Emporium: Great Prose, Forgettable Stories?

emporium

It is difficult, in my mind, to overstate just how much I love Adam Johnson’s recent collection of stories, Fortune Smiles. It is easily the best collection of stories I’ve read in my lifetime, and arguably the most unforgettable reading experience I had in 2016. As such, it was difficult for me to not splurge and buy everything Johnson had ever published (I since have) simply because writing something as great as Fortune Smiles is no accident. Writers cannot possibly luck into creating such an experience. Despite this, however, I still was not quite ready to read his novels. It seems rare that a writer is both great at writing in short form and in long form, and there is something incandescent and untouchable about a great short story. The idea of having Fortune Smiles repeated in even a small manner was too much too ignore.

So here we are with Johnson’s first collection of stories, Emporium. Which undoubtedly flies below the steady greatness of Fortune Smiles, but nonetheless shows Johnson to have had so much promise that the stories themselves become secondary to the sheer wonder of the thought of this young writer one day putting it all together and writing something that is as great as the highs within Emporium throughout a single piece, rather than scattered among a few stories. Johnson has such a gift for readable, yet unique prose that one forgets that s/he is reading something that is held in high academic esteem. It is as if Hemingway was mixed with John Kennedy Toole and Kurt Vonnegut. Johnson finds a way to convey, at times, harsh realities inside wacky three dimensional characters packed within sci-fi-like eras of the world that, despite their seeming offhandedness, resonate deeply with a reader.

Readers of Fortune Smiles will no doubt enjoy the collection for the chance to see how far Johnson has come in his ability to tell a story, yet they will also notice how often Emporium seems to be the same thing that Johnson eventually perfected. All the stories are after the same thing, an existential undeniably human experience of the world and what it is like to exist within it. Yet Emporium seems to have a reoccurring habit of not necessarily knowing how to get itself out of what it has gotten into. With the exception of “The Canadanaut” each story seems to contain the rise of what is going to become a story, but never bothers to finish. They do not necessarily feel incomplete, it is instead that they feel like they never had a true plot to begin with. Johnson is talented at creating characters, and these are character driven and focused stories, but they end up missing any sense of closure. It is impossible to not become invested in these characters, but a reader will end up asking themselves what the point of it was.

The exception to this, as mentioned above, is the eighth story in the collection (and likely not by coincidence, the longest story in the collection), “The Canadanaut,” which is a story set in the 60s of a space race between Canada and Russia to try to put a man in space and get him home. A reoccurring theme in Emporium is loneliness, but “The Canadanaut” reaches new heights on the topic whereas the rest of the stories never seem to quite get where I think they are striving for (a possible exception to this being the first story, “Teen Sniper”). What is more lonely than being on a one-man shuttle into space, a likely suicide mission? The themes are heavy here, but not heavy-handed: the impossibility of true communication, the coldness of math and science bereft of humanity, and the longing for things out of our grasp and dreams long gone. While perhaps not worth the price of the book itself, “The Canadanaut” is a must-read.

Emporium is a collection of wondrous prose that can make a reader forget that stories are about a bit more than words on a page. Johnson, even from an early age, clearly possessed a devastating ability to capture human experience in an efficient and meaningful way without sacrificing any clarity. Emporium, more than anything, just warns of an incredible voice with a bright future ahead.

Recommended to: Adam Johnson completionists. This excludes “The Canadanaut,” which everyone needs to find a pdf of very quickly.

Avoid as if it is taking a sixteen seed to the Final Four: Please do not begin here with Johnson. Grab Fortune Smiles if you are interested in this fantastic writer.

Americanah: To Feel Always Out of Place

americanah

Americanah is a novel with great deal of vitally important things to say about the role of race and gender in America juxtaposed with class and gender in Nigeria. What is Americanah? It is the way of being that Nigerians bring back to Nigeria after being in America for a prolonged period of time. In the case of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s character Ifemelu, it is a personal feeling of loneliness and the suspicion that one no longer belongs or fits in either place. Americanah, like most of the novel, is multifaceted, and it is to Adichie’s credit that the novel carries such a firm grasp of dimensions in not only people, but ideas. Yet, it is this very dimension of the novel that is most interesting, as Ifemelu’s feelings of being trapped within what society expects of her or at the very least what she can do within society without truly upsetting the rigid structure that upholds systemic racism are what makes the novel devastating in reflection, as it is a nagging thought as to whether or not Ifemelu accomplishes her goals.

