When Scott Momaday's The Ancient Child came out in 1989, I reviewed it with deep disappointment. I'm too lazy and too disorganized to locate what I said about the novel, but I remember my primary complaint, that there was something fundamentally dishonest about the book—something "inauthentic," if that existentialist term will suit. I just finished reading it again, preparatory to writing an essay on Momaday's House Made of Dawn, and at a distance of twelve years or so, I want to re-examine the sources of my discontent. They are many, but the essence of them resides in the book's pure, implacable self-absorption.
First, before describing my own responses, I need to dispose of the "meaning" of the novel. Perhaps it can't be reduced to the next few sentences; unfortunately, I think it can. It is the story of a creative mind disconnected from its blood heritage. The story personifies the conflict of nurture and nature in Locke Setman, Kiowa adopted into the white world, and Grey, the young Kiowa/Navajo who brings him his Kiowa soul in the form of a medicine bundle.
It is a recipe prepared with embarrassing solemnity.
It is a recipe prepared with embarrassing solemnity, and the feast is as characterless as adherence to a formula almost guarantees. I hasten to add that I am perfectly willing to accept that in some metaphorical or even literal sense, The Ancient Child is an honest and heartfelt record of Momaday's own quest for identity. Tell me the story is "true," and I will point out that fiction operates with a different kind of truth that reality does—fiction is not a mere record; fiction is focused and selective, and meaningful beyond the details of the record. I am forced to deal with reality; I choose my fictions. That being so, fiction must make my choice worth my while, must somehow lure attention of a sort that reality can take for granted. If this book is a perfect record of Momaday's real dilemma and solution, that has no bearing on its merits as a novel. And those are slim indeed.
The novel is, first of all, a nearly Bunyanese allegory. The names tell us we are in Allegoria: Locke, Setman, Loki and his dog Luke, Bent, Grey. Nobody is named "Bent," not even Bent Augustus Sandridge, and given its sexual implications, any single man named Bent would be unlikely to be successful in his attempts to adopt a boy, Indian or not. Nobody is named Locke, and nobody named Locke is nicknamed "Loki." "Grey" could work, standing alone as the one eccentric name in the book, but in the context of "Locke" and "Bent", it is just one more unlikelihood. Grey's sexual companion is an old man named "Meat." Grey circumcises a rapist named "Dicks." Set's real father was named "Catlin Setmaunt" and he was a painter, as is Set, and he married Catherine Locke so that Cate and Kate could have Locke nicknamed Loki and then called Set. Names are destiny? These are not real people. The real people are the less important ones, with names like Jason and Lola, Kope'mah and Milo Mottledmare.
Names are portents, and actions and conversations are portentious. We are treated, toward the end of the novel, to an improvised ritual blessing in which every word is significant and every moment utterly unconvincing. Symbolic action comes everywhere surrounded with neon signposts, and actions that were richly textured with meaning and yet convincingly real in House Made of Dawn are repeated here like vital butterflies impaled to cards. Abel becomes a bear in the imagination of Angela while making love to her in House Made of Dawn; Set climbs out of bed with Grey to pose at the window wearing his "phallic" (of course) ritual bear paw. All the scene lacks is the punctuating illumination of a lightning bolt.
Earlier, the description of the ominous holy man beating Set with the bear paw—the blessing/conveyance "ceremony"—is a patent recreation of the scene in House Made of Dawn when the satanic albino beats Abel with the dead chicken, and similarly the death of Worcester Meat repeats, for no particular reason, elements of the scene of Francisco's last days in the earlier novel.
Is there no connection except convenience between the two incidents? There is an echo. Why?
And as for the sacred assault—in House Made of Dawn, the incident is a motiveless humiliation by an unambiguously evil character. The albino, a vaguely supernatural representative of "whiteness"—a witch, it turns out—uses the excuse of a ritual to attack Abel with sheer, pointless malignancy. In The Ancient Child the meaning is the opposite, although Set's reaction is, as Abel's was, fear and humiliation. The beating of Set is "the whole point," the event that Grey has been preparing Set for, and the assailant is someone Grey respects and loves, an authority on things of the spirit. Did we misread House Made of Dawn? Or is there no connection except convenience between the two incidents? There is an echo. "Why?" we are invited to ask; and the answer, it turns out, is "Why not?"
