A Portrait of a Native American as a Young Woman: The Labyrinth of Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend
NOTE: This essay will contain spoilers.
Erika T. Wurth’s debut novel Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend is a modern-day labyrinth. Although published almost a hundred years after James Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, both books explore the life of a young protagonist attempting to escape the destructive influences of poverty, culture, and family. Wurth’s Idaho Springs, Colorado becomes a system of imprisonment for the sixteen-year-old Margaritte. The one thing she wants more than anything is to get out of Idaho Springs (page 22, 143, 271).
When one thinks about a plot, there is usually forward movement towards some sort of a climax and resolution, which indicates the protagonist possesses some level of agency. This isn’t the case for Margaritte, who moves in claustrophobic circles: hellish life at home, dead-end job, back home, some party, home, school, a friend’s apartment, home. There is no forward movement—only circles. After all she is a kid with no money. How much agency could she possess? This dramatizes life out West for many, where towns are small, the sky is big, and the alienation is tangible. The monsters of the contemporary Western labyrinth are meth-heads, cops, and alcoholic fathers. Nowhere is safe. This results in a kinetic text where each chapter consists of Margaritte running and crashing into the maze’s wall with the hope that one day she will stumble out into the world.
The result of all this running is twofold: physical and emotional damage. Despite her dealing drugs, which results in a serious injury early on in the book, the most dangerous place for Margaritte is at home. Her father, Doug, is an alcoholic who hits his wife and drives drunk. Yet Christine, her mother, refuses to leave him. This is something Margaritte simply can’t understand. And this comes to a dramatic head when her father, driving under the influence, crashes the car while driving the entire family home from dinner. This is the family dynamic that keeps Margaritte running through the labyrinth.
The core of the book’s emotional abuse stems from the adolescent love between Margaritte and Mike. Their tender moments seem to offer an escape from the labyrinth. She is able to let down her guard and opens up to him. Mike could’ve been the person who saved her. But after Jake, her cousin, is sent to juvenile detention, Margaritte starts spending more and more time with Mike, the new boy at school. Both share an artistic temperament, talking about books and watching Woody Allen movies. He comes from a bit of money and seems to offer Margaritte a sense of sanctuary. But this peace will not hold. She gets pregnant and plans on an abortion. Mike desperately wants a family and argues with her about their future. This tension leads to them breaking up and Mike cheating, which plays out in a dramatic scene where he blacks out and is taken to the hospital. There Mike calls her a whore. In the same scene his parents appear for the first time. Margaritte introduces herself as his girlfriend. They correct her by saying they know his girlfriend: Julia. Suddenly everything comes into focus. She means nothing to him. He is a liar. He uses people. And sanctuary of young love quickly rots, leaving her running towards the next part of the maze. This becomes the knockout punch. It hurts so damn much to read this chapter. She wants to be loved and be accepted. And for such a short while she is offered a taste of how sweet life can be. But it will not last.
The entirety of this book takes place within two years, meaning Margaritte is seventeen at the end. One must keep in mind that the narrator of this first-person novel lacks perspective on the events that occur. She is not like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, where the narrator is a slightly more mature version of the protagonist. At the end, Margaritte is living with Megan and has stopped dealing. She seems to be at the dawn of something new, but the reader can’t be sure of what. This is unsettling. At the beginning of the book the one thing she wanted was to get out. What the reader is left asking is whether or not she has escaped the labyrinth or has made peace living within, like her mother.
The following interview was conducted with Erika Wurth via email. We chatted about her development as a reader and writer, the book’s narrative structure, building characters, the genre of realism, and some of the book’s reviews.
Tell me about you as a reader. What texts made reading became more than something you had to do for school?
Reading in and outside of school wasn’t much encouraged where I went to school. I was a huge reader, and I was ridiculed for it and I even made really bad grades because of it, because that’s all I wanted to do. And since there wasn’t much in terms of literature that we read and certainly almost nothing, except The Outsiders, that people from my area could relate to, I read a ton of fantasy and a bit of science fiction and horror. I was super into Piers Anthony and Stephen King. I also read that stuff because I desperately wanted to escape. Once I got to college, and I’d always wanted to be a writer though I had no idea what that meant or what that looked like, I started to take literature courses that’s when I started reading more of what you might call literature.
When did you start writing?
I didn’t write at all in high school and I hardly wrote in college, and in fact I was afraid to take creative writing courses, mainly because my parents had threatened to take me out of college just for majoring in English. And they had come from much more working-class backgrounds than I had, and they definitely put the fear into me. But by the time I got to my masters, in English, because I didn’t know about MFAs, I started to write poems and short stories on my own, though I still wouldn’t take creative writing courses. I think in the end I was chicken, although of course I said that I wasn’t going to let anyone tell me how to write. But I wrote and wrote and after a few years I started to send out and get a publication here and there.
