5.25.2009

Ten Indians by Madison Smartt Bell

Ten Indians by Madison Smartt Bell is a slim, multi-vocal novel. Each chapter alternates between different characters, which is typically a technique I like. It did not disappoint here. The chapters are also numbered, but not traditionally. The first chapter is unnumbered and introduces us to Trig, and then each chapter after that is numbered counting backward from ten. And though you hear more from Devlin throughout the story (his chapters are the only unnamed chapters), it is Trig we begin with, and Trig we hear from at the end. The cycle works quite nicely although it feels a little contrived seeing it written down like this. It feels more contrived when you deduce that one person dies in each chapter (thus the counting backward), but somehow, it doesn't feel mechanical or stilted in the execution. Interesting choice of words, that.

Execution is a common theme, and though some of the language and artifacts are dated (mid-nineties street is totally different from 2009 street somehow), the feeling of hopelessness and hope intertwined rings true still, at least to this average white girl who doesn't have any firsthand knowledge of "slanging." I thought Bell did a good job of overlapping his knowledges neatly and making it all sing for the reader.

There were no notably fine passages to record, nothing that made me pause at the words themselves, but the story and the characterization speak to his skills, and I am glad to have read this one.

The little question mark in my head keeps blinking, though, if I think too hard about the dynamic of race underlying this story. No doubt, there is great truth to the racial realities Bell portrays, but it is too hard to separate the omniscient narrator that tells us about Devlin from Devlin himself. Thus, we see the power is all in the hands of the white author and the white wannabe savior character. The black characters are all reduced to physical characteristics and tags that help us identify them. Without the fringe and the glasses would we still recognize Trig? It makes me think too much of those people who claim all black people (or Asians or Mexicans etc. . . ) look alike.

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