Monday, 24 August 2009

'What straight middle-aged brother has not attempted to regenerate himself through the alchemy of young pussy?'

Wao! So, recently we’ve been talking about why we read less fiction than when we were younger. Gone are the days I did nothing but read Thomas Hardy hour upon hour - even day after day - without end. Our collective reasons for reading less were things like ‘not enough time’, ‘who needs books? This is a golden era of television, you fool’, ‘books are too heavy’ (?) and unsurprisingly, ‘the internet’. We put the above inferred causes to scientific testing and the results were clear - turns out the internet is the chief culprit. We’re jumped-up monkeys with ADHD is all. Can’t focus on a book no longer. We’re neurologically doomed. But - take heart - it’s not our fault.

Last week, an article was published in Slate which said the reason we’re so internet-addled is because receiving an email, or finding a cool new website, etc, feels like getting some sort of abstract reward - we're hardwired to think that deposits in our inboxes are things we want - so our dopamine circuit goes nuts when it happens. This reward-seeking behaviour is why we spend so much time online. In contrast, novels don’t offer the same sweet punch of satisfaction. In this theory’s favour, I can verify that when I received this email in my yahoo inbox yesterday, from HOVEROUND:GET YOUR FREEDOM BACK WITH A POWER WHEELCHAIR, Eli! my dopamine circuits went absolutely mental.

Having said that, I don’t think the promise of power wheelchairs etc are the only reason for us slacking off on novel-reading. A lot of people I know think novels are just serious and boring and didactic. Yeah, a lot of novels are. But not all. Not every novelist is Charles Dickens or Samuel Richardson. As I'll now try to prove...(Though if there are any hardcore non-fictioneers out there, state your case!)

Anyway, due to the above two factors, it's been an uphill slog to find a novel awesome enough a significant number of DABC’ers will put down the internet for and read. You had young adult fiction, eloquent perverts and obese godheads thrown you way, and you were like, piss off, you schmuck, I’m too busy getting dopamine fixes updating my Facebook status. Yeah, me too. But then Junot Diaz came along to save the day… his ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ was, I don’t think it’s too hubristic to say, the DABC’s breakout novel. Here’s why: I spoke to four whole people who’d read it! And I proslyetised it to thirteen more who said they would! If Trujillo can capture one nation under a narrative, imagine what the DABC could do. But enough about fascist fantasies. What was the difference? Why did 'Wao' work?

Many reasons. First, unlike the massive miserabilist mountain of boo hoo me novels sitting beside it in every bookshop, it was fun. It really was. It was as funny, i dunno, Arrested Development (don't chew me out on this one, it's late and anything - of a certain calibre - will do). Yet it wa horrifically tragic too, so it won on both counts. Most people can sell you only one or the other, tragedy or comedy. Demonstrating the two are indivisible was a fine, and brave (because it‘s so difficult to pull off) thing to do. I wasn’t expecting to be played like that - in fact, I didn‘t know what to expect from the whole novel.

All I knew when I started 'Wao' was that it was a Pulitzer-winning, 11-years-in-the-making story about a fat Dominican science fiction geek. Ahh, my naievety. Once you get into it, horizons expand infinitely. No spoilers here, just props. First, there’s the dictatorship. The anchoring in a part of 20th century history I - I don’t know about you (pl.) - knew nothing about. Nothing about the Trujillo Era - about, as Diaz puts it, ’the asphyxiation of a whole generation of young Dominicans’…or that Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina was ‘the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated’. So that was an excellent wake-up call...being eye-deep in a dictatorship I'd not even known about before was absolutely fascinating.

And then there’s the immigrant stories, the opening out from Oscar’s nerdery, the ’moronic inferno’ that is his school, etc, to the backstory of his family, and before you know it you’re in the Cabral vortex, and it’s not only Oscar and Lolita whose lives we give a shit about, it’s Belicia and then Abelard, and La Inca too. Didn’t see any of that coming, nor the way the chronology would weave from past to present and keep us guessing. So impressive. It takes chops to encompass so much so smoothly.

Excuse the lack of coherence here - it's late and there's so much to discuss in 'Wao' that things are
gonna get tangential at some point. Which is why it's already time for some homegrown reader
reception theory. Specifically, the theory of self-identification - which is totally obvious, I guess - that the reason we read/watch/anticipate & enjoy certain things is because they tell us about who we think we are or who we’d like to be. This worked with 'Wao' least, I thought so. I saw so many people I know kaleidoscoping around in Oscar, Lola and Yunior's personalities that I enjoyed reading about their lives best of all. There’s a little bit of most of us in each of them…and there’s pleasure in reading about the lives of *very* distant alter-egos. It's not only about the nascent narcissism of self-identification though. Diaz also says something in a ’Narrative’ magazine interview about compassion, which is the other side of self-identification - to feel interested in these characters, you can come at it on the level that you, too, have lived in a dorm room with someone totally different to you, and at some point you've felt like an outsider, or you can try to understand how and why each of these people feels vulnerable, tough, confused, scared, and then shit goes down for them and you feel engaged, completely absorbed, when it happens…that’s having compassion. Then there’s the semi-alien world of Beli which requires even more compassion. And…fuck…Abelard. Diaz asks a lot of a good reader. More than can be broken down by this lame identification-compassion spectrum which is actually bullshit and I renounce right now. To sum up: it’s not boring.

