Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Wednesday Reviews: Diaz, Shepard

Two brief reviews of books that deserve much more -- links to further coverage provided.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Diaz
(Riverhead, September 2007)
You've never heard of this book before, right? Diaz' first book since his class short story collection Drown has turned out to be a huge publishing event, inspiring everyone from Michiko Kakutani to bloggers galore to heights of praise. I can't give you much more -- just my own little story.

I read the short story that formed the foundation for BWL of OW in an anthology the ALP picked up called Rotten English -- a collection of prose and poetry written in non-standard or dialect English. Diaz was probably the most famous of the lot, but he certainly fits the bill -- Oscar Wao is studded with Spanish and Spanglish words and construction, and, my favorite, often uses the word "dude" as the subject (first example I can find in the novel, in a footnote, in parentheses: "(dude had bomber wings, for fuck's sake)"). It's electric, addicting, and like readers all over America and the Dominican Diaspora, I was hungry for more.

I finagled a copy from our kind-hearted Penguin sales rep. I started reading it in brief chunks on the subway. Then I had a day off, which I usually need as a work day, and when I took a lunch break from writing and researching I picked up Oscar Wao again. The rest of the day I spent in various positions throughout my house, book in front of my nose, unable to get away from the saga of old curses and modern dysfunction and sci-fi humor and adolescent dorkiness and tragedy masquerading as farce and the language -- oh man, the language. It's that kind of book.

I mentioned that Diaz came by the bookstore to sign stock -- I'm glad I hadn't read the book then, or I might have acted even more foolish. When I was finished I wished I was back in school so we could lit-crit the heck out of it. What does Oscar's identification with Oscar Wilde mean in terms of his outside status, his repressed sexuality, his political persecution, his lasting fame, his flamboyance or lack thereof? What are the implications of Yunior (the book's narrator and Diaz' stand-in) asserting that the troubles of the Dominican Republic stretch back to the moment Columbus used it as an entry point to the New World, his deadly serious joke that the curse (fuku) stretched all the way to the 20th century and killed Kennedy? Why does his refusal to mention Columbus' name (he is referred to as The Admiral, which it took me a bit to understand) give colonialism such a spooky power? Does his explanation of the Trujillo regime in footnotes, David Foster Wallace style, mean that these are merely "footnotes of history"? If all Dominicans are hit by fuku, is Yunior's fuku his inability to be faithful to Oscar's beautiful sister Lola, or his association with Oscar? What's with the golden mongoose, anyway?

Point is, it's a book that pulls you in to a whole world, like the best novels do, and opens your eyes to some parts of the real world you never noticed. To be honest, there were moments when the pacing or emphasis seemed weird to me -- maybe because I could perceive the bones of the short story under the novel, and the flesh didn't always fill in where I'd expect. And Oscar's life, truth be told, isn't so very wondrous, except that it existed at all, and in the wondrous telling of it, and with luck, in the significance of his ultimate act of defiance. With luck, this pulls the purposefully anti-canonical Diaz irresistibly into the canon of our greatest American writers, not least because he can't help writing powerfully about the least powerful among us: the refugees, the prisoners, the cursed, the unbeautiful, the lonely. He'd laugh to hear it, but dude is a serious force for good in the world. He has a kind of power, and he knows it. Here are his words, full of typical allusion and irreverence, erudition and pop culture and idealism and self-loathing, from another footnote about a writer who fell afoul of Trujillo:

What is it with Dictators and Writers, anyway? Since before the infamous Caesar-Ovid war they've had beef. Like the Fantastic Four and Galactus, like the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, like the Teen Titans and Deathstrike, Foreman and Ali, Morrison and Crouch, Sammy and Sergio, they seem destined to be eternally linked in the Halls of Battle. Rushdie claims that tyrants and scribblers are natural antagonists, but I think that's too simple; it lets writers off pretty easy. Dictators, in my opinion, just know competition when they see it. Same with writers. Like, after all, recognizes like.

Like You'd Understand, Anyway
by Jim Shepard
(Knopf, September 2007)
Jim Shepard is another one of those writers with a cult following -- what you call "a writer's writer." Check out the recent Bookslut interview here for more about him. I had a bookstore colleague once (hi, Ethan!) who had had Shepard as a writing teacher, and hearing him talk about Shepard filled me with respect for the man before I'd ever read a word he'd written. I read his previous short story collection, Love and Hydrogen, of which the only one I remember is the title story where two men, a couple, try to hide their relationship while working on a Nazi zeppelin, which of course goes down in flames. It's a very Shepard-esque story: he likes to work in somewhat exotic settings, which act as metaphors for the unhappy relationships they contain.

But that's reductive, and makes it sound like I don't like the man's work: I do, I do. What impressed me most about the new collection is the weird and simple fact that most of the relationships aren't romantic, or even homo-social (though most are between men). Fathers and sons, high school friends, brothers -- these loves are powerful too, and shape our actions and our perceptions just as powerfully as sex does. The title of the collection, which doesn't appear in any of the stories, is a great evocation of the singular inarticulate-ness that often characterizes such relationships: there's a longing for understanding, but an instinctive shoving away at the same time.

Okay, the stories, or at least my favorites. A Roman scribe in "Hadrian's Wall" seethes with resentment for his retired legionnaire father, and then fails to prevent an incursion by the barbarians, which leads to reciprocal slaughter by the Romans. In "Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak," two friends immerse themselves obsessively in their high school football team, while the narrator speculates on whether a guy on an opposing team could be the son of his disappeared dad, and his meat head best friend deals with his own father's constant comparison of him to his pro football older brother. "Eros 7" is one of the few stories involving a woman: two Soviet astronauts are assigned to orbit simultaneously but separately, a heartbreaking parallel to their secret and unsuccessful romance. Possibly the most powerful is the first story, "The Zero Meter Diving Team," narrated by the oldest of three brothers, a bureaucrat implicated in the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, where his two younger brothers die slowly. It's an astonishing play-by-play of the governmental unwillingness to admit the problem that resulted in the accident's horrible long-range consequences, and the brothers' various manifestations of suffering and guilt and stoicism and humor make it all too real.

The point here is that any of these stories might be maudlin, or worse, tough-guy pretentious, in the hands of a lesser writer. Shepard's enviable and compelling skill, sentence by sentence, is to expose his characters' posturing, their weaknesses and wants and failures and loving impulses, in language that not only shows compassion for them, but makes it clear that they are just like you, for better and (mostly) for worse. One of the best stories has no exotic setting: "Courtesy for Beginners" is about a kid at summer camp, with all the miserable hazing that can imply, while his possibly mentally disturbed younger brother is at home. After the sickening denouement, the narrator ends with this telling conclusion:

But what I did was the kind of thing you'd do and the kind of thing you've done: I felt bad for him and for myself and I went on with my week and then with my summer and I started telling my story to whoever would listen. And my story was: I survived camp. I survived my brother. I survived my own bad feelings. Love me for being so sad about it. Love me for knowing what I did. Love me for being in the lifeboat after everyone else went under. And my story made me feel better and it made me feel worse. And it worked.
Take their words for it: these are two books that are seriously worth reading, and worth adding to the ranks of great 21st century American literature.

(And come see Shepard read and talk with his editor, the equally cult famous Gary Fisketjon, on the 24th.)