Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

            So, I’m attempting to read more novels that have won Pulitzer Prizes because I like nice things. When it comes to these award-winning novels, I enjoy reading about people that are nothing like me, embedded in a setting that I do not directly experience. I get my character-relatability fix from Girls with the whole quirky-white-girl-in-an-elusive-quest-to-leave-her-imprint-on-the-world thing. This particular book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao*, recounts the life of (fictional character) Oscar De León within the context of his allegedly doomed family. He is an overweight Dominican with a die-hard proclivity for cultish science fiction and a self-destructive weakness for women. Yeah, I’d say we’ve got some dissimilarities to work with.

Oscar’s name is badass; alas, he is not…at least by conventional standards. His luck with the ladies is nonexistent, a stark deviation from the suave Dominican style exuding from his peers. He is trapped in a constant state of “in crush”, an unrequited infatuation with the opposite sex. At times, he accepts his unlayable fate and retreats into his own nerdy heaven. Occasionally, his failed lady-seeking endeavors derail his forced optimism, resulting in intense depressive episodes. The novel is rife with foreshadows of Oscar’s impending ruination. It is also less poetically put: shit is going to go down with Oscar and it is not going to end well.

With his name in the title and all, I figured the book would be pretty much exclusively focused on Oscar. Instead, Junot Díaz gives us a generous taste of the lives of his family members as well. We learn about his older sister, Lola De León, and her difficulties finding her place in the world under the thumb of her abusive mother, Belicia. Once this perspective has been painted, we explore Beli’s own tumultuous past marked by orphanage, rebellion, and her fair share of violence. Her restless, “inextinguishable longing for elsewheres” contributed to the Dominican Diaspora, as she relocated to America following a particularly horrific incident in her homeland (Díaz, 77).

Díaz’s choice of narrative style is particularly inventive. The omniscient narrator is not even introduced as a character until 167 pages in, where you discover he is a huge douche, albeit an entertaining one. For instance, he says things like, “I had my job and the gym and my boys and my novia and of course I had my slutties” which reminds me of Don Jon a little too much (Díaz, 172). Additionally, Díaz capitalizes on ample footnote space. He pulls a Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex move (conveniently also a Pulitzer Prize winner) by planting fictional characters within a historically factual framework. As such, readers learn a great deal about Dominican culture and background. The narrator describes a relevant event or person, and elaborates at the bottom of the page. But this is not your typical informative footnote—it’s knowledge couched in casual language. One footnote enlightens us-- “Balaguer is essential to the Dominican [tale], so therefore we must mention him, even though I’d rather piss in his face” (Díaz, 90). Balaguer, kind of an ass, duly noted.

Most of the Dominican history lesson stems from the novel’s preoccupation with ~*fukú*~ (dun dun dun). Fukú refers to the “curse and the doom of the New World” and it is no joke (Díaz, 1). Oscar distinctively feels the reverberations of the spell, evident in his role as the outcast, and it is only until he learns to say f*** you to the fukú that he can be released from its wrenching grasp. The curse has roots in the era of Dominican Dictator Rafael Trujillo, “The Dictatingist Dictator who ever Dictated” (Díaz, 80). If the narrator’s detailed account is to be believed, this guy belonged to an unfathomable league that stretches the bounds of humanity’s conception of evil. The novel has enough Lord of the Rings references to satisfy every Middle-Earth devotee in the world, most often comparing Trujillo to Sauron (Díaz, 224).

LOTR and related spells aside, Díaz does more than just blend fiction and nonfiction. He also mixes Spanish and English. His use of Spanish language is fairly extensive—more than I was prepared for. I fully recognize that this is cool and imaginative BUT admittedly, it was sometimes inconvenient. I’m not particularly keen on disrupting the narrative flow by consulting my Spanish dictionary every thirty seconds. Obviously, this would not be a problem for a multilingual reader, or a reader with slightly more patience. 

