Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Blasphemy is a brilliant book of stories exposing the allure and cheap hypocrisy of our contemporary American culture. It’s no accident this book was written by a Native American writer.
Warning: National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie’s newest collection of short stories contains blasphemy. Each of these thirty-one stories (sixteen brand new) may include scenes, characters or language that will make you cringe. You might find something in each that is shocking, sacrilegious, irreverent, profane, or tainted. You may see these stories as an affront, making you feel small and downright disgusted with your unavoidably slick, techno-babbling American life. Like the homeless you pass on the street, you probably don’t want to be close to them for long.
Varying from to two pages in “Fame” to 58 pages in “Search Engine”, this disparity in length is sort of shocking too, an underhanded insult to accepted book symmetry. But that’s a minor flaw compared to the virulent content. For example, in “Fame”, a video goes viral and is seen by three million people. The video shows a lion in the zoo trying to eat a small girl through observation glass. The girl’s mother is laughing hysterically as she takes the video and so is the crowd at the zoo as well as three million people online.
The unnamed narrator, however, isn’t laughing. He is disgusted as he watches the mother take the video, feeling the indecency the lion feels, this King of the Beasts trapped behind observation glass, reduced to a few-seconds-long cartoon. The narrator has come to the zoo to impress his new girlfriend who works part-time there (at the primate section) making and selling those crude, throwaway balloon animals toys no one with any taste would ever buy. These slippery cartoon balloon animals, bad jokes even as toys, are apt examples of the corruption everywhere, like the video, the lion, and the mother. I wonder what the little girl is feeling while her mother is laughing?
So what happens to our narrator and his girlfriend? It’s only their third date and he’s eager to have his way with her — but I won’t be a spoiler and reveal what happens. Let’s just say he sees the lion in himself. “I wasn’t angry. I was lonely. I was bored. And I half-remembered a time when I had been feared.”
Of course I felt close to the narrator and the lion. Like many of the other characters in Blasphemy, they could have been my relatives, though not necessarily ones I’d want to visit. And I’m not Native American.
There’s way too much ugly truth in these stories, too much humanity that’s been stamped on, disregarded, contaminated, violated by everyone including, and especially, by the characters themselves.
The painful irony, the heart of the blasphemy, lies in a pathetic hope that remains despite all. As the narrator says at the end of “Fame”, “If somebody had filmed me and posted it online then I would have become that guy with the teeth. I would have become a star.”
You have to read it.