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.

 

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An Alberta Tall Tale: The Studhorse Man

Studhorse-Man3Robert Kroetsch stands out as one of Canada’s most unique and talented story-tellers. Canadian literary culture lost something when he died two years ago. Kroetsch is one of those strange beasts that is both a great poet and a great novelist. Normally, you are good at one thing and not so hot at the other, but Kroetsch belies this trend. There is a great website that catalogues his work and makes a number of interviews and media clips available to the public.

Anyways, I picked up a lovely copy of The Studhorse Man when I was in Alberta a year ago and I finally pulled it off of the shelves. This is a raucous, rowdy and raunchy tale of a studhorse man who is trying to keep his rare breed of blue horse alive by impregnating any good mares he can find as makes his way across Alberta in the last days of World War I. Hazard Lepage, said studhorse man, is a larger-than-life character who becomes a hero of sorts in the novel even as he becomes increasingly desperate in his attempts to breed Poseidon, the blue stallion. As with Kroetsch’s other novels, there is an element of the ridiculous in this novel as Lepage ends up travelling to Edmonton in a train-car full of bones, starts a stampede of horses through Edmonton’s streets in a blizzard, loses his clothes in a schoolhouse fire but somehow manages not to freeze to death, and then ends up sleeping with almost every woman he meets. I wouldn’t call Kroetsch’s writing magic realism because that term has a specific cultural history just like Kroetsch’s writing draws on the frontier tradition of tall tales. Because that is what The Studhorse Man reads like at times: a rambling, alcohol fuelled narrative told at a grungy bar under dim lights.

Yet what made The Studhorse Man most interesting for me wa s the narrative structure that Kroetsch employs. Lepage doesn’t narrate the story nor does an impersonal third-person. Instead, we have Demeter Proudfoot, a cousin of Lepage’s fiancee Martha, who tells the story from an empty bathtub in an insane asylum. Demeter’s relation to Lepage slowly becomes apparent over the course of the novel and it provided intrigue to no end for me. It’s almost like a mystery novel where the writer dangles something intangible in front of you without really showing his hand. What it also does is leave readers constantly questioning how much of the story we are told actually happened (Demeter is unreliable to say the least) and how much is fabrication. Yet this kind of shifting narrative fits perfectly with Alberta’s wild west climate in the early part of the 20th century. And, given the ludicrous and slap-dash politics currently animating the province, it continues to fit as a kind of provincial narrative/allegory.

I highly recommend this book for Alberta readers, but be warned that there is plenty of reproduction in this novel.

Kroetsch, Robert. The Studhorse Man. 1969. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2004. Print.

Space Opera at Its Best?: Consider Phlebas

imagesIain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas is a big book: literally and in its content. But that shouldn’t put readers of sci-fi off because it is well worth the effort to finish the book. In Consider Phlebas, Banks sets up a galaxy where two empires are locked into a vast war between the Culture, a hedonistic pan-humanoid empire relying heavily on technology and sentient AI, and the Idirans, a massive three-legged species that thrives on war and believes very firmly in a form of aggressive monotheism. Banks’ vast canvas might seem overwhelming, but he carefully weaves a much-more intimate narrative that pulls readers into this world. Consider Phlebas follows Horza and a crew of space mercenaries as they attempt to recover one of the Culture’s Minds for the Idirans. The narrative travels across several worlds, space ships and structures, providing Banks with ample opportunity to outline an intriguing and well-developed alternative world.

In my review of Frank Herbert’s Dune, I talked about how I felt disconnected from and indifferent to the world that he set up. For some reason, I did not have this problem with Consider Phlebas. In the interest of transparency, I should say that a friend of mine was strongly rooting for Banks after he recommended this book, so my expectations were quite high. With Dune, I think I was expecting less, so I may have been more skeptical/critical (however paradoxical that seems). Beyond their classification as space operas, both books follow similar narrative structures where the action of the book is set up in the context of artifacts from the imagined world. Dune is much more up front with framing the narrative as bits and pieces of histories from the Dune universe while it is only at the end that Banks gives encyclopedia entries about the conflict that Horza has been involved in. I think the difference lies in Banks`ability to draw readers into the Culture universe with a personal narrative. Where Dune tended towards the grandiose in its messianic plotline, Horza is much more mundane even though he is from a rare shape-shifting species. Put differently, Dune gets caught up in its own mythology whereas the mythology of Culture is secondary to Horza`s story in Banks`s novel.

What also might be relevant to my reactions to both space operas is the way that Banks eschews writing sequential books. Dune sets up a running narrative of events whereas Banks’ Culture series  (as far as I can tell from the Wikipedia page) does not. Most of his science fiction novels are set in this universe, but they are all independent pieces. I think I like this structure better even if the sequential approach of Herbert’s Dune offers a broader canvas and more room to work out theme and motif. I might be out on a limb here, but I get the feeling that the non-sequential approach means that Banks always needs to keep the Culture universe-mythology/elements to a knowable minimum. He can’t assume a reader’s previous knowledge of other books, so he must make his novels more accessible. Or at least his editors might make him do this. Anyways, I think I need to stop philosophizing on sci-fi before it becomes an “academic” interest.

I would highly recommend Consider Phlebas to fans of science fiction as it is very well-written and surprisingly accessible.

Banks, Iain M. Consider Phlebas. London: Orbit Books, 1987. Print.