Welcome to the Dominican US: This is How You Lose Her

X061_37EA_9.JPGLast year I read Junot Diaz’s Drown and loved it. I picked up his latest collection of short stories a few weeks ago and found myself agape at how good a writer Diaz is yet again. This Is How You Lose Her picks up where Drown left off, addressing the middle years of Yunior, the irrepressible and oh-so-human Dominican boy who becomes a tenured English professor. Normally, the professor/writer bit would turn me off as it can easily become self-indulgent and uninteresting, but Diaz keeps his focus on Yunior’s character and the changing dynamics of his family and love life. Most of the stories in the collection are linked in some way, but I’m not certain that Diaz intends an overall narrative to all the stories. Instead, I believe they are more like windows into one New York Dominican community.  That being said, the central event in most of the stories is Rafa’s losing bout with cancer. Yunior’s older brother is even more of a womanizer than he is, yet there is something incredibly heart-breaking about his slow descent towards death. That Diaz can get me feeling sympathy for a character who has no qualms sleeping with as many girls as possible is no small feat. Similarly, Yunior is a complex character as he seems to inherit his brother’s philandering ways. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” is an amazing story about Yunior’s long road to recovery after his long-term girlfriend finds out he has been cheating on her with many different women.

What is equally impressive about the story is that it is told entirely in the second person. I have rarely encountered this mode of story-telling and have often wondered how effective it could be. Diaz makes it clear that it can be very effective as I found myself continually identifying with Yunior even though our personalities are so vastly different. He also uses this style of narration for “Miss Lora,” although I felt like this story was less effective as the schoolteacher Miss Lora becomes a figure of sorrow more than anything (also the story riffs on The Graduate in a serious way). The rest of the stories employ a first person narrator, a style that Diaz seems to favor.

One story that stood out to me was “Otravida, Otravez” which is narrated by a female character. This stands out from Yunior’s story because the perspective is so radically different. It adds a counterweight to the somewhat overwhelming obsession with women that the other stories feature. The protagonist is in love with a man who has a wife back in the Dominican but wants to buy a house with the narrator in New York. The house becomes a sign of making it in America and there is plenty of tension and desire in the narrative. I can see how some readers might not have liked this story, but for me it shows that Diaz is not a one-trick pony writing stories about sexually-charged young Dominican men.

I would highly recommend this collection to fans of short fiction as Diaz shows an impressive range of narrative skill here. However, he may not appeal to all readers because he adopts a crass and crude tone throughout his stories. The best introduction to his work might be to read one of his stories on The New Yorker‘s website.

Diaz, Junot. This Is How You Lose Her. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012. Print.

 

Slow Like a Snail, But Is It Good?: Canada

4I am not sure what to think of Richard Ford’s 2012 novel Canada. It is a big novel, clocking in at 418 pages, but it moves incredibly slowly. On the first page, Dell Parsons, the narrator, announces the two key plot events in the whole book:

“First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first” (3).

That is the first paragraph of the novel and it sets up what should be a gripping and exciting novel. What follows is certainly not gripping, but much slower and seemingly inevitable. A friend of mine reviewed the novel here and she called it plodding. I have to agree with this assessment because Dell’s eventual narration of these two events takes up basically 400 pages. Seriously, it takes that long! The opening paragraph could have been the start of a great short story, but instead it opens up a slow-moving, deeply philosophical and somewhat unexciting novel. In a way, it seems like Ford is trying to say violence happens in an ordinary, everyday manner, and that things happen to us in our childhood over which we have no control.

