Character study 

Fictionalizing Lewis and Clark, and just in time

Things are bound to get messy when history and fiction collide, but Brian Hall makes an admirable stab at welding the two together in his latest novel, I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company. This fictionalized account of the Lewis and Clark expedition is an exploration in its own right: Hall courageously busies himself with the daunting task of interpreting the mysteries surrounding this historical event. Why all the blank pages in Lewis’s journals? Why his sudden suicide? Yet mysteries quickly give way to psychoanalytical probing, and all of a sudden we’re deep in the minds of the journey’s key players, listening to Hall describe Lewis’s endless rounds of anguish (“How wan, how anemic, everything seemed since the expedition, how sordid!”), Clark’s daily bouts with jealousy (“History would call this the Lewis Expedition,” he pouts), and gritty details that include frequent references to Sacagawea’s bowel movements.

Hall certainly goes where no man has gone before in this dense and intense novel, exploring the inner minds of three such historical superstars. Does this sound a bit out of place shelved alongside the works of the illustrious Stephen Ambrose and the other staid historians dominating every Montana bookstore’s “Western History” section? Welcome to the world of the historical novel, where speculation meets fact and we end up hearing more about the venereal diseases picked up by the expedition’s men than all the serious history-buff topics like battles and conquests.

It’s not all mushy emotional muddle. There are many astounding and admirable moments in this novel, moments that explore the relationships between people, between people and their environments, between people as they attempt to understand each other when lives collide and their worlds stretch to new boundaries. Hall categorizes his chapters by character, with each major player given a distinct narrative voice with which to tell his portion of the famous story. Hall works diligently to depict their varying backgrounds and cultures through their words; through the different narrative voices we hear Lewis’s well-educated and articulate speech, Clark’s less serious and less scholarly outlook, Sacagawea’s disorienting and very un-Western vision, and the broken French-English dialect of her husband, the French trader Charbonneau. Hall’s experiment with language here is memorable and stunning, and his characters come alive through their very distinct (and very different) thoughts about the world around them.

But it’s also this emphasis on language that muddies Hall’s interpretive attempt. He falls into the same trap that he himself observes his main character, Meriwether Lewis, sinking into. In a recent interview with Alden Mudge in BookPage, the author explains that he wanted to explore the way Lewis’s struggle with language led to his pathos, and his difficulty in understanding himself. “Lewis possessed a fairly extreme articulateness which he used to hide emotions behind, not only from others but from himself,” ventures the author. “I love the way articulateness can be used to obfuscate things. [Thomas] Jefferson is a supreme example of that, which is why I loved the fact that Jefferson was Lewis’s mentor. Jefferson is so smart and yet in some ways so blind. His great felicity with words obscures to him the extreme impracticality of a lot of what he’s talking about.”

Which, as chance would have it, becomes Hall’s own fatal flaw. In his great effort to portray the inner thoughts of these characters, and portray them in such a way that credits languages, cultures, and patterns of thought other than those of a literate white European, Hall does his own obfuscating. The story gets lost in his fancy interpretive footwork. In the chapters told from Sacagawea’s perspective, the narration ranges from magnificent to puzzling. Her voice is built around concrete and evocative images depicting place (“at the place along the camp river where shouts broke out and one thumb galloped”) and unfamiliar phrases describing time (“straight-sun time”). While certainly daring and imaginative, and in parts incredibly poignant and alive, these chapters are also cloudy and become increasingly overdone. Hall boldly goes out on a long limb to create Sacagawea’s voice, and leaves us, at points, smirking at his gambit for the “Sensitive New Age Writer” award. In his struggle to bestow an authentic voice on the often-silenced Native American woman, Hall borders on over-compensation. In fact (right back at ya, Hall),“His great felicity with words obscures to him the extreme impracticality of a lot of what he’s talking about.”

It’s not as though this novel didn’t take a colossal amount of effort and creativity to pump out; it certainly did. And to credit Hall all the more, he seemed to know exactly what kind of a mess he was getting himself into, and bravely went ahead and did it all the same. In scenes late in the novel, Lewis and his men have returned from their cross-continental journey and Lewis is faced with the task of capturing the entire expedition on paper, to be published. Hall depicts Lewis as struggling with this assignment, disgusted with the knowledge that reciting history on paper will only fictionalize and trivialize the entire experience. Hall sums up Lewis’s feelings on the matter by describing this act, the act of writing down historical narratives, as “Mere glory-mongering, feeding the public appetite for tales of adventure.”

Now, you can’t tell me that Hall put these words in his main character’s mouth and didn’t think of himself, writing this very fictionalized account of a very significant historical event—and, not insignificantly, with bicentennial celebrations now well underway—at a time when public appetite for the true-adventure exploits of Lewis and Clark seems whetted to a knife-edge. What I like is that Hall faced the onslaught nonetheless, braved some very tricky linguistic waters, left us something to admire and remember, and re-created a story we’ve heard too many times anyway. It is seen afresh through Hall’s re-telling, and besides, I don’t mind a little glory-mongering now and then.

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