Okay - anyone reading this far gets a reward, cos this is the internets! Let's talk about pum pum! Cos one of life’s most intriguing contrasts gets a going over - the world that revolves, as Diaz says so sweetly above, around the alchemy of pussy (such a phrase!). At Rutgers, you’ve got the pum pum mad player Yunior (thanks Jake, btw), and soppy fantasist Oscar rooming together in a dysfunctional but bittersweet bromance. You get the contrast between El hyper-masculismo and the boy who has to be begged to stop writing his space opera trilogy so he can do something about his weight and maybe, just maybe, get laid. And this is so sad and funny. Add to this Yunior’s spastic inability to get it together with the awesome, ferocious and beautiful Lola, and he digs himself into unforeseen depths of sad. It gets tragic. Cos Yunior is cool. I kind of admired him. He gets the girls, and he…um…you know, gets the girls. Well done him. And then I read something Diaz said in ’Narrative’ magazine about Yunior:

“Yunior looks at Oscar and sees a person who can expose himself, be himself, be vulnerable, often too vulnerable. Yunior doesn’t have any of that. He always wears a mask and is incapable of taking it off.”

That’s why he can’t get his shit together and man up for Lola. She got to him and he couldn‘t deal. Sad. So you get the hyper masculine unable to man up and be vulnerable, and you get the soppiest boy in the world unable to man up and be cool. (Note to certain men: don’t be Yuniors. Man up. Note to all men: Don‘t be Oscars either. Unless you want).

Um…where was I? Oh yeah. That the novel is jokes. Cos Diaz also said (somewhere…I forget where) how much fun it was to write the Yunior/Oscar banter. The man for whom its always pum pum o’clock and his pathetically uncopacetic roommate. I hoovered this up. It’s like Peep Show, but with a New Jersey accent, a Dominican swagger, and a way more nerdy David Mitchell, if that‘s possible. Here’s Yunior:

(p.173) “Did I try to help him with his girl situation? Share some of my playerly wisdom? Of course I did.

Problem was, when it came to the mujeres my roommate was like no-one on the planet. On the one hand, he had the worst case of no-toto-it is I’d ever seen. The last person to even come close was this poor Salvadoran kid I knew in high school who was burned all over his face, couldn’t get no girls ever because he looked like the Phantom of the Opera. Well: Oscar had it worse than him. At least Jeffrey could claim an honest medical condition. What could Oscar claim? That it was Sauron’s fault? Dude weighed 307 pounds, for fuck’s sake! Talked like a Star Trek computer! The real irony was that you never met a kid who wanted a girl so fucking bad. I mean, shit, I thought I was into females, but no-one, and I mean no-one, was into them the way Oscar was. To him, they were the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the DC and the Marvel…Developed crushes out of nothing…Not that any of these shits ever came to anything. How could they? Oscar’s idea of G was to talk about role-playing games! How fucking crazy is that? (My favourite was the day on the E bus when he informed some hot morena, If you were in my game I would give you an eighteen Charisma!)”

Like John B. mentioned, you could see that Yunior’s voice might get wearing. But I really liked it. I like boys to be all And if you tire of Yunior, you get the other stories - which there’s no time to go into detail here, but someone else, if you want to talk about them, please do - the stories which make the novel truly epic - Belicia’s and Abelard‘s. Man, I think I read 'Wao' too quickly the first time because when I finished, I was like, ‘amazing, but too much happens’. Then I read it again. Slowly. Not only then can you savour the language (Diaz is a worship-worthy wordsmith), you’ll also realise, as the Holman pointed out, how he creates lives by giving you the details you don’t expect - not the burn or the rapes, but, say, the story of Jack Pujols. The gangster. The boardwalk boy. The relationships that mattered and that taught the characters how to love and hate and forgive. And that they were fuku’d. This is really strong stuff. And it all culminates in Oscar finally, maybe, possibly, getting some (no giveaways here - read the novel)…but then history and myth come crashing down and fuku shit up. So you get what happened on the edges of lives, the fringe stories, and then you get like this meteor plummeting down into the middle of it all. Repeatedly.