Part of my frustration with the novel is the way the jacket description of the novel sets up fall expectations. It promises an exciting novel full of violence and “cataclysm” but Canada simply doesn’t bear this out. It also more or less gives a way any surprises that the novel might offer up. Ford is careful in the first paragraph not to name those involved with the murders, but the jacket blurb reads: “[Dell’s] search for grace and peace only moves him nearer a harrowing and murderous collision with Remlinger, an elemental force of darkness.” Okay, so we all know to look out for Remlinger now … great. But for me the most problematic aspect of this blurb is that it makes this claim: “in this brilliant novel, set largely in Saskatchewan, Richard Ford has created a true masterwork.” I am not going to argue with the second part of that claim, but the first part is completely wrong. When Dell doesn’t arrive in Canada until page 213 of a 418 page book, you cannot claim that the book is set largely in Saskatchewan. Less than half of it is actually set in Canada, so that claim is ridiculous (not taking into account that most of the novel is about Americans and America with Canada a convenient escape from troubles in the US).

What I did find interesting and troubling was the way that Ford used Saskatchewan’s landscape. It becomes a barren, desolate prairie that weighs heavily on all of the characters. It creates existential thoughts, it crushes souls, and it makes you feel lonely. Okay, I get it – big spaces makes humans feel small. The funny thing is that this is a very old trope in Canadian literature, but here it gets airtime like its a new, revolutionary thought. In 1973, literary critic Laurie Ricou wrote a book about precisely this feeling – that the vastness of the prairie weighs heavily on humans – called Vertical Man/ Horizontal World. It is a bit odd to read new American literature and find it recycling old Canadian tropes. I also was not happy with the way that Charlie Quarters, the novel’s Metis character, is represented as a shifty, unreliable, and morally suspect person. Why did he have to be Metis to be this way? I’m sorry, maybe I’m being too politically sensitive here, but this kind of representation simply reinforces stereotypes of indigenous people as unreliable, lazy, and morally suspect.

Overall, I did enjoy moments of the story and at times even liked the slowness of the pace. I think that Ford may have been experimenting with a different form of narration whereby he tells you upfront what will happen and then carefully works to fully craft the emotional complexity of that world. I`m not sure it always works (I know that Dells`parents are going to rob a bank, you don`t have to tell it to me again!), but I also don`t think this is a terrible novel.

I would recommend this novel to fans of Ford`s work and to those who are interested in seeing the big, bad Prairies and how they will ruin you (Saskatchewan is a very desolate place in this novel).

Ford, Richard. Canada. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.

Hockey, The Rez, and Trauma: Indian Horse

IndianHorse_jpg_1375505cl-3Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse is a fantastic novel. He confronts head-on the brutal, racist and repugnant moment in history when Canada decided to forcibly remove indigenous children from their families and educate them in residential schools. This could easily take the novel into the pathos-thick territory from which there is no recovering, but Wagamese does not let his story become stuck in tragedy, violence, and misery. Instead, he and the novel’s protagonist, Saul Indian Horse, use hockey to lift themselves out of the potential pit of horror. This is not to say that Wagamese makes light of the residential school, but instead that he refuses to let it simply overrun his narrative.

I was recently having a conversation with a friend about Joseph Boyden’s latest book, The Orenda, and how he seems to be a prize and accolade magnet. L suggested that this is in part because he writes Canadian historical fiction and that he is willing to engage with the nation-state as a narrative object. I am not sure how I feel about Boyden – I liked Through Black Spruce and found Three Day Road a decent novel – but I am somewhat bothered by how he receives so much attention as a “Native” writer. Boyden has Metis blood in him, but, similar to Thomas King, he has made his way through academic circles and become a popular writer, in part, through that venue. This is not to say that they do not do valuable work (I think King’s Inconvenient Indian might become a landmark work in Canadian literature), or that you need to have some form of blood quantum in order to qualify as an indigenous writer. However, all the attention these two authors garner tends to obscure other equally deserving indigenous writers like Wagamese, Richard Van Camp, Eden Robinson, and many others. The 2013 Giller prize longlist and the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award shortlist both included Boyden’s novel but not Wagamese’s.* Now I don’t want to suggest some kind of literary conspiracy here, but I do think the fact that Indian Horse primarily concerns a northern Ojibway family and takes place mainly in rural Canada does work against it. Literary prizes tend to be nationalistic in tone and choice, and this, I believe, prevents Wagamese from making any of these lists even though he deserves too (there might also be an element of “over-saturation” of rez-school horrors – which is problematic in its own right given the fact that Canada has not truly addressed the horrors it perpetrated and also problematic given the widespread accolades and celebration of Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, a novel about a Roman Catholic priest abusing white children).