And the talk. When Lola meets Set, she wants to impress him, so she says of the central figure in the painting she has purchased from him, "There is an awful necessity in him. He approaches a reckoning that cannot be imagined. Would you like some white Burgundy?" And it works. The Burgundy is a 1966 Montrachet. Later she and her cousin, a psychologist, discuss Set's nervous breakdown in this astonishing exchange:
Dr. Terriman: "This man is preoccupied with the thought of being a bear."
Lola Bourne: "The bear is preoccupied with the conviction that he is a man. Just see, Charles, he rotates his forearms like a man...."
"Just see"? This is not a couple of San Francisco Indiophiles lobbing New Age bullshit back and forth; it's a Lola doll with Scott Momaday's hand up its back, mouthing his own peculiar phrases in a high, squeaky voice. It is symptomatic of the novel's impregnable wish-fulfillment that a few pages later, Set commits an essentially unprovoked attack on the psychologist, breaking a couple of the man's teeth, and Dr. Terriman does not file charges. Of course not, Set isn't himself these days. What are a few teeth, if only we can save him? This is a child's world indeed, where all things converge to serve the needs of the only self.
Even Grey cannot escape the relentless puppeteering. As she "develops" as a writer, her writing and even her spoken language become more and more the deliberate fastidious affectation of Momaday at his parody-inspiring worst: Set asks her if her family will like him, and she says, while she drives the beatup pickup toward Navajo country, her horse in a trailer behind them:
"They will understand you somehow, that I am meant to keep by you, that you must do what you must do. They will see the necessity and respect it; then they will like you very much, I think."
That's "yes," for those of you not tuned in to the nuances. Try, please, to imagine someone turning to you and saying these words. This could be coming from Lola's mouth, or the slack-jawed fellow's at the gas pump.
Much has been made, and appropriately, about Momaday's brilliant use of language. But there are some essential fallacies in the commentary that must be recognized. Yvor Winters apparently taught Momaday to "Write little, but well." In The Ancient Child, it seems that the injunction has been taken to mean, "Write seldom." The Ancient Child is not brief.
Mozart can get away with "too many notes"; most writers can't.
The Ancient Child talks too much. Consider Lola's portentious (I am struggling to avoid another word) commentary on the painting. Why must the "necessity" she forebodes be "awful"? Because it is a "Momaday word," like "wholly" and "utterly" and "altogether" and "something." And, of course, "awesome," which is what she means, is such a cliché. This is the school of writing that doesn't care that most people think "terrific" means "a lot of fun"; these writers would not be caught dead using a cliché like "terrifying" when "terrific" is available for those who know. Know, or can back-form, compelled by context, from "horrific."
But we interrupted Lola. "A reckoning that cannot be imagined", she calls the "awful necessity": What does that mean? She and Set discuss it as if it were perfectly clear. Put aside for a moment the obvious problems—the meaning of "reckon," for example. What does "cannot be imagined" mean? It could mean "unimaginable" and therefore utterly mysterious and unidentifiable. But it could also mean that the "reckoning" must be something other than "imagined." "I can't just be imagining it"; "it isn't imaginary, but real." A brilliant use of language to fuse two meanings in one? I don't think so. I don't think the second meaning is meant at all, or intended, even though it is oddly appropriate.
Put aside for a moment, the fact that nothing in Lola's background or character or behavior prepares us for the convenient "realization," in the conversation with the psychologist, that Set is not a man who wants to be a bear, but a bear who wants to be a man (whatever that means). Put aside for a moment the fact that nobody talks like this, here or there. Put aside the near nonsense of her imagining that this reckoning cannot be imagined, even though she is convinced that "his reckoning is my reckoning" (again, whatever that means). If you have the strength to heft one more, put aside the fact that "approaches" is ambiguous, for all its pretense of solidity, just as the rest of the "meaningful" words in the paragraph turn out to be.
This is not ineffable; it's just good diction.
