Friday, August 24, 2007

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The novel of a wannabe writer named Oscar Wao, who is an enormous Dominican with a love of all things superhero (Diaz calls him a ghetto nerd), who, well into his "brief" life, wants desperately to lose his virginity.

Junot Diaz has taken a famously long time (11 years) to come out with his second book (first novel), and it shows the influence of some writers who have hit big in the meanwhile... David Foster Wallace (footnotes, check), Zadie Smith (hyperactive voice, check) (or what James Wood would call hysterical realism--which I happen to like), and Michael Chabon (superheroes, check). But somehow while this is a book that shows its influences, it still feels very much its own (or rather Diaz's own). (I've come to realize my dominant stylistic tic in blogging is the parentheses) (deal with it).

My graduate workshop recently read My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (perhaps more on that some other time) and Pamuk says that the formula for originality (ah the irony, a formula for originality) is to pair two things that have never been paired before. (sort of resembles the formula of comedy, pair two things that don't go together, interestingly enough). Now while I resist the idea of formula, Pamuk is describing a real pattern. For example, the pairing of literary writers with a popular genre (Phillip Roth and alternate history, Michael Chabon and comic books, Cormac McCarthy and horror, Sherman Alexie and science fiction) has entered candicacy for the hottest new genre, as of late. Anyway... Diaz seems to have found originality not just by pairing two disparate things--immigrant culture and fanboy culture--but by creating the proverbial melting pot of disparate things...

... the most disparate of all being the writer's biography. Or rather the fictional writer's fictional biography (appropriate in the age of the truth in nonfiction debate). I don't know for sure, but would be willing to bet, that Diaz has read that writer's favorite (a fave of mine), Steven Millhauser's novel Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright. Edwin is a child prodigy according to his neighbor and childhood friend Jeffrey, who rescues Edwin's childhood writings from the dustbin of history and makes him a posthumous literary star. Oh, and he kills him, too. But whereas Cartwright finds genius in Mullhouse's writing, Diaz's narrator Yunior seems to find genius in Oscar's past. Oscar is important, because of who and where he came from, not because of his writing, which is essentially lost in the mail for all of eternity. A postcolonial biography, I suppose.

Diaz says that his first book, Drown, which is typically referred to as a short story collection was intended to be something in between a novel and a story collection. But Drown seems to me exactly a story collection, wheras Oscar Wao, which is billed as a novel, is much more in between. It's got Oscar at the center, and the longest narrative thread is his story (though not by much), but shooting off like spokes are narratives by Oscar's sister and narratives of Oscar's parents and grandparents in the Dominican Republic. And embedded in footnotes is the history of the D.R. And while all these narratives connect because they spoke off of Oscar at the center, they don't add up to a traditional novel (each piece of exposition is unusually complete on its own). And yet the pieces are more woven than individual stories that link. Perhaps Diaz has put two things together--the novel and the short story collection (not to mention the biography)--and come up with something new?

Locals might be interested to know Diaz is reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables on Sept 13.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Ernest Hemingway meets Stephen King. I've been known with a shrug to say of Cormac McCarthy, "Boys in books" and in consciously or not, paring his writing down to the twin influences of the two authors most cited by young men I know as favorites... well, no wonder it's such a hit. But of course the queen bee of feminine readers (whatever that means, I'm just tossing ideas out here; I LIKE Oprah) has also sanctioned this novel... so suddenly everyone I know has read it, and I thought I oughta...

And I enjoyed it. The writing is very carefully crafted, deceptively simple--straightforward sentence structure but not a simple vocabulary. A voice appropriately stunted given the state of shock of both the protagonist (who at times speaks in first person) and the world around him. And it's quite suspenseful, I turned pages quickly. And it's very sad. Everyone we see, even the baddies, are worn out and dirty and tired. But in the end, it felt very much like an entertainment without a lot of complications under the surface. Of course, it's terrible to have the end of life as we know it and to have to decide whether or not to eat people, to team up with others or stay on your own, to kill yourself of struggle on for the sake of your young son (who provided for me a welcome comic note with his constant post-apocalyptic equivalent of "are we there yet?")... all quite tragic... and maybe it's a big statement to have a contemporary character take the heroic good old American stances--no eating people, stay independent, sacrifice yourself for the young--but this novel just wasn't much more than a good read for me, which given all the hullabaloo was disappointing. I blame the hullabaloo.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

I have a terrible crush on Michael Ondaatje. Not a literary, of-the-head, crush, but a real of-the-body crush. He seems to me the perfect combination of cuddly and sexy. When I first heard him read (Flagstaff Book Festival, 1998), I wished aloud that he would read to me before bed each night. My gradschool roommates were impressed when soon after I achieved that goal with an audio recording of Running in the Family (I still like to break it out on occasion). The English Patient was a revolution for me as a reader and Anil's Ghost was the heartbreaking disappointment that followed (though his poems--Handwriting--remained great) so I approached Divisadero with some trepidation. I wasn't sure if I wanted to get back together with someone who'd broken my heart. But the love is back on... oh, it's back on.

For many years my father has mailed me what he calls "fat envelopes" of clippings, articles and tidbits that he thinks should interest me. And this Ondaatje novel feels like a literary version of those fat envelopes: images and ideas that Ondaatje has collected just for me. Ondaatje's characters go through life as I imagine him to, noticing hawks, learning card tricks, dancing with cats, humming bits of old songs, traveling with gypsies, naming horses, cutting wood, identifying healing plants and poisonous ones too. It's a romantic world they live in and a nice reminder that we could all live there if we only opened our eyes to what's around us.

Fiction writers are always being told show don't tell and this novel is one fat envelope full of examples of how telling can be as good as showing. That telling can show. For example, Ondaatje uses indirect (summarized) dialogue as much as, if not more than, direct (quoted) dialogue. And the effect is to allow Ondaatje, the storyteller, to use his lyric, lovely sentences most of the time, even when creating the feeling of scene (the feeling of showing). And it also creates a great aura of silence (another romantic thing) around these characters and their actions.

The novel's structure--not straightforward narrative but a meandering open ended one--has been praised and criticized--but it felt quite carefully constructed to me. What feels like random wandering from one character to another is all an outgrowth of the first event of the novel--a love affair turned violent when the father of the girl involved bloodies the scene. And even the final section, in which we've gone back in time to follow a character not present at that opening moment, is a commentary on how such moments affect a whole life. It is a conclusion to the plot set up earlier (which seems to hang open-ended); it's just a conclusion that uses different characters to end a similar situation. Clever, indeed! Just writing about the novel makes me want to go back and read it again.