Americanah, to be clear, is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze- though Ifemelu is the major focus of the story- two young lovers in Nigeria who are separated from one another when Ifemelu begins going to school in America and Obinze must stay behind. When silence begins to grow between them due to Ifemelu’s inability to talk to Obinze about taking a small job as an escort when she was at the end of her rope financially, they each begin two distinctly different lives, Ifemelu becoming obsessed with the idea of race in America and Obinze moving to England and simply attempting to stay afloat above poverty and keep his residency legal. What is shared between them, even when they do not speak, is a shared experience of all humans: the feeling of not belonging. Both highly intelligent characters, Ifem and Obinze see through people and struggle to stay happy in a world that they cannot truly identify to people as who they truly are: Obinze due to his need to take a fake name to work in England, and Ifem, after finding a job in which she did not have to have a fake name, living a life in which she is surrounded by people who do not tell the truth as she understands it. She begins to see race as this thing that haunts every interaction Americans have.

This haunting is strange to her as a Nigerian, as she never felt her skin color beyond beauty standards until she arrived in America. As her observations and interactions with people begin to mount, she begins a blog in which she describes race relations in America from a “non-American Black’s” perspective. The posts she writes are sprinkled throughout the novel, usually at the end of chapters, with the occasional one in the middle of a chapter if it directly relates to the situation Ifem was most recently dealing with. These posts are incredibly interesting, written without jargon and with clear meaning and challenging intent. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if the structure in which they are present could be used more effectively. Often they simply appear, as from thin air, at the end of a chapter. At times they directly relate to the situation at hand, but other moments, despite how interesting they are, a read may find themselves puzzled as to why the post is necessarily here or there.

And in the end, this is perhaps the main issue I kept having with Americanah, that I did not understand the structure of it. It did not read much like a novel as much as it did a collection of happenings to someone. Ifemelu was a great character to be around and learn from, but when the novel left her for Obinze, even for a just a chapter or two, it undeniably lost some of its steam. Obinze really maintained his interest only around Ifemelu, who was truly the electric character of the novel. While I appreciated the actual love story of Ifem and Obinze, I also think it was irrelevant. That if Obinze did not exist in the novel, I’m not sure the novel changes that much. If anything it becomes better. But, this is essentially the point of Americanah, what is Ifem to do when the only place she has ever belonged whatsoever was in the company of Obinze? Americanah, once one has adopted it, is nearly a perpetual state of being an outsider, whether it be around American people of color or Nigerian.

Americanah, while having its faults in my eyes, is most importantly a challenging novel. Not in the way that the novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses are, but in what it is about. In a way few writings do, it cuts to the heart of the matter on American racism and class structure in a way that many will not only find upsetting, but will likely cause real, tangible anger. In that sense, it does exactly what art is supposed to be doing: challenging and changing us, provoking some sort of response to a call we may or may not be ready to hear.

Recommended to: Those with real interest in racism in America. Do not step into Americanah expecting a story that will sweep you away, if anything the novel has no plot whatsoever while maintaining the aesthetic of having one. Instead, step into it expecting vignettes and meditations that can change the way you think.

Avoid as if it is a Facebook argument about the nature of the Bible: If I told anyone to avoid this I would be angry with myself. This is truly an important read that goes beyond any grumblings I have about structure of novels. What could be more irrelevant?

A Clockwork Orange: Timshel! Thou Mayest!

clockworkorange

Note: This review will not attempt to avoid spoilers (It’s been 50 years!)

A Clockwork Orange is perhaps best known for being perhaps the most disturbing of Stanley Kubrick’s films. Yet one does not really even need to watch the film to see why this is a distinct possibility, even likelihood. Oft analyzed scenes such as the infamous “Singing in the Rape” serve as an attempt to get the viewer into the thoughts of Alex, the main character of the novel and film. While Burgess’ novel can let his actions stand alone as what they are (namely: unconscionable, vile acts) and then surround them with Alex’s own thoughts before and after, Kubrick does not have the luxury of such a ploy without falling into tropes, thus, to go along with Alex’s horrid actions, Kubrick has him not narrate them, but add to them. Somehow make them worse. Namely, by adding pure joy. Kubrick has to show us that Alex not only has no qualms with his crimes, but also that he enjoys them. This is why the film version of A Clockwork Orange is oft-accused of glorifying violence.