Now look at the pile you have put aside, and compare it to what's left. The entire paragraph of her flailing at the painting's ineffableness is no more precise than "Bwana, I not like them drums." It's just better diction.
The Ancient Child is a novel of relentless self-absorption that might ascend to the comical, were it not so uniformly solemn. Set's white girlfriend Lola Bourne personally delivers him to Grey, hauling him bodily from San Francisco to Oklahoma, handing him over with "benediction and reconciliation," waving goodbye and heading home. It is, you see, wholly how love works, when the beloved is utterly special and has altogether taken hold of your regard. Another awful necessity, no doubt. What collyswaddle. Amidst all the wallowing, I am reminded of millionaire David Byrne's plaintive, "Rich people are sad sometimes, you know." I find myself, throughout the book, thinking that in the context of starving reservation children and uranium poisoning, I can't get very worked up about Locke Setman's inability to be at peace with his Porsche, however sleepless his nights.
Momaday is so busy feeling sorry for Set that he fails to imagine that others might not share his sorrow and pity. But we must! And well we might, were it not that Set is so obviously Momaday's vision of some pitiable—but mercifully no longer current—manifestation of himself. This is not the biographical fallacy; Momaday has peppered the book with clues too obvious to even seem coy. And again I insist that the issue here is not Momaday's sincerity or even the biographical "truth," such as there may be underneath the narrative. If Momaday was "saved by love," well good. That fact has no bearing on this fiction.
What do Locke Setman and Scott Momaday have in common? Age, success in a white world of art, intellectual accomplishments that distance them from their Kiowa roots. An apartment in San Francisco. A taste for the higher gifts of civilization, like Montrachet 1966 and the color of light on a certain evening in Moscow. A dying grandmother who draws them back to their roots. A close mentoring association with an eccentric intellectual celebrity (Bent, Yvor Winters and Fray Angelico Chavez). A fixation on bears (Momaday's most recent book is called In The Bear's House). A father who is a painter and has less ambiguous tribal roots. Size, shape, diction. Setman's life is populated with incidents that Momaday used for fiction's ends in books he wrote after he was Setman's age.
Momaday's mother is named Natachee Scott, and she and Al Momaday married and named their son Novarro Scott Momaday, but he reduced the first name to an initial and goes by Scott. For a brief period early in his career, before the publication of the birth certificate data in The Names, some accounts gave his first name as Nazaree, a confusion of the names or mother and son, apparently. The congruence of "Natachee" and "Novarro" has been a bibliographer's nightmare. Many libraries assume he is Natachee Scott Momaday and list her The Owl in the Cedar Tree amongst his books. Compare Locke Setman, son of Catlin Setman and Catherine Locke. One wonders if their child's full name might be Cadman Locke Setman. Set grew up "on Scott Street," by the way.
In the flexible landscapes of Allegoria, Grey is as much Momaday as Set is, the other half of his warring soul, native anima to his Euro-American animus, yin to his yang. Momaday gives her a huge body of his own writing as examples of her development as a artist, including entire poems and authorship of a chapbook he himself wrote.
Grey emerges as his "Indian self," the personification of the authorial voice he struggled to become as a successful writer.
It is worth examining, this word "self-absorption." The conflict in Locke Setman's soul is not personal white identity versus tribal Kiowa identity. It is completely personal. In fact, part of the unpleasantness of the book is that Set is entirely without agency in the coming change. It is done to him. By "the bear," by the medicine bundle, by the old grandmother, by Grey. Even against his will. The raw plot is a bit like Dowson's "Hounds of Heaven." And that in itself, the idea that for Set to become a good Kiowa painter is so important to the Kiowa Übermind that it directs its spiritual energy to "saving" him, well, you can see where I'm going with that sentence. Self-absorption indeed!
It is Locke's self that must be served and saved, and Grey, who begins with such vivid, if not quite believeable, persona, becomes a jittering puppet once her role is defined as "Set's savior." We last see her as the center of a tableau that represents a domestic cliché, five-months pregnant, her hand resting on her belly like a tourist-shop Madonna. This is the woman who loved Billy the Kid and rode her horse naked in warpaint? Yes, it is, because it is she, the Madonna, that Set needs, and therefore it must be so.