How much of your adolescence ended up in Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend. I am not insinuating that Margaritte is a stand in for you, but did you grow up in a place similar to Idaho Springs, Colorado?
I grew up in between Idaho Springs and Evergreen in Colorado, two towns immediately west of Denver, Evergreen a more slowly yuppifying place, and Idaho Springs, although pretty spiffy now, was a pretty rough place. Idaho Springs is a place where working-class white people, Latinos and Native Americans of all tribes live, although the majority is working-class white. All unified by the mullet, or at least they were when I was a kid. What I tried to do with the novel is take stuff from my adolescence, stuff from my friends’ lives growing up, and then just make a ton of shit up.
Can you tell me about the process of writing this book? How long did it take? How has it evolved?
It took ten freaking years. I had the idea for the novel, which was originally a short story that was in many ways very internal, when I was twenty-four. And someone had told me that it should be a novel and I thought they were crazy and then I realized that no, it should be a novel. The problem is that I’m very interested in internal narrative arc. I don’t think those deus ex machina plots where a helicopter comes down from above and falls on a character’s head in order to force narrative arc is particularly interesting. I think people who have plots like that aren’t brave enough to ask themselves difficult questions about who their characters really are. That said, I had tremendous problems with narrative arc. And my current agent, Peter Steinberg, called me up and said look, you need to sustain the drama, I think you’re afraid of drama. And that really helped for me. I realized that I had to learn to be bored and patient and sustain the drama. And ask myself the hard questions. Of course the writers I love are Alexie and Cisneros and Carver and Lahiri and Salinger and Diaz, all of whom are writers with characters who have intense internal lives and the climaxes revolve around what happens for them internally.
As I read the book, I kept coming across the feeling that Margaritte was stuck in a labyrinth and that each chapter consisted of her running into one of the walls. You seem to bring this front and center early on when Margaritte says, “I want out of here” (22), which is repeated on 143 and 271. Even when there are tender moments, like the beginning of her relationship with Mike, it always ends up with a loud smack of her crashing into something. Am I projecting or did you use this as an organizational trope of sorts? Is this a comment on living in a small town out west? Is this a statement about the difficulties of growing up poor? Growing up Native American? All of the above? Or is this simply a devise to build a page-turner full of frustrating drama?
It’s all of the above. I think when you have a lot of things that you’re struggling with, financially, culturally, and especially if you’re growing up with a parent who is an alcoholic, you’re going to end up having to face problem after problem after problem. This is life, but I think the problems are certainly different, at the least, if you grow up white and in suburbia. But your character has to have problems, problems that propel the novel forward. Otherwise you don’t really have a novel. But I think Margaritte isn’t like Julia, she doesn’t really have a hatred for where she comes from but she’s also not like Treena, who doesn’t really question anything. Or who you could argue doesn’t want to or can’t. I think what I wanted to do, was get away from so many Native American novels where it’s all about leaving the reservation or it’s about finding yourself on a reservation. My character grows up like I did, with Native American Church and powwow and hearing Native languages and with at least some sense of what Native values are, though people want to say over and over again that somehow my characters are distanced from their heritage, which I think is projection that stems from how people think about Native Americans (they are authentic only if they live in this fantasy narrative of 500 years ago). So I wanted to think of a way that my character could authentically live where she comes from in a way that either might mean she’s continuing the cycle or breaking it, without completely breaking from where she’s from.
But that’s the thing with the end of the novel, she’s in a good place, she’s broken the cycle but the letter from Mike lets the audience know that she might go right back into it. Or not. I guess I’m always going to be a fan of the literary ambiguous ending. I think it’s more interesting and more like real life. We don’t ever really know what’s going to happen next.
Building off the previous question, it seems that many of the characters are trapped in habitualized behavior. At one point Margaritte even announces that she doesn’t want to end up a statistic, revealing some level of self-consciousness. Yet she chooses in the end to fall into the habitualized behavior of her mother. Not to mention, Margaritte and Mike’s relationship sounds a lot like Doug and Christine early on in their life.
I think most people are trapped in habitualized behavior. I think though that minorities and working-class people are punished for it more often though. There’s this fantasy that Americans have that everybody’s equally responsible for where they end up, which is absurd considering the distance between even how Marguerite grows up, which is a combination of working and middle class and where your average middle-class white American grows up. That said, Margaritte does want to break the cycle, she knows it’s unhealthy and she wants something different – but most people don’t. The question at the end is will she?
