebrate more varied traditions of storytelling and this could be the shortlisted novel with the broadest appeal, but they may choose to recognise a novel with a more complex structure and layers of construction.