Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Two books

It seems logical in some non-pc way to put these together.

Salman Rushdie Midnight's Children (1981) - It took me a few months to get through this, not because I didn't like it but because it's so richly textured and also so nonlinear that it didn't have much of a narrative drive to keep pulling me back every day. So I'd go through a chapter or two then set it aside (unintentionally) for a week or so then pick it up again until finally going through the entire last half in about three days. It's an odd book with a central conceit of children born at the same time with special powers that could have come straight from a comic book (such as Rising Stars which may have well taken its idea from Rushdie though it's certainly not an uncommon one). Or more likely Tristram Shandy with the novel being more or less the narrator's autobiography, taking a long section to even get to his birth, commenting on the wayward story, the oddball family and even the narrator losing the tip of a body part when a door/window shuts. What's most attractive is Rushdie's dense, very "written" style that draws all sorts of pop culture, historical, legendary references into what are nearly prose poems. Not for Rushdie an unobtrusive, supposedly clear style that just focuses on events. That also does tend to be a problem at times when I was trying to figure out just who somebody is supposed to be. Rushdie makes a huge miscalculation for the final third of the book (which I'm not revealing but you can't miss) that's pretty much a what-was-he-thinking moment. I believe the intention was to show some of the arbitrary changes that can happen in life but in practice it so completely derails the story that I'd very nearly recommend not even reading that last section. On the other hand so much of the final part is devoted to the idea of India and what it means to be Indian that unless you care about that (and frankly I don't, my apologies to the entirety of India and its diaspora) then it's especially rough sledding. Midnight's Children does make me think some of his later novels might well be more controlled and successful than this one.

Junot Diaz The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) - This might also be described as "promising" though admittedly the promise is pretty well hidden. Diaz's story of the sufferings of three generations of Dominicans does have some heft and covers history unfamiliar to most Americans. However he's chosen to tell this in a slangy, faux-speech style full of n-words, SF/fantasy references, Spanish phrases, etc that it's hard to take seriously. It's almost like Diaz watched a few months of MTV, copied bits of dialogue and stuck them into his book. Whether in fact this is how young Dominicans talk is irrelevant (and probably not true) because the result is artificial in the most annoying way. Trying to copy speech in writing anyway is always problematic; even Twain had difficulty pulling it off. The nerd culture references feel second-hand, mostly drawn from Lord of the Rings and the most obvious Marvel comics, though there is one reference to Marvelman that even most comics fans wouldn't get. He also misspells Gorilla Grodd. Diaz has also oddly decided to focus on Oscar's virginity with an intensity that would rival any teen sex comedy, almost like American Pie: The Dominican Years. Too bad he also has the same sensitivity and emotional depth as such a comedy. I'll have to admit one thing I do admire about the book is that Diaz so completely ignores the writing-school platitude to "show don't tell". That advice is useful if you're writing a specific type of fiction and possibly to focus beginning writers but in general just ignores so many types of writing. In this case Diaz uses several narrators to tell the story and in fact it actually is telling just as you might get in an oral tradition. This is part of the point, however clumsily he may have done it. There is enough of interest in the book that I did finish the whole thing but it's really a trivial effort.