In a review, a critic says, “Margaritte has an interesting voice, and Wurth gives the environment a gritty patina, but there’s not enough of an emotional arc to warrant the drama here” (Kirkus Review). It seems that this interpretation falls back on a reading that neatly fits on top of Freytag’s Pyramid. My reading is that this story intentionally lacks forward motion, which would indicate a level of agency that poor teenagers simply don’t possess, and is saturated with highly charged melodrama. I am not asking you to present your interpretation of the story but perhaps you could speak about the book’s narrative structure and treatment of characters.
This is interesting because my agent, who is trying to sell my next novel, is getting this response from publishers. I think people are interested in big flashy narrative arcs that don’t strike me as particularly natural. And like I said before they’re not particularly interesting either. Human beings are at their most fascinating when things don’t come in from the outside and fake change them, but when things happen in their lives cumulatively so that they have to face who they are and change internally or not. And I think you’re right; I think there’s a coded racism there, what they won’t say is that it makes them feel guilty when minorities struggle and struggle and struggle and they might have some important internal change as they do in both of my novels, which I think is a real plot, but they don’t reform and become White middle-class suburbanites. I suppose this speaks to the whole grab yourself by the bootstraps bullshit.
Can you tell me about realism in Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend? So often people assume that realism is a writer simply holding a mirror up to reality, but that ignores how you have made certain choices in foregrounding and focalization. This book is extremely intense. In many ways it is punk in its adolescent/ self-destructive energy. In my opinion it very much borrows from the picaresque tradition. How much of this is the result of writing from the perspective of a teenager? How much did these genres and point of view issues consciously influence your sculpting of the tale?
Folks have tried to view the novel as young adult (YA), and my new novel as YA simply because I’m not purposely obfuscating with language and form. And because my protagonists are young. But I think if you look at the language and the form and the structure and the content, it’s pretty adult. It’s just natural looking. I think that language and form and content need to have a relationship, if you’re saying something you need to have the right language and form to illustrate that. And you’re right, I think that if something is realistic, people assume there was no effort there. In a way, this could be taken as a compliment but because the novel is natural, and I worked very, very hard to make it look that way. People don’t see the work that goes into something like that and that’s frustrating. Because if something is very, very clever with form and the language stands out because there are big Latin-based words and extremely flowery language, people are going to say yes, clearly effort went into this. And I think there are a million ways to use language and form and content and I admire greatly when I can see when something is different for a reason. But I don’t admire something simply because it looks different. I ask myself, why is it different? What is the relationship of the form to the content? Is this language there for a reason? When I say “different for a reason,” that I greatly admire, for example, Cloud Atlas which I think is extremely imaginative not only in concept but form and language and really successfully so. This is compared to an author who just really wants me to think they’re very cool and very smart. But really they’re just afraid to say what they think.
In your interview with missingslate.com, you wrote, “[A]t AWP, I went to a panel where someone said that math is to the sciences as poetry is to all creative writing, and that struck me as very true. I think that without poetry, without that focus on language at the core, it’s not art.” Can you talk about teaching writing? In my experience writing at the sentence level isn’t emphasized enough in higher education. It wasn’t until after I finished graduate school that I discovered stylistics, a school of thought that emphasizes studying how language is used in texts, and writers that effectively explore poetics at the level of the sentence (e.g. Richard Lanham, Francis Christensen, and Nora Bacon). Can you talk about your experience as a student of creative writing and as a teacher with regards to the pedagogy of teaching writing at the level of language? I am especially interested because you are both a poet and prose writer.
I think that everybody should start out as a poet because it forces you to look at language first. And if you can’t get the most beautiful, the most right, the most accurate, apt word, not the one that just looks the biggest or fanciest, nothing else is good from there on out. I took loads of workshops as a PhD student. I finally got over my silliness when it came to workshops, and I took some outside workshops with Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie, and I’ve taught creative writing for almost ten years now. Poetry, the institution of it, in academia and in publishing depresses me because there are so many poets and there are so few rewards and it seems to create a kind of insular pettiness. But I still love it and I read it, though I don’t much publish in it anymore and I think in many ways this has to do with the fact that I always did have my foot more firmly in the fiction world. But, though structure is underestimated in terms of how important it is, and characterization is so incredibly important, especially in fiction, if there’s anything that makes you an artist it’s your use of language. The problem becomes that when your use of language is organic, people have trouble seeing it as art. It’s a strange writing world.
You can find her at: http://www.erikatwurth.com/
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