Arts & Entertainment

Review: Sherman Alexie tells the same stories in 'Blasphemy'





"In his 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin drew a sharp distinction between prose fiction, meaning novels and short stories, and actual storytelling, meaning spoken narratives passed from one individual to another. The essential quality of storytelling, Benjamin wrote, is lived experience: “Every story contains, openly or covertly, something useful . . . a moral; some practical advice; a proverb or maxim. In every case the storyteller has counsel for his readers. But if today ‘having counsel’ has an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing. . . . We have no counsel either for ourselves or for others.”

Benjamin, of course, died long before the increased visibility of Native American literature, or the literature of any indigenous people with a living oral tradition, and so it’s impossible (if a little entertaining) to imagine what he would make of Sherman Alexie. In one sense, Alexie is — and is well aware of being — the quintessential literary novelist, who, in Benjamin’s terms, “has isolated himself, . . . is himself uncounseled and cannot counsel others. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, he gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.” The stories in “Blasphemy,” Alexie’s collection of new and selected work, begin and nearly always end by reaffirming the brokenness, the dissonance and alienation of contemporary Native American life, usually delivered in withering punch lines: “On a reservation, Indian men who abandon their children are treated worse than white fathers who do the same thing. It’s because white men have been doing that forever and Indian men have just learned how. That’s how assimilation can work.” Or: “When a reservation-raised Native American dies of alcoholism it should be considered death by natural causes.”"

Get the Story:
Without Reservation (The New York Times 11/25)