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House Made of Dawn (N. Scott Momaday)

March 15, 2010

Finally! I’ve been meaning to read this book for about…oh, half a decade. I have to admit that the narrative style of this novel was really anti-absorptive (to borrow a term from Charles Bernstein). Momaday’s technique of shifting the focalization of the narrative several times throughout each chapter and employing italicized sections of narrative that branch off into even more directions kept me distanced from the story and its characters until around page 110 (and my copy of the novel was only 185 pages long). In fact, it took me about a quarter of the novel to determine with any degree of certainty that the novel was in fact Abel’s story, not Francisco’s or Father Olguin’s.

Anti-absorptivity aside, the novel did some interesting things with form. I’m hesitant to call it a pastiche because although it did contain a wide variety of different kinds of writing (letters, journal entries, songs, stories, questionnaires, announcements, and more) in addition to the standard prose narrative, it’s not done in the same style as many of the works we talk about as pastiches today. I guess I don’t have any solid basis for making that claim, and really most people would probably be more than comfortable calling this work a pastiche. I suppose I’m trying to say something like this: Momaday’s use of different written media to tell Abel’s story seems equally interested in commenting on the importance of alternative forms of storytelling/documentation/history. Rather than coming off as a whimsical or complicated formal experiment, House Made of Dawn reads like the history of one man’s life as pieced together by memories, other people’s encounters with him, documents (personal or otherwise), and other snatches of recollection. Instead of flowing in a more conventional prose-narrative manner (chronological, yes, but also straightforward and to the point, touching on all the important moments and people), the novel moves in and out of different perspectives, weaving together Abel’s stories from the outside (which is part of why I had such a hard time getting into it and deemed it “anti-absorptive”).

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