Enough of my griping, let’s get back to Indian Horse. As I said earlier, hockey becomes an escape for Saul and some of the best sections of the book come when Wagamese describes him playing hockey. There is a magic in the words and a poetry that comes close to the sheer joy of playing hockey. Now I realize that not everyone loves hockey, but for me certain sports like hockey and soccer have a poetry in movement. As chidlren playing sports, we sometimes tap into this. Think about how excited you used to get to play tag or get to gym class (this might be a boy thing too…) Writing can sometimes capture this, and Wagamese does a good job of this. Of course, he also uses this kind of escape to make Saul’s fall from grace even more painful. Saul leaves the residential school and his adopted Native family in Maintouwadge for the minor hockey leagues and encounters systematic and brutal racism. He realizes very quickly that the white parents think hockey is there game and that Saul has no place playing it. Eventually, he gives up and takes to an itinerant lifestyle and heavy drinking. Saul begins recording his memoir as he dries out in a rehab centre. What strikes me about this narrative setup is that it foregrounds recovery and hope while still doing justice to the very real trauma that Saul and his family experienced. Indian Horse is easily one of my favorite reads this year, and I hope to teach it in the coming years whenever I get the chance because I think more people need to hear this story.

I highly recommend this novel to anyone who reads. Consider it an essential read for 2013.

Wagamese, Richard. Indian Horse. Vancouver: Douglas & MacIntyre, 2012. Print.

*Just after publishing this post, I realized that Indian Horse was included in the CBC’s 2013 edition of Canada Reads, a game-show like series where five people defend a book that they think all of Canada should read. Unfortunately, Indian Horse lost out to Lisa Moore’s February. I haven’t listened to that year’s edition, so I can’t comment as to why it lost or how. The show is a fascinating listen as all kinds of different forms of politics get played out, and, sometimes, the book you wouldn’t expect to win does (as in 2007 when Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals won).

Is This Really For Kids?: Ender’s Game

enders-game-novel-coverFor some strange reason, I was under the impression that Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game was a work of children’s literature. Turns out that it is not, although I can see how it might be marketed as such. Ender’s Game is a fully realized work of science fiction, not that young adult/children’s literature is somehow inferior or more poorly written. What I mean is that Card’s novel has a complex plot, a number of motifs and recurrent themes, along with an ending that threw me for a loop. I suppose I had some inkling of a twist, but I think the ending is really the key part of the entire narrative. Without it, it would be very easy to misconstrue the novel as something other than what it is.

Ender’s Game is set in a distant future where an alien race, called the buggers in the version I read but apparently changed to Formics in the just released film adaptation, has devastated the human race twice. The humans fear a third and fatal final invasion, so they have started training children from a very young age to become an advanced and lethal fighting force. Ender is chosen at six to be taken up into space to join the Battle School, in the hopes that he might eventually develop into the grand commander of the human defence fleet. This causes tension in his family as Ender is already a socially marginalised figure for being a Third, born not because his parents wanted him but because the government felt the genetic inputs were good enough to warrant a socially shunned third child. However, Peter, his older brother with a deep streak for cruelty, resents Ender and it is only through the protection of Valentine, his sister, that he has anything resembling some form of tranquility in childhood. Of course, this is only the start and Card takes up into a fully-developed social world in the Battle School before pushing Ender into the Command School as he continues to thrive.