Keeping in mind the Spanglish as a complicated source of both frustration and intrigue, I give the novel 3 out of 5 camel humps. It was pleasurable and humorous to read at the time but I would not re-read it nor would I jump at recommending it. Game of Thrones is the extent of my sci-fi interest because dragons are tight and I appreciate the ruthless drama of not being afraid to kill off main characters (RIP like pretty much everyone); therefore, if you are more partial to this genre, this novel is better suited for you. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by Oscar’s transformation from seemingly intransigent geek into a truly dynamic character, and I took pride in watching his personal growth. Last week, I saw this quote displayed in the National Portrait Gallery in D.C.:

“Art ain’t about paint. It ain’t about canvas. It’s about ideas. Too many people died without ever getting their mind out to the world.”
-Thornton Dial, Sr. 1993

Oscar’s ideas are unfairly stifled for so long because people cannot look past his eccentric character or Yoda voice. When he is finally free to express his feelings of love, he is able to get his mind out to the world, and that is a wonderful thing for the reader to witness. Of course, this takes a while to develop, but... "patience you must have my young padawan" (Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith*).

* Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007. Print.

*Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith. Dir. George Lucas. Lucasfilm, 2005. Film.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Things They Carried

             “The Things They Carried”* is a compilation of short stories written by Tim O’Brien, a Vietnam veteran. It begins by literally itemizing what the soldiers in his platoon carried, along with the weight of those objects. O’Brien also includes more abstract, unweighable yet burdensome concepts like fear, awe, power, and memory. 

When I bought this novel, I knew I was getting a war book. I figured it would involve guns, camouflage, and stressed-out men occasionally running around and yelling code words. Sure, it’s a story involving war…but more importantly, it’s a book about being a human. When O’Brien was drafted, he felt his conscription was complete and utter bullshit. At the time, he was student body president of Macalester College with an acceptance letter to graduate school at Harvard in his possession. And while he dreaded the idea of being forced to participate in any war, he saw America’s involvement in Vietnam particularly unsettling. There was an ambiguity to the combat abroad, and in his view, “You don’t make war without knowing why” (O’Brien, 38). As a result, he makes a compelling argument that succumbing to the draft was actually an act of cowardice. Men thought that triumphantly blazing into battle was emblematic of their bravery. According to O’Brien, in reality, “Men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to…they died so as not to die of embarrassment” (O’Brien, 20). It would damage their pride and bring their family shame to attempt and avoid the war; so instead, many men marched forward and passively accepted their fate, even if it ended in their death. He brings to light an interesting perspective that boils down to basic psychology: why do people do what they do even if they don’t want to do it?

His psych session continues when he exposes how his unit coped with the more gruesome aspects of their missions. When people died, or if they were stuck in uncomfortable circumstances, there was a gripping need to slough it off with humor to ease the tension. Other times, they braced themselves for dreadful situations with deliberate terminology. “They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness. Greased they’d say. Offed, lit up” (O’Brien, 19). O’Brien likened the war to a Ping-Pong ball. There were ways to spin it to make it more bearable—put a twist on the thing to make it dance in your favor (O’Brien, 31). I am exceptionally good at Ping-Pong but I would not last a day in combat. 

An additional surprise embedded in this novel was O’Brien’s lessons on the craft of writing. When he returned to America, writing served as a crucial tool to navigating post-war life. Telling his stories was a cathartic endeavor that enabled him to healthily process all that he had witnessed. Seems perfectly normal—a veteran looking for ways to understand his experiences. But O’Brien—as the brilliant author that he is—approaches these experiences in a much more roundabout way. He holds an interesting conception of “truth” in which he occasionally implants lies within his stories, “making up a few things to get at the real truth” (O’Brien, 81). Sometimes they are little white lies; sometimes they are big, glaring ones. Sometimes he discloses to the reader what is factual and what is not; sometimes he keeps us guessing. This aberrant method is not about deception; rather, it is an effort to more accurately recreate specific sensations.

Novels like Ham on Rye and The Rum Diary tested the boundaries by meshing actual events with fictional elements. This novel takes a step further; some plots and some characters are entirely invented in order to make the reader feel as O’Brien truly felt in battle. Sometimes we need to be lied to in order to empathize. But for him, the end goal is always clarity. He explains, “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience…you pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened…and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain” (O’Brien, 152).