Yet the novel finds itself in a different place, as readers are presented with a stream-of-consciousness/post-log of Alex’s day-to-day life in a futuristic dystopian New York. He and his droogs roam the city at night and, for what it is worth, terrorize its inhabitants, beating them to a pulp or worse. It is during one of these night romps that he is caught by the police after accidentally murdering a woman who had sent her cats to attack him (it should not be understated how humorous the novel is at times; including a moment in which, when Alex returns from prison, his father informs him that the state had to sell all of his things so that it could afford to take care of the old woman’s cats). They hall him away and he is sentenced to 12 years in prison, but after two he is offered a deal to walk-free. Participate in the trials of the Ludavico experiment and he will walk after “only a fortnight.” The Ludovica experiment subjects him to intense “ultra-violence” (a term coined by Burgess) in the form of film and Alex is forced to develop such an aversion to violence that he becomes sick at his stomach and feels intense pain when he even begins to think about violence. Likewise, because the films are scored with classical music, he can no longer partake of his favorite composers either, which seems to scar him the most. Upon being released no one, not even his family believes that he is actually a good, changed person. When he finally finds someone who does, the man desires to kill Alex after realizing that Alex broke into his home years ago and raped his wife. Alex’s goodness becomes utterly irrelevant, and he becomes useful only as a pawn in governmental infighting. He attempts suicide unsuccessfully, and in the process being healed they reverse the process of Ludovica, allowing Alex to be violent once more.

And here’s where the fun begins. In the original American release A Clockwork Orange only has 20 chapters, despite Burgess writing 21. At the end of chapter 20, Alex sits in a hospital bed and simply gives in to his violent nature, regaining his humanity, but in the most upsetting of possible ways. Yet, in the rerelease of the novel, with chapter 21 included, the reader joins Alex with his new droogs readying for a night of mischief and terror. Suddenly Alex decides he is not in the mood and tells them to carry on without him. He leaves and runs into Pete, one of his old droogs, who is married and has a family now. Alex is deeply moved that even a person as lowly and desolate as Pete could find such happiness and vows to begin his life anew as a good person.

This last chapter is routinely thought of as being out of character an unconvincing, and on a first read I felt similarly. But as I continued to ponder it, I cannot help but take into account the overall theme of the novel, namely as the importance of choice. That it does not matter if you are feeding the homeless or standing up for the rights of those less fortunate if you do not have a choice in the matter. Without choice the action becomes empty, void of all quality. Burgess makes a case for a sort of endless dualism in which good cannot exist with bad, and vice-versa. That as long as Alex is completely unable to be evil, he is unable to do good as well. This is set up by the line from the prison chaplain to Alex before he enters the Ludovica experiment, “When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” I cannot say I want to simply dismiss the final chapter, as it is reminiscent of perhaps my favorite conversation in literature between Samuel Hamilton, Lee, and Adam Trask in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. A conversation in which Lee argues that the importance of what God tells Cain after he curses him, timshel; thou mayest triumph over sin. It’s not a command, it’s not a promise, it’s an choice inherent to all of us. And in a way, I really like chapter 21, as Burgess remains consistent, telling us it’s a choice, just as he has all along. But I will not deny that ending on chapter 20 was far more satisfying.

Recommended to: It’s a novel about big questions in ethics. More philosophical than anything else, hinging on a consistent ideal rather than the story itself, thus there is a specific niche of people who will adore this novel.

Avoid as if it is Finnegan’s Wake and you have a headache: The language barrier to this novel is notable. If you do not enjoy novels that use a heavy amount of jargon, pidgin, or slang then you should pass on this one.

American Pastoral: As Striking a Portrait of the Middle Class as Ever Existed

american-pastoral

Excuse me while I gather myself. American Pastoral is a slow burn with bountiful excursions down rabbit trails that really have no necessary meaning to the story itself. In a way, it is the only novel I’ve read that approaches the wacky writing of Dostoevsky (in the words of Hemingway: “How does someone who writes so poorly make me feel so much?”), by which I mean that Roth’s style is meandering, often with short conversations resulting in pages upon pages of text that lets the reader know every single detail of every memory that possibly comes into a character’s head. As a result there are moments in which a reader can be greatly frustrated with the text, encountering backstory after backstory of characters one can never be certain are even important to the piece as a whole. Yet, identically to Dostoevsky, when suddenly, as if by magic, Roth is on, what was once tedious becomes impossible to get enough of. Every word becomes as important as the last utterance of a family member on their death bed. In American Pastoral, these Dostoevskian moments pieced together form a novel that is perhaps worthy of being declared the great American novel.

In the same way that the Coen Brothers’ film, Fargo, tags itself with the phrase, “A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere,” American Pastoral can likely be tagged, “A lot can happen to no one.” Roth’s protagonist, Seymour “Swede” Levov is a classic American man: captain of the football team, joined the marines, married a beauty queen, took over his father’s business, and started his own plans for a nuclear family beginning with a daughter. And it is these classic elements, almost prototypical checklists for the American Dream, that function to cement Swede Levov as just another successful nobody. By doing nothing but following the instructions of his father and the blueprint for happiness, Swede lives out his life as an inherently neutral person, minding his own business and making sure to keep his nose out of other’s. Yet this all comes crashing down when his daughter, Merry, who had been increasingly outspoken and ferocious in her opposition to the war in Vietnam, blows up a local post office and general store, killing a man in the process. What is chronicled in the pages of American Pastoral is Swede’s subsequent life following Merry’s act of terrorism and quick disappearance.

Swede can barely hear two sentences from someone without thinking about Merry and just where it all went wrong with her. The basic problem Swede has, however, is that absolutely nothing went wrong. He gave her everything she could have ever wanted. In his flashbacks that occur through the novel it becomes apparent that he let her rant and call him a racist and a capitalist pig who sells his workers out for profit and “unjustly owns the means of production.” And  often Swede has absolutely no clue what Merry is talking about, he does not even begin to understand what she is so upset about when he makes sure she knows that he agrees with what he can comprehend from her tirades. Feeling like he has no other choice but to cling to a hope, he chalks her rants up to being a phase. A phase in which she reads The Communist Manifesto and falls in with Alice Palmer on the weekends. Most of their disconnect hinges on Vietnam war, and whether or not it is good enough to be against it, or if more should be done. When Merry lobs linguistic grenades at Swede that contain the words “privilege” and “pig bastard” Swede has no idea how to take it beyond washing his hands of her ideology and then wondering how it all went wrong.

And that is the pure brilliance of American Pastoral. Within the relationship between Swede, the Liberal All-American Middle Class Male, and Merry, the leftist bent on revolution, Philip Roth contains and comments upon the entire American political spectrum. What makes the novel a work of genius is how utterly neutral Roth stays throughout it, despite the fact that in the first 100 pages we are made excruciatingly aware of the fact that this is the writing of Skip Zuckerman, not Philip Roth. That Zuckerman maintains his voice without infecting the way the characters’ opinions are given is masterful. Any disagreement a person has with anything a character in this novel says comes purely from the person reading. Reading American Pastoral with an open mind is to be pulled in so many directions from so many well-thought out perspectives that it is nearly maddening. As you read you get the same inkling that occurs when reading Dostoevsky, even when you enjoy it; the inkling: what the hell is this even about? Yet the novel keeps going beyond all thought possible. Swede has so many normal things to say, yet all of them read as if they are a revelation in this chaotic world. Merry’s bogus life truly is, in some moments, the correct way to live by pure ideology.

American Pastoral, at its best, captures a maddening and infuriating perversity that is at the core of America, namely that our values are unreachable. That doing everything right, living the American way and achieving the Dream, still ends in utter despair. Nothing one can do is good enough, and this is what Swede cannot cope with, nor can Merry accept. It is brilliant in all aspects, from its humor to its wrenching sadness. A masterpiece.

Recommended to: Those that have wondered what it would be like if Dostoevsky was an American.

Avoid as if it is a wholesome church super bowl party where the commercials are being skipped: This is exactly the sort of novel that seems absolutely pointless if you read it for plot and plot alone. There is no plot, just a frame of reference that masquerades as one. If you need that guiding force, then this one is not for you.

Lincoln in the Bardo: Brevity, Brilliance, and What’s to Come

lincoln-in-the-bardo

There are some novels that endlessly resist being succinctly qualified or explained in a way that enlightens the reader quickly and meaningfully as to whether or not they would be interested in reading such a book. These novels are paradoxes in themselves; a student once explaining the phenomenon to me perfectly through declaring Langston Hughes’ Harlem to be “depressingly uplifting.” That wondrous paradox seems to me to be the full function of great literature, or at least what much of it attempts to achieve. Just like all people, novels are multiplicities: containing at once profusions of happiness, sadness, hopes, dreams, realizations, darknesses, and memories, almost all of which existing in conflict in some way. It is this conflict within a person that, when brought to light and examined emphatically and empathetically, in literature creates some of the most memorable and beloved characters in history, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to August Wilson’s Troy Maxson in Fences.