Chin wanted to discuss the use of sci-fi and comics in the novel. Maybe this would start with Diaz’s explicit parallel of the Antilles with the kind of burnt-out apocalyptic chaos you’d find in sci-fi dystopias. I can see it’s a great reflection…the ruined cities, the paranoid citizenry, the maniac overlord. My only tiny problem with how this mirror of sci-fi chaos was spun out, notwithstanding some really funny invocations of the Fantastic Four at crucially tragic moments, was that some of it seemed to be obvious. As in, many SF tropes are so disappointingly binary in the first place that lassoing them into metaphor for the story (eg. ‘The Darkness’, ‘the phantom zone’, 'the immortals', 'the apotheosis’) doesn’t do much in the way of illumination. I felt they were flat, rather than expansive, metaphors. (although I have aped such usage here cos i'm lazy, i mean, meta). In 'Wao', though, it’s still beautifully done. It’s original and makes brilliant sense - why not parallel the Trujillo regime with leg-shaking, awe-inspiring, cosmic fear-inducing sci-fi/comic tropes? People thought Trujillo was superhuman (a ‘cosmic force’) anyway. And the curse, the fuku, is always a great story thing. Who doesn't get off on a good curse? Actually, pre-empting this criticism, Diaz said in an interview in good old Slate:

(page 2)"No one can write a straightforward political novel about the Trujillato and capture its phantasmagorical power. That's another reason I had to go hard-core nerd. Because without curses and alien mongooses and Sauron and Darkseid, the Trujillato cannot be accessed, eludes our "modern" minds. We need these fictional lenses, otherwise It we cannot see."

Dunno if you'd agree with that. Up for debate.’s been rumoured Diaz gets about 100 emails a month, all written (poor fucker) in Yunior-style, saying ‘please share the secrets of writerly success, yo’…to which Diaz replies: ‘Accept that it‘s a tough road to choose. Good luck’. (I paraphrase. Okay, I invent. Never mind). What he's doing is light years beyond making a tough choice, though. It's not perfect, but for a first novel it's peerless right now (or not?). Whether it will become part of an early 21st century canon and go the distance is something I’d love to discuss. Will it slip through our fingers? I think Diaz is a phenomenal writer. It was only when I stopped zooming through the story and started paying attention to its construction, to the elegance of the way its layers fell on one another, and to its words and how funny and perfectly chosen they were before I realised quite how amazing it was. As a still-alienated lit-otaku, I have a feeling what I just said - about the words -will pass some people by, but that doesn’t matter. That's just me being obsessed by one particular form of communication. It's nothing. As long as people read 'Wao' and enjoy it then we don’t need to give a monkeys about the intricacies of each others‘ opinions.

Except that’s the point. So please, please read and get involved! Get intricate!


  1. What was it that Yunior referred to his narrative as? A counterspell.

    I think that's really what's it's all about when you get down to it. Magic words. This is why I found the repeated allusions to Darkseid, Galactus, Sauron and all the other Big Bad's so endearing. Not only did it appeal to a mindset that's been cultivated by two decades exposure to standing with my nose buried in the "Science Fiction/Fantasy" ghetto of your local bookshop, but it was how Yunior, or rather Diaz, marries together this world of postmodern mythology and married it with the post-colonial hoodoo of the DR.

    Obviously it's easy to make those parallel connections between T to the R to the U to the Jillo and the, unblinking all seeing Eye of Sauron. And i guess the point that Diaz is making is that each in their own way cast their own spells, create their own myths and thus retain their power in the world. Sauron had the one Ring, and for Trujillo, it was the murky deeds of Balaguer [Belphegor/Baalphegor for those D & D fans.] coupled together with the incessant murmurs of a fuku so epic it may or may not have caused the US to lose Vietnam.

    Diaz plays it beautifully, using this hardwired superstitious nature to illustrate the ways in which Abelard, Belicia, Lola, Oscar and Yunior reconcile the ways of the new world with the old. It's a classic immigrant dilemma.

    But, to me, what's more interesting, is the way in which Diaz suggests that the only way to break the spell is to create your own counterspell, or counter-narrative. A secret history if you will. Yunior's narrative is his own attempt to ward away the demons. And who knows? Perhaps Oscar's unread tome, lost in the mail no less, would have been the bright, blinding Zafa that could have saved them all. Maybe it'll turn up one day. Who knows?

    Interesting side note, Alan Moore (who gets name checked a fair deal as well) equated the act of writing to Magic, noting the similarities between the words "grimoire" and "grammar", and the casting a spell and spelling itself. This was to explain why his sudden decision to become a magician was perhaps not so much of a depature after all.

    Also, for further expositions on the relationship between myths, storytelling and power, you could do worse than check out Adam Curtis's "It Felt Like a Kiss" which deals similar ideas.

    Finally, i also think that this book should come with warnings, regarding the absloutely gigantic Watchmen spoiler which is just dropped on the reader's head completely out of the blue! Is that cool? Really?

