The Trickster Discourse of Thomas King
- Arnold E. Davidson (Author), Jennifer Andrews (Author), and Priscilla L. Walton (Author)
Border Crossings: Thomas King's Cultural Inversions. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Marlene Goldman
Border Crossings examines the notoriously tricky, and trickster-filled, works of Native writer Thomas King. As the authors explain, their goal lies in exploring the cross cultural problems addressed by King’s work while demonstrating how his works incorporate key Native issues. The authors begin by observing how King differs from the majority of Native writers owing to his widespread popularity on both sides of the border. They argue that his acceptance as one of Canada’s mainstream writers springs, in part, from the fact that he consistently uses a comic framework to deliver what is very often a hard-hitting political message. Indeed, the comic aspect of King’s work is central to this scholarly text.
This timely and informative treatment of King’s work begins with a brief biographical sketch of the author, which outlines why he is predisposed to border crossings of one kind or another. As the authors observe, both his personal experience—he was born in Sacramento, California, in 1943 to a Cherokee father and a German-Greek mother—and his academic training contribute to his penchant for straddling borders of all kinds. (He earned both an MA and PhD in English: his doctoral dissertation compared White images of Native peoples to the treatment of Native peoples in both oral and written works by Native writers.)
To contextualize and explicate King’s prodigious output, the authors eschew a chronological approach and lengthy close readings of a single work within each chapter. Instead, the chapters focus on pertinent questions about the nature of comedy, of border crossing, and of narrating the nation. Because, like King’s own works, the study does not build a single argument, the study’s structure is non-linear and fragmented, more akin to a dictionary with multiple entries under the heading “border crossings” than a traditional narrative. In essence, to highlight the range of border crossings that King’s work instigates and explores, the authors position King in an extremely broad context, examining not only his literary achievements, but also his work in photography, radio and television. In doing so, the authors forcibly demonstrate that King’s creative endeavours repeatedly exceed discrete genres.
The opening chapter surveys the Native and non-Native approaches to comedy that best apply to King’s works. In effect, the goal of the initial chapters is not so much to redefine comedy as it is to appreciate King’s place within an established comedic tradition. Although the survey of traditional critical materials on comedy, including works by Freud and Bahktin, is extremely useful, at times, the study’s general approach to comedy precludes an analysis of the subtle ways in which comedy, particularly in Native literature, functions as trauma humour (a term borrowed from the Canadian critic Kristina Fagan) that sometimes, but not always, contributes to the goal of Native survival.
Chapter Two turns from a review of theories about comedy and extends and deepens the discussion of King’s particular brand of humour by offering close readings of a variety of King’s texts. This chapter helpfully identifies various comedic devices that King employs, including inversion and transgression, juxtaposing comic and tragic elements, code-switching and invocations of Native oral culture. Chapters Three and Four focus on the broader disciplinary, generic, and media crossings effected by King’s artistic productions. The study’s primary strength is demonstrated in the sections that supply crucial, yet often obscure, intertextual references for King’s work. For instance, the authors note that a character in a short story bears a striking resemblance to a critic who attacked King for being “American” at a conference in 1990. Chapter Five shows how King’s works engage with the politics of nationalism by troubling unified notions of race and nation. Chapter Six shifts from national to sexual politics, tracing the ways in which King’s text interrogate gender roles and promote gender-crossing. The final chapter invites readers to consider how King uses his own works as intertextual references. At bottom, Border Crossings demonstrates the complexity and ingenuity of King’s comedic art and explores his prodigious output in an impressively broad range of artistic contexts.
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MLA: Goldman, Marlene. The Trickster Discourse of Thomas King. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 117 - 118)
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