But often these characters are achieved because we spend so much time with them. In Hamlet we have what can feel like a neverending cavalcade of soliloquies and monologues ebbing forth from the young prince. These give great insight into his psyche, but Hamlet‘s length is much noted, and perhaps works against the play at times. In Fences, we get the full impact of what it is like to be Troy Maxson because we are treated to his endless rantings on baseball, fatherhood, marriage, and everything in between. To be frank, Troy and Hamlet have an annoying, similar quality in that they never shut up. And this leads us to George Saunders’ chief problem in writing a novel. Namely, that he is almost too efficient to create such a character. Saunders does not need fifty pages to create a character we are just as attached to as Hamlet or Troy. In fact he barely needs ten. For this reason I can confidently say that I never expected a novel from Saunders. And if I got one, then I certainly did not expect that much out of it; Saunders’ novella’s and longer short stories usually being by far the weakest portions of his collections. Thus, when Lincoln in the Bardo was announced, I was excited, but also a little tentative. How will Saunders manage to give us a single character for so long and maintain what makes his writing so effective? The answer, of course, is clever, and cements Saunders’ already fantastic legacy as one of the greatest writers in American history.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a title with two functions; both of which are literal. A novel about the death of Willie Lincoln in 1862, it first functions as the simplistic taste of the plot of the novel: Willie Lincoln has died and is now existing in the Bardo, a state in which the souls of humanity exist inbetween one life and the next. Yet the title also points to the dual meaning of the word “Bardo,” which can also convey a period of a person’s life in which the norm is suspended indefinitely. While Willie is called to rebirth in the Bardo, Abraham operates in his own Bardo, wondering how life can ever return to normal after the death of his eldest child. Unlike what could be expected from a typical novel, however, Saunders does not simply alternate between the two characters, instead choosing a far more interesting an effective structure in which we spend hardly any time at all directly with Willie or Abraham, allowing him to make full use of his tremendous talent for brevity and efficiency.

The story is told through a variety of lenses. The setting and reality of 1862 is conveyed through “quotes” from historical documents concerning President Lincoln and his time in the White House. These “quotes,” however, are a heavy mixture of fiction and non-fiction, though all are cited, much like Mark Z. Danielewski’s novelHouse of Leaves. When we leave “reality” as such, we are primarily given the narrative through the triad eyes of three souls existing alongside Willie Lincoln in the Bardo: Hans Vollman, a man who died on the night before he could consummate his marriage to a much younger bride; Roger Bevins III, a gay man who killed himself after being unable to live a life alongside his lover Gilbert; and the Reverend Everly Thomas, a preacher who was denied entry into Heaven for reasons he cannot discern. The plot consists mainly of these three souls attempting to communicate with Abraham Lincoln in hopes that he will tell Willie that he wants him to move on to the next life without fear- Willie refusing to leave the Bardo due to his attachment to his father, and subsequently being assaulted on all fronts by demons and lost souls attempting to drag him to Hell.

Yet throughout the novel the story is moved from soul to soul, the cast of characters- though I did not count- likely numbering well over twenty. It is this reason that Lincoln in the Bardo shines as a novel, as Saunders finds the perfect vein for his uniquely efficient style. We do not become over familiar with a character, nor does Saunders fall into any heavy handedness. Perhaps just as well as his best short stories, Saunders has managed to write a deeply and profoundly human story in which he fully incorporates everything he has from black humor to the incredible ability to pull deep meaning and familiarity from the most absurd crevices of the human imagination. Like his best short stories, Lincoln in the Bardo feels like it is suddenly over, ending before a reader is ready despite having more closure than any short story I’ve read from Saunders since CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. It reads as the culmination of everything Saunders has created so far.

Now we must ask: what will he do next?

Recommended to:  This novel stands completely on its own as a masterpiece that is both accessible while maintaining artistic integrity.Yet it is such a wonderful blend of postmodernism and historical fiction that it’s also almost a perfect entry point into more difficult reads such Mason & Dixon. While not for everyone, it is a high recommend for most.

