Okay, look: you’ve probably had a bad couple of years and I don’t want to judge your emotional pain. But unless you’re one of the dozen or so music legends who died in 2016, the odds are good that Sherman Alexie has been having a worse time than you.
Alexie’s mother Lillian, with whom he had a very complicated relationship, passed away in the summer of 2015. In the aftermath of Lillian’s funeral, something in Alexie’s heart cracked open and a flood of poems poured out. He would write multiple poems in a day, dozens in a week. They kept coming, eventually totaling in the triple digits. At first Alexie considered publishing a book of poems about Lillian, but then it became a memoir with poems interspersed.
And then Alexie had brain surgery to remove a benign tumor that demanded immediate action. The tumor was removed successfully, but — because even minor brain surgery is still, well, brain surgery — Alexie couldn’t write at all for months. He could barely remember how to be a person.
And then, just when he was starting to go out in public again, just as he was finishing up a final draft of his memoir, America went and elected the self-described Second Coming of Andrew Jackson. For Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, Trump’s election probably felt like a personal refutation.
But Alexie recovered, because that’s what he does: he survives. And every time he survives, he seems to grow a little bit. If you’ve attended one of his readings lately, you might remember him as an even taller figure than in readings past — bigger, louder, wielding a devastating emotional payload. His personality is large and, as he survives each passing trial, it’s only getting larger; from his adoring audience’s vantage point, Alexie is now a giant.
The memoir that Alexie has been working on is finally out, and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a suitably big book. It is thick and sprawling and the cover is a bright white, like bleached bone. Flip through it and you’ll find a blend of poetry and essays and short paragraph-long bursts of observations. Read the book and you’ll see that it’s not a straightforward account of Lillian’s death or the linear story of Alexie’s brain surgery. Instead, Love staggers forward and back in time, reeling from an account of the bullying Alexie endured as a kid on the rez to the present-day barbs other Native writers throw his way for not being, in their opinion, Native enough.
Everything you love about Alexie’s writing is here: he still manages to find honest human comedy in the darkness of America’s genocidal past, and our deeply racist present. The images he summons are dark and profane and perfect: “My mother was a lifeguard on the shores of Lake Fucked,” Alexie realizes at her funeral when Lillian’s neighbors from the reservation talk about her quiet kindnesses. And I can’t think of any other writer who would be able to craft such a gorgeous poem about the frustrations of playing ping-pong after brain surgery:
…I could only follow the ball for one shot
At a time and couldn’t anticipate my next move
Or where my opponent might hit it next. I wondered
What that might mean about my brain and its new
For at least a decade, Alexie has been diligently dismantling the idea of what a book can and should be. His Vonnegut riff Flight and his densely illustrated Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are both novels that test the traditional way narrative information is relayed to the reader. And his mixtape of a book War Dances crams fiction and non-fiction and poetry — which is in itself a mixture of non-fiction and fiction — in between two covers.
In a structural sense, Love most resembles War Dances, but the fractures are deeper in the newest book, and Alexie is reaching for something even more ambitious. Lillian was a prolific quilter—the endpapers of Love depict a gorgeous full-color reproduction of one of her, as Alexie described them, “legendary quilts” — and Alexie writes that he realized that he unintentionally “constructed a quilt of words” when he read a draft of Love for the first time: “I saw the patterns and repetitions of patterns. I saw the stitches and knots.”
And perhaps if Love was just a typical memoir about a mother’s relationship with her son, it could accurately be described as a quilt of a book. But there’s still more going on here: Love is also an account of what it’s like to not be able to trust your own brain. He tells the same story over and over again, slightly changing details every time. The narrative forgets itself, wanders back, and starts over again. People argue over historical facts. A careless reader might mistake these moments for lazy editing, but in fact everything in the book is tightly controlled.
Alexie writes openly about giving earlier drafts of Love to friends, and he refers to changes that he made in response to his friends’ notes, so the book contains references to a version of the book that you will never read. You get the sense that Love might change considerably between the hardcover and paperback release, that Alexie could spend the rest of his life revising and adding to and arguing with this same book forever.
If this is a quilt, it’s a quilt made by troubled hands, with recursive flaws introduced into the pattern that profoundly affect the rest of the work. A quilt can’t be broken — “Fractured Quilt,” in fact, sounds like an awful rap-rock band from the 90s — but quilts can reflect the brokenness of people and families and communities.
Alexie writes about a quilt Lillian made entirely from denim that turned out to be so crushingly heavy it had to be cut into smaller pieces so it would be manageable. Think of all the old, discarded, threadbare reservation jeans that Lillian had to trim and stitch and fashion. Think of all the work and hard living and sorrow that denim absorbed. Think of all those patches combined — think of the history in that quilt. It could squeeze the living breath right out of you.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant