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Thread: History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

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    Oct 2014
    Uncanny Valley

    History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

    History of Wolves is about power and belonging, intent and outcome, and the problem of evil. It aspires to be a case study in such matters, and for about two thirds of its existence it succeeds. Its modus operandi is to feed the reader plot details at unconventional points and to develop themes through parallel characters or incidents in the narrator's life. It is a gripping psychological tale as long as the central narrative prevails over the anecdotes. But it loses energy when the anecdotes start to crowd out the plot like weeds in a garden. It's author, Emily Fridlund, remains boldly true to her themes, but by the novel's end, one does wonder where that gripping psychological narrative got off to.

    All of which brings me to the subject of spoilers. It is difficult to discuss History of Wolves without revealing at least some of the details that Fridlund scatters here and there. I will stay clear of plot developments that are not alluded to early in the story, but I reserve the right to mention some details that do not come up until later. I do not consider those spoilers but if anyone does, now is the time to run.

    Fridlund makes it clear on the first page that her story involves the death of a child as told by the child's babysitter. This narrator is a 14/15 year old girl named Madeline, though she uses different nicknames with various people. I will call her Linda, which is name she uses with the child's parents. Linda is better than what her classmates call her, which is Freak. She has no friends at school, but she copes despite occasional bullying episodes. She is not a good student, although she seems intelligent enough.

    Linda lives with two adults who are probably her parents (she's not quite sure) in what's left of an old hippie commune in rural, northern Minnesota. The other back-to-the-landers left long ago in acrimony. Linda's presumed parents, now merely poor, rural Minnisotans, live in the literal ruins of their failed ideals. They spend little time with each other and not nearly enough with their daughter. Her father downs Budweisers in a shed and listens to Twins games on a radio. Her mother fumbles with a home grown sort of Christianity in hopes of some sort of redemption ("I wish I believed this sh*t," she mutters). "My mother believed in God," Linda comments, "but grudgingly, like a grounded daughter."

    Into this this world--or rather opposing it from across a lake--comes the upper middle class Gardiner family: a young mother, Patra, and her four-year old son, Paul. Paul's father, Leo, a University of Chicago professor, will join them shortly. Soon enough Patra befriends Linda and hires her as Paul's sitter. Patra is eleven years older than Linda, but not much larger and not an especially imposing adult. To Linda, their friendship and shared care of Paul provides an adult-ish alternative to her freak life at school and a desirable alternative to her flawed relationship with her parents. Or so she hopes.

    But before any of this transpires (in the first chapter, in fact), Linda describes a series of events that are thematically related to the subsequent story of the Gardiners, though not in a way that becomes apparent until later in the novel. Linda's newly arrived history teacher, Mr Grierson, seems a bit flirty and touchy with his prettier female students. Although the plain and flat-chested Linda (who to him is Mattie) hardly qualifies, Grierson eventually asks her to prepare a presentation for a regional history competition. During their discussion, the pervy Grierson appears to Linda as physically vulpine: "His front teeth were white, his canines yellow." At first this seems like a trite and obvious comparison--the big bad wolf baring his teeth at his prey. But the wolf imagery in this novel is more ingenious and subtle than that. It is easy, in fact, to miss.

    Linda/Mattie's history presentation never stands a chance. With no real guidance, she simply speaks about a favorite topic of hers--wolves. The regional judges are confused, but manage to award her "History of Wolves" a far-fetched consolation prize for originality: "a bouquet of carnations dyed green for Saint Patrick’s Day." The anecdote, like the title of the book, has confused some readers, but an easily overlooked passage in Linda's presentation provides the key:

    "I pointed to diagrams of pups in different displays of submission, and quoting from a book I said, 'But the term alpha—evolved to describe captive animals—is still misleading. An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason.' "

    Grierson, like all teachers, is a temporary and situational alpha. He is worse than indiscreet with the harem he controls, and he will pay for that soon enough. But his wolf imagery refers more to his alpha status than his predatory behavior. But he is abusing his power and there is nothing right about what he's doing. The same themes will be played out against the central and separate story of how Paul died.

    Grierson's fool's paradise does not last long. Police discover cocaine in his apartment; it does not belong to him, but a cache of child pornography does. In the scandal that follows, one of Grierson's students accuses him of statutory rape (again, this is revealed early in the story). She recants at his trial and confirms to Linda that she concocted the story, but Grierson has been compromised by the porn and pleads to seven years. As part of the deal, he makes a statement that, again, provides crucial context for the separate story of Paul's death (which has nothing to do with rape or child porn). Grierson says:

    "I didn’t touch that girl, but I thought about it, I thought about it, I thought about it, I thought about it. I thought out worse things than she said."

    The tension between intent and effect provides thematic unity between the novel's separate narrative threads. It is ultimately the subject of History of Wolves.