Generally, I do not like to be lied to. If I catch you in a fib, I expect an Edible Arrangement (heavy on the pineapple) and a Starbucks gift card. In this case, I’ll make an exception. O’Brien is a liar because he wants to tell the truth. And that is goddamn beautiful. His creativity alone earns this novel 5 out of 5 camel humps. He also uses the word “humping” as a common war-term for carrying and I find that comical, because apparently, I’m a thirteen-year-old boy. If I had written this novel, it’d be called The Things They Humped and it’d be much less poetic.  

*O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1990. Print.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Rum Diary

            In the spirit of celebrating New Years Eve with champagne showers, I thought I might add a little liquor to the mix and review The Rum Diary*. It’s only natural that I write this while sipping on a personal brew in preparation for my own festivities—just call me a method writer. No matter how much I indulge tonight though, I won’t be going as ham as Hunter S. Thompson. His real-life penchant for alcoholism and illegal drugs seamlessly complements the narrator’s own vices because, well, he is the narrator. Thompson is the pioneer of “gonzo journalism”, a technique in which stories are written subjectively, often from the point of view of the writer, combining both nonfictional and fictional elements. This particular novel is inspired by Thompson’s own journalistic endeavors and jaded experiences in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the 1960’s. The plot itself is a fairly simple story—journalist Paul Kemp moves to the Caribbean city from New York and finds himself surrounded by debauchery as he writes for The Daily News. The alcoholic lust exhibited by him and his coworkers is typically responsible for the pickles they end up in. There is very little accountability—they even show up drunk to work. Everyday, Kemp hits up his regular spot, Al’s, and often orders two beers and rum served neat all for himself just as the first round. I don’t trust anyone who orders rum served neat and neither should you…at least throw some ice into the mix.

Although Thompson was only 22 when he wrote this book, it reads like it’s authored by an old, exasperated soul. Kemp is dissatisfied with what this seemingly fresh, new city has to offer, which develops into a disappointment with what life itself has to offer. Alcoholism becomes a means to escape from this sobering realization, which results in Kemp quite literally drunkenly stumbling through life. His job is just a way to pass the time; it is something to do and it gives him somewhere to go. Yet, this ostensibly purposeful mission—reporting the news—proves to merely be ensconced emptiness. Thompson makes several poetic parallels between the climate of San Juan and the notion of living out an unfulfilling life. He awakens with a hopeful anticipation of what the day might bring and by noon, the “morning withered like a lost dream. The sweat was torture and the rest of the day was littered with the dead remains of all those things that might have happened, but couldn’t stand the heat” (Thompson, 191). It is this consistent tension between the optimistic belief that what he is doing matters and the dejected idea that it is actually pointless that steers Kemp along his journey. He admits, “I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey” (Thompson, 5).

On February 20, 2005, Thompson stopped “kidding himself” when he shot a bullet through his head. Several times throughout The Rum Diary, Thompson refers to the necessity of illusions in terms of tolerating both the mundane day-to-day and the most turbulent of life’s hardships. But truthfully, “the delicate illusions that get us through life can only stand so much strain” (Thompson, 169). I’ll drink to that!

Now, I know all of this appears cringingly uplifting. Interspersed among these haunting insights into human nature are some comical asides and entertaining predicaments. At one point, Kemp coyly asks a girl, “Do you mind if I get drunk and naked” (Thompson, 187)? That’s a pretty solid pickup line…and it worked. Take note, men.

My favorite books typically involve a little consciousness raising when it comes to life’s absurdities, mixed with a dash of dark comedy. This novel does just that, and more. Overall, I give it 4 out of 5 camel humps. I enjoy Thompson’s outrageous alcoholic madness and I fully intend to read Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as I have heard that his skills only increase with age, experience, and fame. On the other hand, I didn’t finish the novel completely mind-blown. While I absolutely recommend it to others, and I appreciate Thompson’s outlook on life, I will admit that the novel does not have a whole lot of substance story-wise. The plot creeps slowly along, fortified by amusing antics, until shit finally hits the fan. But if you ever find yourself asking….

Just know that you can find plenty of it right here!

*Thompson, Hunter S. The Rum Diary. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1998. Print.