Avoid as if it is losing your queen to a pawn: As with other non-linear narratives, there are just some readers who don’t enjoy them. Lincoln in the Bardo jumps more often than most, but it also does it better than most. It’s difficult to say someone shouldn’t at least attempt to read it.

Fates and Furies: The Space Between Who We Think They Are and Who They Are

fatesandfuries

Fates and Furies, if a person was to read the back cover and take a guess at what it is about, appears, more than anything, to be a classic love story. Maybe there is some intrigue. Maybe someone is unfaithful. Maybe they are both unfaithful and that’s why it works. Maybe he is gay and she lets him do what he does on the side for the sake of their marriage. Maybe she is a lesbian who married by mistake but refuses to do something that would make him unhappy because, after all, she does love him. Once again, however, I have to scold the person who wrote the blurb on the back. It makes Fates and Furies into something it is not, namely a hyper-gendered, melodramatic romance novel. I cannot imagine the number of people that have turned down the opportunity to read it after being turned off by the sensationalized back cover. Well, before I go any further in this short explication, let me put it succinctly. Read this damn novel. It is good. Really good.

Fates and Furies is indeed about a marriage, but it is not a novel of marriage that is interested in taking marriage and making it scandalous in some way (See above). Instead it does something far more interesting. Lauren Groff takes two people and lays them bare, going into exuberant detail as to convey to her readers not only the characters of Lotto and Mathilde, but how both characters view one another. This is not a novel of an interesting marriage as much as it is a novel of how we need and hold on to our ideas of other people in order so that we may function as people. That to encounter the truth of someone is sometimes unbearable, and that what is hidden from view is often hidden for a reason. Yet the question Fates and Furies asks even more is whether or not these secret selves that we keep from even our closest loved ones can make us unlovable or even “bad.”

Far from a linear novel, Fates and Furies is split into two portions: Fates and (you guessed it) Furies. Fates is told predominantly from the perspective of the husband in our focal marriage, Lotto (a sobriquet for Lancelot). Lotto is a former evangelical who is shipped to an all boys school after he falls into a crowd that his overbearing mother disapproves of. Central to his story, and Groff deserves endless praise for this, are very male themes of over-attachment, the tendencies of men to view women as soteriological figures rather than flawed humans, and loneliness. While sculpted as a fully three-dimensional character, Lotto functions wonderfully as this vessel of familiar actions for a lot of men. He holds antiquated views despite loving a powerful woman, he wishes for purity in his wife, and he refuses to really interact with who she is, often making up stories about her past, a past that she does not offer up freely to him. Lotto, and I mean this in the best possible way, reads like a person who feels endlessly incomplete. And he tries to fill his incompleteness with an idea of his wife.

Likewise, Furies concerns itself fully with Mathilde and what she has withheld from Lotto and why she did it. Like Lotto, Mathilde is crafted to perfection, holding within her all elements of humanity, from the pure weakness found in total pettiness to the strength found in confident solitude. Mathilde is constantly struggling to live out of the shadow of Lotto, feeling compressed by the idea of being a wife, someone destined by history to be a background figure. What Groff places in her so extraordinarily is Mathilde’s ability to know what Lotto can and cannot handle. There is a strength of difference in her that seems to be only found in truly powerful women that I rarely read in novels. She oozes multitudes, functioning as an iconoclast to all female archetypes. She refuses to meet Lotto’s idea of her, and in this way she triumphs over the the entirety of the novel, even when, at times, one must ask whether or not she is simply beyond the pale in her actions.

Lotto and Mathilde hold, on top of the weight of their relationship, the rush of great plays, both tragedies and comedies. They and their friend’s names bring to mind Arthurian Knights and Shakespearean Drama, and this classicism combined with fresh modernity makes the novel an endless delight with almost no dull moments. We find Lotto in his plays (excerpts of which are littered throughout the pages of Fates and Furies) and we find Mathilde in her past. Yet somehow they meet in the middle and work, the reader constantly aware that they seem to know nothing about the other one. Each one functioning as the Sphinx’s riddle to the other; only after they solve it do they understand they didn’t really desire to.

Fates and Furies outstrips all expectations that can be put upon it. It captures the human condition and spirit so well that if one is paying attention, moving beyond the temptation to dismiss it as pretentious or condescending in its mode of being, they might find themselves changed in an eye-opening manner. It is a novel to shake the ground you walk upon.