When Grey is "saving him," she has this to say about it: "You will need great strength for what you must do," laying down clicking, precise, lifeless dominos of language. And perhaps we find ourselves thinking that she envisions some great task that will benefit and increase their people. Well, no. What he "must do" is find himself and become a great painter and imagine his people's history. Not paint it. Not record it. Dream about it. Get famous. It is an ambition entirely personal, however much it may encompass the tribe.
As the novel ends, we are invited to compare Locke Setman to Set'angia, the great Kiowa warrior chief Satank, who hovers over the novel like a brooding bear just wakened in spring. If this is what Locke Setman aspires to, this heroic individualism consistent with tribal integrity, the novel ends with him no nearer there than he is to Madagascar. The person of Set'angia—a famous boaster and lover of boasting who lives up to his own press, and a true man in ways that Grey's (and Momaday's) hero Billy the Kid could never be—is contained in the tribe, so that his greatness is his people's greatness. That single element, rather its lack in Set's evolution, the sense that the community is invested in Set's success, dooms all. There is no community here. Set's salvation is not of any consequence to his people except the most trivially personal.
One last time: Momaday has had a brilliant career, successful and rewarding, and his assimilation, if you like, into the Kiowa world seems complete and positive. That is not the issue. Momaday is a person to take seriously—a writer, an artist, an intellect, an agent of change worthy of respect and attention. Locke Setman is not. If someone else had written this book, basing it on Momaday's imagined spiritual life, it would have been an insult. The offense is not in the writing, but in the imagining.
As I read this novel once more, I remember what appealed to me in the fiction of James Welch and Leslie Silko, and in Momaday's first novel, for that matter, and much of his early writing. I thought, looking at where we have come to, how Momaday has parted company with Silko, Ortiz, Erdrich, and Welch, "Silko and Welch describe the deer and we see the deer and we see that it is magic. Momaday describes the creative magic, he describes thinking about the deer, and we see that he is thinking about thinking about a deer." It is grand. It's mysterious. It puts us in awe of his brilliance. It doesn't put food on the table. In the pursuit of the ineffable, Momaday loses sight of the pit viper. This is always a bad thing.
The Ancient Child is a book about being about things. It is not a book about things, much less a book of things or the things themselves. Things intrude. Grey's own attempts to write are filled with things, and her life is filled with them, before she surrenders everything to Set's well-being. The Ancient Child is a novel in which gestures are inherently hierophantic, a novel of Gnostic, hermetic secrecies and significances that we eventually feel less excluded from than disinterested in. A dying octopus becomes an excuse for Set to examine his own non-exclusive but personal mortality. He imagines not what the octopus thinks, but what the octopus thinks of him. Of course. And I wanted to look at the octopus, not watch Set look.
There are elements to enjoy in the novel, which is written with considerable craft. As Wallace Stegner said in the gentlemanly but ever so gently ambiguous jacket blurb for the book, "I respect Scott Momaday as a very skilled and provocative writer... some of his pages are pure magic." There is a kind of gemlike brilliance at the sentence level in this book, but it as precious and as aesthetically sterile as a tray of diamonds. There is a certain frisson in imagining that we are seeing intimacies of Momaday's personal psychic struggle, a kind of guilty pleasure.
Grey is fun at first. There is no question that Grey is modeled, and with amiable vividness, on Momaday's sometime colleague at the University of Arizona, Leslie Silko, the fierce young woman who galloped in, a few years after Momaday's Pulitzer, and snatched the matchstick of greatness from the sand where he'd planted it.
Sadly, this is a story we would like to believe, just as we wish that the world were more like a old Disney film, that the buffalo were not gone, that the woman we love loved us. It is not a novel of dreams, though, any more than it is a novel of realities; it is a novel of wishes, wishes and daydreams, and so, whether the wishes come true or not, utterly lacking in compulsion.
entry at the Internet Public Library.
Momaday has created a foundation to help educate Indian children about their heritage, The Buffalo Trust.