  2. That Alan Moore discussion can be found here:

    Apologies for the rather rambling post. I'm writing this at work and one of the glass windows had exploded all over the foyer.

  3. "I suppose the thing with magic is that a lot of it is about writing anyway. To cast a spell, that's a fancy way of saying spelling. Grimoire, the big book of magical secrets, that's a French way of saying grammar. It's all about language and writing. It's all about incantation, all these things. Magic, really, it turns out to just be a continuation of the stuff that I've been doing anyway. Using certain arrangements of words or images to affect people's consciousness." Alan Moore

    Sorry, the quote was so good, I had to reproduce it in its entirety. I'm done bogarting the comments now. Back to you.

  4. damn i left the novel in sydney so as i write this from my apartment in rome (yay!) comments will be limited by what i remember and by what i've forgotten...

    have to say, though the main character is oscar in all his nerdy glory, what i noticed most was the women. generations of strong women who can't get it together with the men in their lives but who somehow find a way to say 'fuck it' and carry on anyway. old-school superstitions that men have to explain through the world of sci-fi/fantasy but that the women - and especially the grandma - stare straight in the face. here i'm thinking of the scene where ol nanna sits and prays for days, using up all her strength to save her kin; prays to make up for that earlier time, when she arrived too late; prays in hope she won't ever have to do it again... i enjoyed the sci-fi references, they were fun and made that connection between dominica and the u.s. live for oscar, but they felt extraneous to all the other characters, like they were just his way of putting a filter between him and things he couldn't understand.

    without the novel here i can't put in any quotes. but like oscar falling for all the girls (but not getting them) and yunior not opening up enough to fall for them (but getting lots of em) for me it was the women who stood out, who made the novel breathe. ha, otherwise i would've been holding my breath the whole time waiting to see if oscar could maybe, one day, get it together......

  5. Liv! I haven't had a chance to reply but think this is an awesome point about how generation after generation of strong women get kicked in the nuts (so to speak) and rise up even Diaz for that. Will write more when i'm not being hounded at work - I'm gonna see if i can find anything Diaz has specifically written about why he writes such ballsy women!
    E x

  6. Chin! Dude! i'm sorry i havent replied yet. We must talk fancy french ways of saying 'grammar', it's just I'm still rewatching 'why must i cry' again and again. also, work is bashing my brain and i'm more consumer than producer (of anything worth anything) at the mo. one day, one day...

  7. I haven't read the book myself but stumbled upon this whilst pacing up and down various cyber avenues:
    2008 video of Junot Diaz's speech to the closing night audience of the Sydney Writers' Festival.
    Tought that might be of interest to you.

  8. Lettie! Yes! Thankyou dude! I'm gonna watch this on the weekend and let Junot's mellifluous voice calm my nerves. And actually reply to some of this.
    Scuse the lateness, I HAVE AN EVIL JOB.

  9. oh man. i just spent about an hour writing a reply to you guys in this 'post a comment' box, didn't save it and the computer ate it. Fuck.

    Chin, basically i went on about the fact that words aren't magic in and of themselves, context is everything. see, for example, grimoire/grammar same etymological root, turned out to have very different cultural appropriations these days. So zafa and fuku are probably names of breakfast cereals somewhere else on the planet...any power or magic ascribed to anything is due to the associations piled into it. Nothing inherent.

    Also that Alan Moore quote is stupendously good. And also, Diaz's own counterspell (we dont know whether it's in part a counterspell to Trujillo and all associated evil shit as well as in part an homage to his immigrant parents) - but yeah, inside that is Yunior's book, the second shell of the counterspell, and inside that, as you point out, is Oscar's book, the 'bright blinding Zafa that could have saved them all'...wasn't it like a ten-volume space opera epic?

    By the power of space opera, I will zafa your fuku!

    Ahh, Junot. You and your perfectly turned out child. Oscar and Oscar Wao are twins - both are hybrids borne of the same Dominican geek father, only, well, Devito/Schwarzenegger.

    Liv, damn, i was writing this shit i'll never be able to eloquenty rephrase about how I agree with you saying La Inca and Lola confront stuff head-on, don't hide behind abstract fantasies and games and metaphors like the blokes. Also Diaz has done a stellar job with his depiction of women, at least in my view. I'm sure some Irigarayan feminist would say i'm wrong and that Wao is clearly a menacing phallocracy, but nah.

    Lettie, thanks for that clip - he is amazing. just 23 minutes of eloquent and humble thankyou's, never smug or self-gratifying, thanking cleaning ladies, marketing people, librarians, the whole community of anyone involved in literature, most of all readers. He has awesome values. I thought he could also be an excellent stand-up comedian, but anyway.

    It's good to hear a writer like him say his calling, first and foremost, is to be a reader.

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