Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Fun Wondrous Book of Junot Diaz

I don't chase awards. If a book has won some major recognition, it might make me a little more likely to pick it up, but public accolades are never my primary motivation in selecting reading material. If I like a book and it turns out to have won a Pulitzer or a Nobel, then I'm more likely to feel that the taste of those organizations has been validated, rather than feel like those organizations have affirmed my own choices.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a little unusual for me, in that it is a recently released book by an author I haven't read before which has won huge recognition. Most of my new authors come to me by personal recommendation, but in this case I was mainly impressed by the reviews I had read, and more importantly, hearing Diaz read the first chapter on KQED's The Writer's Block. Now, I think there's a huge gulf between speaking ability and writing ability - some of my favorite writers are cringe-worthy whenever they step up to a microphone - but his intelligence and humor convinced me that it would be worth checking this one out.

I'm glad that I did. I don't feel like I have a whole lot more to say about this book after the many praising reviews, but here goes:

The crowning achievement of this book may be the elevation of popular genre material to the status of literature. I used to have a saying about fantasy novels: "If you look at a book in the bookstore, and on the back are praises from other people comparing this author to Tolkien, that doesn't mean anything. If other people start comparing new authors to this one, THEN that means he's made it." Similarly, it doesn't really matter how often critics compare Tolkien to Milton, or Martin to Tolstoy. It's when people start appropriating those writers within "serious" literature that you know they have arrived.

Diaz uses the wonderfully broad palette of popular culture to shade in his world. It isn't just fantasy fiction that he quotes; I was going to write, "... but it is the most effective and moving," but it probably isn't a coincidence that this is the genre I'm most familiar with. If I was steeped in the lore of comic books, I might say the same thing about those references.

So, what exactly does he do with this genre material? What you would expect from any good author: allusions, metaphors, wordplay, reference, atmosphere. None of this would matter if Diaz wasn't a great writer, and he soars. Early on he lilts "He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator"; each of Trujillo's henchmen are assigned the role of a Ringwraith, with the most menacing being given the crown of the Witch-King of Angmar, and those references tell us more about these men, their acts, and their relationship with Trujillo than paragraphs of exposition could provide. At the same time, they confer a mystical and spiritual dimension to the awful tale Diaz is telling. This isn't a cold-blooded political thriller, but a weird and confused tangle of human emotion and supernatural curses.

I think Diaz's revolutionary realization is that the better-known genre pieces can be today's modern equivalent of Greek mythology or biblical stories. When Joyce needed to add a layer of timelessness and a sense of heroic purpose to his books, he could turn to Homer and the Greeks. This is tremendously effective if you are steeped in the legends of Daedalus and Icarus, Odysseus and Penelope. However, our culture no longer reads these stories outside of mandatory education, and so to many people these sources are dry and uninspiring. Why not tap into the exciting stories that are as well-known and well-loved in our own day as the Greeks were generations ago?

Is this "Revenge of the Nerds"? Perhaps. I'll cheerfully grant that most genre fiction is dreck, but I'm tired of needing to argue the merits of the best. Cultural relevancy and literary merit are not mutually exclusive, and by taking the best-known elements of popular fantasy and transplanting them to another setting, Diaz has revealed their greatest qualities. I'm not sure how many people will follow in his footsteps, but I'm tempted to say that this is enough.


Now, I knew before cracking open the book that it would use genre material. What surprised me was how little of the book this included. The opening chapters, which are focused on Oscar, are the most dramatic examples. Oscar, though, is just one of four primary characters in this story, and the other three characters don't claim nearly the same level of reference that he does. This disappointed me a little, because I enjoyed Oscar's world and his voice so much that I would have been more than content with an entire book devoted to him.

Diaz is after something bigger, though. Ultimately, as fun and flashy as the genre references are, they are tools that he uses, not the goal. He is also interested in the immigrant experience, in the relationship between civilization and cruelty, in how families are grown, how they influence other generations, how they conceal their secrets and hide their origins. All of this stuff is utterly fascinating, and once I got over my regret at the diminishment of talk about Mordor, I was once again entranced.

There are some very spooky yet poetic images that Diaz reveals as he marches back in time on the Dominican Republic. He brings up primal spirits that may or may not exist, ones I can tentatively label "good" and "evil": the mongoose and the faceless man, respectively. Both are all the more powerful for how little presence they are given; when the faceless man (possibly) makes an appearance towards the end, I had to suppress a shiver. In a way, these symbols are sort of like pressure valves. The horrors of the real world are just too great: Trujillo's ravenous appetite, the cop's casual brutality, the Gangster's poison. The evils they perform seem beyond any human capability. So, Diaz adds the spiritual dimension of the cane fields, and provides the sort of explanation that desperate minds could grasp at in order to explain why the world destroys as it does. Now, are these things "real"? I don't think we or Diaz can answer this. What's important, though, is that people believe in them. The fuku may or may not exist, but when these things happen, people are forced to believe in it. That belief guides their actions, changes the way they raise their children, and so changes the world.


It's pretty hard to believe that this is just Diaz's first novel; it reads like the work of an accomplished master. I kind of doubt that the second novel will feel much like the first. Diaz will be under a lot of pressure to step away from the familiar settings of his freshman book: the genre literature, the Dominican culture, all things that presumably are "easy" for him. To secure his literary reputation, he'll need to branch out and do something different. I'm fine with that. This book is a gift, one worth treasuring.

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