Trying to write this summary reminds me what a complex novel Ender`s Game is. It would be easy to take it at face value as a bildungsroman novel of sorts – a young boy is forced to come of age against the odds, or as a hero quest where the hero must leave his village to become a man and, in the process, perform heroic feats. But I do not think either label does the novel justice. There is a complex tension in Ender himself as he struggles with the cruel and violent things he must do to survive while still trying to maintain some form of innocence. There is also an interesting dialogue between Colonel Graff, the officer who chooses Ender and pushes him harder and harder, and the other military officers as Ender continues to grow even though he appears to be pushed beyond his limits. I do not want to give away the ending, so I am somewhat limited in my ability to talk about how the final chapter really throws a different light on everything that has come before. Needless to say, I highly recommend this novel. I know there has been a lot of controversy surrounding Card regarding his views on homosexuality, and there is some not-so-subtle strains of homophobia in this novel although they play a very small role in the book. It would be a shame to let the author, who needs his PR people to put a clamp on his public speaking, ruin what is otherwise a very good novel.

I highly recommend Ender`s Game for fans of science fiction. It is very accessible and really enjoyable (although I`m not sure what a female reader might think given that there is only one female character worth anything, and the whole novel is basically set up as a boy`s game).

Card, Orson Scott. Ender`s Game. 1977. New York: Tor, 1991. Print.

Growing Up is Painful: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

perksI wanted to like this book. I really did. I normally enjoy the bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel, but for some reason I just could not get into this book. It felt like it was trying to hard to be hip. It reads like Catcher in the Rye set in the 1990s, but instead of Holden Caulfield’s self-confidence we have Charlie’s lack of self-esteem and low self-confidence. There are moments when the novel manages to take off, especially the descriptions of driving through a tunnel and the moment when Charlie says “we are infinite”, but these do not carry the novel.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower concerns Charlie, a young boy starting high school who lives his life on the margins being a “wallflower”, watching what everyone else is doing rather than participating. He meets Patrick and Sam and quickly becomes close friends with them. He is romantically attracted to Sam, but she is several years older and interested in an older boy named Craig. Through these two characters, Charlie is introduced to a world of misfits and outsiders in the high school world. They watch and re-enact the Rocky Horror Picture Show weekly, they party together and are critical of the popular kids, and watch foreign films. I can see why this book has become a cult classic as my own high school experience was not one of being on the inside circles of the high school world. Yet there consistently felt like something was lacking in the novel.

Part of this may come from the epistolary form that the novel takes. It is written in letters by Charlie to someone he does not know. He needs someone to talk to, so he writes these anonymous letters, changing the names of people so that the recipient will never know who this is from. At first, this narrative technique seems innovative and interesting, but it soon wears thin (or at least it did for me). The recipient of the letters becomes a kind of anonymous figure through whom we, as readers, come to know Charlie and his friends. In the end, it seems more like a narrative trick than something that enriches the novel. The epistolary form is a difficult style of narration, and I’m not sure it is pulled off here.

This novel deals with serious issues including sexuality, violence, homosexuality, and drug abuse. It does not beat around the bush with these issues nor does it glamorize them. In fact, the pot smoking and drinking appear more as crutches to deal with emotional difficulties rather than a kind of alluring habit (except for, perhaps, two instances). I appreciate the frankness of this approach, but I wonder how much it works for a young adult audience.

Charlie has an interesting relationship with his English teacher, Bill, who assigns him extra reading. This part annoyed me as well as Chbobsky name drops all the “cool” books like Camus’s The Stranger, William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. This came across as a moment where Chbobsky is trying to be hip and name an alternative canon of reading that many high school kids discover. The fact that it was first published by MTV Books suggests that this is an intentional marketing scheme. He also name-drops Catcher in the Rye, but I could not help thinking that this novel is a homage to Salinger’s work that only achieves mixed results.

I would not recommend this book for most readers. If you really enjoy coming-of-age narratives from a marginalized perspective, it might be worth reading.

Chbobsky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: MTV Books, 1999.