Recommended to: This is a novel written in an almost obnoxious American literary voice. Its confidence in itself will attract some in the way that reading classics does, yet it will delight with breaks from its classic prose into opera and plays.

Avoid as if it is remembering that 2016 really happened: If you hate classics then you will not enjoy Fates and Furies, as it feels more like a classic than it does a contemporary novel.

 

 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Disappointment and Life Itself

oscarwao

I swear that I have had The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in my hands, in line to check out, at the counter, with my debit card out ready to pay for it, at least five or six times in the past year. It is, across the board, the novel I always think, “I should read that” more than any other novel, and also the novel I just end up saying “no” to the most. It has not been an active “no.” I have not gone out of my way to avoid reading Diaz’s supposed masterpiece, I have just consistently found ways to bother reading something else entirely. However, recently having walked into Half-Price Books with the idea of spending at least thirty bucks in hopes of getting my hands on several award winning novels that my fellow humans have mistakenly bought in hopes of a simple beach read and wound up turning in for cash or credit, I found, among speculation on Naked Lunch and other mind-trips, Junot Diaz’s novel and decided enough was enough; I needed to buy the book.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has something going for it that few books have at this particular moment in history: uniqueness. And this uniqueness which inhabits it makes the relativity typical family history that inhabits the pages of Wao something wonderful to behold. Much of this uniqueness is thanks to the narrator of the novel, Yunior, whose voice is both insightful and delightfully crude and normal. The prose of Wao makes no attempt to portray what is expected from the typical, Literary American tradition. Instead, Yunior’s voice is the voice of a person you run into on the street, telling a story in aphorisms and expressions you may or may not have heard before, but likely never in this context. And it is the way in which the story is told that makes a book about a character that would likely fail to be memorable in most instances, cherishable and compelling.

To boil it down, Wao is a novel about Oscar Wao, Dominican-American man who atypically – according to Yunior – has absolutely no game. As the joke is commonly expressed, Oscar might just be the first Dominican man to ever die a virgin. Yet this is not due to Oscar’s lack of trying. The problem with Oscar, once again, depending upon who you ask, is that he is a member of the Cabral family, every member of which has been cursed with a Fuku by the now deceased dictator of the Dominican Republic, El Trujillo. And this Fuku is a larger focal point of Wao than Oscar Wao himself. Of the 335 pages in my edition, less than 150 are spent with Oscar. The majority of the novel is actually a history of Oscar’s mother and her father, Abelard – who brought the curse upon the family when he refused to let Trujillo sleep with his oldest daughter. These portions of the book are filled with footnotes (interesting footnotes that, for once, do not just feel like a rip off of David Foster Wallace and truly enhance the novel).

The reader’s experience of Oscar actually comes not through Oscar – who we never have the thoughts of, and who has very few lines of dialogue, all of which are hysterical in their oddness – but through the enormous impact Oscar must have had on Yunior, who, despite retaining the manner of the jock he made himself out to be when he first encountered Oscar, makes the sort of references you would expect Oscar to make. The novel is filled to the brim with analogies to The Lord of the Rings (Trujillo is often described as though he is Sauron), Dune, and Dungeons and Dragons (when people run into Trujillo’s secret police and get beaten to near death, it is usually mentioned the amount of hit points they lost in the ordeal). And in a way, the enormous amount of references to Oscar, the way that Oscar holds people together from a distance, represents the point of the novel. There is absolutely nothing about Oscar Wao’s life that is deserving of the title of the novel, but it is his absurdity, his paradoxical normal uniqueness, that binds so many people together who came into contact with him. It’s difficult to know whether or not Oscar breaks the Fuku on the Cabral family, but it is his choice to not accept the Fuku’s control of his life, to refuse the tough breaks and follow his heart, that makes him the most wondrous of all the characters involved.

Diaz’s novel is a delight, a wonderful experience of human bond found in the most unlikely of places. It is a testament to the fact that even at your lowest you matter more to those around you than you could possibly comprehend. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a novel that many people, even if they don’t realize it, need.

Recommended to: This book is a nerd’s delight. It carries within it all aspects, from the special joy to the contempt and loneliness.

Avoid as if it’s an angry kangaroo: There is a lot of crudeness in the novel, and while I don’t care, I’ve met enough people in my life that would be distracted by it that I feel the need to warn them.