In Reservation Blues, Alexie has scattered magical occurrences throughout his otherwise perfectly realistic fictional world, an approach critics refer to as magic realism. In her essay ‘‘Conjuring the Colonizer: Alternative Readings of Magic Realism in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues,’’ Wendy Belcher discusses how the association of magic with the guitar, a secular Western object, inverts the critically recognized paradigm whereby indigenous or mythical objects are usually sources of magic. While she astutely concludes that in this novel, ‘‘Indian culture and people frequently embody rationality while the West spews easy, dangerous magic,’’ she concedes that Alexie may not have intended to address this critical paradigm at all. As Belcher notes, ‘‘In interviews, Alexie rarely talks about magic realism but emphasizes his own interest in the real, the everyday, and the human.’’ This almost seems contradictory, as the author’s inclusion of magical elements partly withdraws his novel from the realm of the everyday, and yet the novel offers much commentary on the daily lives of modern Spokane Indians. Thus, it may be useful to consider the ‘‘magic realism’’ in Alexie’s novel less as a literary strategy that departs from the everyday and more as impressionistic reflections of the everyday.
The average American reader approaching Reservation Blues may be caught off guard by the first few magical occurrences in the novel. In British and American literature, the inclusion of such extraordinary or impossible events usually places a work in the genres of fantasy or science fiction, but few serious critics would classify Alexie’s work as such. The appearance of the renowned—and actually long deceased—jazz musician Robert Johnson at the opening of the novel sets the stylistic tone. Alexie accounts for this plot device with the statement that Johnson actually faked his death (in 1938) and has been on the run ever since. On the one hand, this hypothetical situation is highly unlikely but at least feasible. On the other hand, the image of Johnson having wandered from crossroads to crossroads for over fifty years, perhaps in the same suit, looking for an ‘‘old woman lives on a hill’’ whom he has been dreaming about, with his guitar alone as his ‘‘best friend,’’ may strike the reader as ridiculous. Thomas Builds-the-Fire sees nothing wrong with the situation, however, and so Johnson hops in his van—as does the complicit reader—to head toward Big Mom’s home on Wellpinit Mountain. Thus, the reader is made open to the idea of suspending disbelief and accepting the fantastic as truth in the context of the novel.
Alexie soon demonstrates that his narrator will indeed take certain liberties with the truth, if perhaps in the name of humor rather than magic. The old man who hangs around the Trading Post and is presumed to be Lakota ‘‘had cheekbones so big that he knocked people over when he moved his head from side to side.’’ This image, which the open-minded reader will duly envision, is intentionally ridiculous. Alexie is known for giving readings of his work that come across like stand-up comedy, and critics have hailed the skill with which he uses humor in this novel. Indeed, the reader who finds himself laughing at this image—even if it may be considered offensively stereotypical of Lakota Sioux Indians—has been rewarded for reading with an open mind, as willing to absorb whatever impressions Alexie wishes to make. The act of laughter, in turn, serves to dissipate bodily tension, likely leaving the reader able to sustain an open-minded approach to the text.
Magic is introduced explicitly when Johnson’s guitar, which Victor smashed but Thomas has kept, repairs itself and proceeds to have a conversation with Thomas, even playing some music that serves to summon Victor and Junior. At this point, the reader has no choice but to continue with an open mind toward the fantastic because the plot now depends upon it. The aggressively deductive reader might yet conceive that Alexie is actually framing circumstances in such a way that the novel’s events can be legitimately explained, just not as the narrator explains them. For example, such a reader might imagine that Thomas, who is described as ‘‘pretty goofy,’’ perhaps repaired the guitar himself at night but does not remember, and perhaps the conversation with the guitar could be understood as a hallucination. Victor and Junior’s hearing guitar music in their dreams, then, could just be coincidental. But Alexie even insists that the reader accept these magical incidents not as some literary device but as truth of a sort. After the oft-quoted passage in which the guitar’s music is said to rise to the clouds and rain down on the reservation, a page later Alexie’s narrator asserts, ‘‘The music did rise into the clouds. It did rain down on the reservation, which arched its back and drank deeply. It did fall on the roof of the water truck, disturbing Junior’s and Victor’s sleep.’’ In effect, then, the narrator, as the storyteller, is engaging in dialogue with the reader about the truth of his story.
Alexie proceeds to pepper his novel with both humor and magic, often coincidentally. By the time Coyote punishes the blaspheming Junior by hiding the water truck in the old dance hall, where ‘‘the truck was too big for the doors, so nobody was sure how that truck fit in there,’’ and Junior has to disassemble the truck and loses his job, the reader is likely to take such plot-hinging magical events in stride. In terms of the impression it makes, this particular event may lead the reader to conceive that there is indeed a sort of moral justice to the world, something like karma or fate, which brings negative consequences to those who act or speak immorally. Alexie does not state such a notion, of course, but rather presents magical circumstances that leave the impression of that notion in the reader’s mind.
Other magical events likewise leave particular impressions about the circumstances involved. The magic of the guitar is evil magic, which hollows out Robert Johnson until he is left to cower in the forest at Big Mom’s house in fear of it, and which so possesses Victor that he sacrifices his best friend in a dream because of it. Both the guitar and its magic, then, can be understood to represent the ideas of fame or prideful individualism, and indeed, the motivation to become a star, shared by Robert Johnson and Victor, can perhaps best be understood as a sort of magic that twists one’s mind, shifting priorities away from friends and community and toward things like material goods and admiration from strangers. That is, Alexie might have forgone magic and, with strictly rational narration, told the same story and communicated the same ideas; but if the self-consuming drive for fame is irrational, perhaps no arrangement of rational ideas can do it justice. The motif of a cursed guitar, on the other hand, leaves the reader with an emotional— and nonrational—impression as to the perils of the idea of fame.
Collectively, the magical events as well as the humorous asides in Reservation Blues may be understood to covertly direct the reader into a mode of feeling rather than thinking, a mode of absorbing images, however fantastic, and allowing them to make an emotional impression, rather than simply absorbing words and sentences and the sum of their rational constructions. The necessity that the reader be open-minded would indeed seem a hallmark of the fantasy and science-fiction genres, genres from which the reader who is unwilling to suspend disbelief, who is constantly judging the verisimilitude of a text, will undoubtedly shy away. In his first novel, Alexie demonstrates that magic realism can serve to accomplish the same end—forcing the reader to remain open-minded toward the text—in the context of a literary work. As such, beyond the humor and magic, the reader has no choice but to absorb and feel the tragedy as well. And this may be Alexie’s ultimate aim, as his readers, no matter their race, are immersed in the daily joys as well as the centuries of sorrows of the American Indians he portrays. Thus, when at the end of the novel the smoke of Alexie’s humor and magic has cleared, the fires of his people’s tragedies—the slaughtered horses, the suicides, the terminal alcoholism—are left to blaze, and the reader’s tears may flow like musical rain, which and might one day, over the centuries to come, even redeem the irrevocable sins of the American nation against this continent’s first peoples.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Sherman Alexie, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Michael Allen Holmes, Critical Essay on Reservation Blues, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.