If you are looking for a fast paced plot and traditional characters then Tin God by Terese Svoboda is probably not for you. Part of the University of Nebraska Press Flyover Fiction Series, Tin God is instead a more dream like exploration of the timelessness of the earth and vagaries of human nature. Oh, and it is narrated by G-O-D. If you enjoy skillful prose used to illuminate interesting perspectives then you will enjoy Tin God.
The plot, such as it is, focuses on two stories set in the plains and separated by some five hundred years. In the first, a bumbling conquistador finds himself lost among the tall grasses and whispering natives after having fallen off his horse. Thanks to his blue eyes the natives take him for a god and send out a young virgin to try and capture his essence.
Five hundred years later in the same field we have two young men trying to find a bag of cocaine that they tossed out the window with a cop in hot pursuit. The search is complicated by the recent devastation of a tornado. Jim, who owns the land, needs to turn it over in order to get his government check. “Pork” needs to find the expensive bag of drugs before anyone else does so he can get on with his life as a male “dancer.”
The narrator god alternates between these two stories and slowly unwinds them – while musing on her interaction with humans and vice-versa – until we come to a climatic resolution of sorts. The story threads meet when Jim, digging with a back hoe and leaving his own monument to the past, uncovers traces of the conquistador’s travels.
So what to make of this short unique novel? I must say that I enjoyed it. It is unconventional and can be slow in parts, but it is also evocative and thought provoking. It isn’t the kind of book you pick up and can’t put down until you are finished, but I found it to be an enjoyable bedside table read. Below are my scattered thoughts and reactions.
I am not sure the whole G-O-D as narrator thing added much It did add to the surreal and playful mood. It also allowed the narrator to have an outside perspective – an all-seeing view – and yet participate in the events. But it is really just an excuse for Svoboda to interject her musings; or at least it seemed that way to me. It didn’t bother me really but it didn’t provide any deep insights either.
The real strength of Tin God is the way it presents the setting and characters in these stories. Svoboda brings us the stories from a variety of perspectives. Sometimes it is the characters themselves and sometimes it is the bemused and rather disconnected narrator. In this way you kind of float in and out of the stories.
Svoboda powerfully captures the fear and helplessness of being lost in a sea of grass. When the conquistador falls of his horse and is disconnected from the rest of his party he is disorientated mentally and physically. He tries to recover his senses and take action to quickly reconnect, but his environment makes this very difficult. The grass seems almost alive the way it swishes and whispers in the wind. Its height blocks his vision and offers no landmarks. The blades seem hostile and can cut and scrape. The reader, if they have ever been lost or disorientated, knows exactly how the soldier feels. It is not a comfortable place.
In the same way, Svoboda artfully describes the actions of the young girl sent to capture the “god.” She brings us inside the heart and head of the little girl; and also offers glimpses into the unique culture from which she comes. She is simply trying to survive in the only world she knows. He is trying to survive in a world he knows nothing about; trying to escape that world and somehow return to his own.
The story line of the clash of these cultures so long ago is surreal and almost otherworldly, but I found it fascinating. It can be quite slow, however, so you must be in the mood for a languid exploration not a well paced plot.
The modern day plot also moves rather slowly but the characters – the narrator god excepted – are more conventional. I am not sure there really is a connection between the two story lines other than geographic location. In the modern day story, Pork and Jim get up to some rather funny antics as they try to recover the drugs. And Pork’s mother get involved with the cop who is also on the lookout for the drugs; and for Pork as well. But nothing important really happens and the story isn’t really going anywhere. Again, if you are looking for clear connections, traditional narratives, and a plot that is neatly tied up at the end then Tin God will likely disappoint.
Instead, Tin God reads like a series of loosely connected short stories and vignettes tied to the big open fields of the American plains. It is as if Svoboda landed in town and wandered around sketching the characters as she found them. Each of the characters is trying to make their way in the world; trying to understand where they are and where they are going. Svoboda doesn’t offer any definitive answers or insights, but rather watches bemusedly as events unfold and as they grope for answers.
Tin God certainly is not a traditional novel. But it does have its pleasures: skillful prose, evocative descriptions, and a creative experimentation with plot and narrative. If you enjoy this kind of experimentation, and are looking for something different to read this summer, Tin God would be a good choice.