    The next situational alpha wolf to lope into Linda's life is Leo, Patra's husband. Leo means lion in Latin (presumably Wolfgang would have been too obvious). Leo, as it turns out, was Patra's professor at the University of Chicago. "He was bigger than anything else to me," Patra remembers of those days." Patra, in fact, had to change her first name to accommodate his. "I’m Cleopatra," she confides to Linda, "my whole life Cleo for short...After I met Leo, I changed it. Who could be named Leo and Cleo?...In what world would that work?" But she fails to say why Leo couldn't have gone by Leonard--his full first name. Small wonder Linda see's his slippered feet moving "on padded soles across rugs."

    Linda is jealous of the new presence in their lives, but it is not that simple. Leo is eleven years older than Patra as Patra is eleven years older than Linda and Linda is eleven years older than Paul. For all her submissiveness as a wife ("Leo says, control your thoughts"), Patra--named for an Egyptian queen--is an alpha to Linda. And hasn't Linda amended her own name to appeal to Patra? Later in the story, Linda borrows (or actually steals) Patra's hairband. "It felt like having someone’s teeth against my temples," she says, "—uncomfortable, vaguely threatening—but reassuring, too, like when a dog closes his jaws affectionately on your wrist and does not bite down, but could." And later, "Her headband was making my head pound. I could feel its teeth in a cruel crown from ear to ear." And, of course, Linda is an alpha to Paul. That's how power (and belonging) work in this wolf pack.

    I will be as circumspect as I can about Paul's death. It happens because of unexamined idealism, anguished complicity, and terrifying denial (to see what I mean you must read the novel yourself). Paul was a mostly lovable though sometimes irritatingly soft boy. He is best described as defenseless. His demise is moving, powerful, and free of sentimentality. I usually avoid books about children who die (who needs that?), but the exception in this case was warranted.

    Thereafter, History of Wolves runs into some problems. Fridlund knows well the questions she wants to ask: "What’s the difference between what you want to believe and what you do?...And what’s the difference between what you think and what you end up doing?" But she stumbles through much of the novel's final third. One misstep is to repeat the gamble of giving the reader important information earlier than expected. This worked when she began the narrative by mentioning Paul's death. Throughout the first section, Friedlund flashes forward to bits and pieces of a manslaughter trial that Linda is involved with, and a highlight of the second part is an unexpected parking lot encounter between Linda and Patra at the trial. Considerable tension has been built up (which was not the case with the original mention of Paul's fate). So when Linda casually mentions the trial's verdict in the next chapter and moves cleanly on to other matters, there is a loss of narrative drive from which History of Wolves never really recovers--try though Fridlund does to draw you into the things she wants to talk about. But without a trial, there is a genuine moral failure in Fridlund's reckoning. The dead child is reduced to a mere prop in the story of Linda's relationship with Patra. Poor Paul, killed by good intentions and summarily dismissed by his literary maker! He deserved better and so does the reader.

    The novel's structure also begins to show fissures. A quasi-kinky sexual relationship between the now adult Linda and--some guy--is too long and goes nowhere. The increasing flashbacks and flash forwards become more confusing than revelatory. Some provide important resolution to Linda's experience, especially in the novel's final pages, but there is a choppy quality to the plot after Paul's death and especially after Linda's parking lot run in with Patra. And Fridlund misses opportunities as well. Something meaningful could have been made from Linda's relationship with her (likely) biological mother, for example, especially after her surrogate mother Patra leaves the story. But Fridlund seems intent on driving Linda to the brink of nihilism and seeing what she does when she gets there. Linda's making peace with her eccentric mother would not have helped that objective, but it would have given the story more humanity than the author managed to do. Or perhaps Fridlund's way is the more realistic. There is no redemption there in any case.

    To Fridlund's credit, though, her narrative retains its complicated thematic integrity throughout. In a flair of literary symmetry, the young, rather troubled, adult Linda contacts her old history teacher Mr Grierson, now out of prison and attempting to live discreetly despite a sexual predator registry. Linda thanks him for enrolling her in the history competition. The Most Original award (with its green bouquet) was not the greatest thing in the world but at least it was something--and in fact the only recognition she ever received as a student. This is obviously a risky proposition--one for which Fridlund might be assailed by many. But it follows logically from the story of Paul's death. If those with good intentions (at least in terms of their own beliefs) are responsible for the evil they actually cause, those with bad intentions are laudable for any good they inadvertently achieve; but they are they are not guilty of crimes they do not actually commit. This is the paradox Fridlund wants us to see. It is what her novel is about.

    History of Wolves was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. I recommend it to those who enjoy literary fiction with the caveat that the novel's final third is somewhat disappointing. It is a remarkable first novel nonetheless. And, hey, maybe you'll like the end more than I did.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 03-03-2018 at 08:04 PM.

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