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.

 

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.

Post Modern Tricks Or Something More?: A Visit From the Goon Squad

goonI am having a hard time classifying Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning book A Visit From the Goon Squad. On the one hand, it reads like a novel with a set cast of characters and carefully intertwined themes. Yet, it is also 13 chapters that read like short stories, change narrative perspectives, and could be read individually without losing too much. In fact, as I noticed in the acknowledgements, many of the chapters were published as short stories in various magazines and journals. The Pulitzer has been awarded to both novels and collections of short fiction, so that provides no hint of how to treat this book either. I’m going to go out on a limb here and review this book as a novel. My reasons are that taken together the stories offer a more interesting narrative arc that centers largely on Bennie Salazar, an aging punk rocker turned record executive, and  Sasha, his personal assistant for many years. There are many other characters but these two seem to be the threads that tie everything together from Bennie’s early punk band days to his later experiments in orchestrating a social media concert with Bosco, a talent he discovered long ago.

The chapters move more or less forward chronologically with the novel ending in a near future. The second last chapter is narrated entirely in powerpoint slides, an amazing feat that I doubted at first as some kind of gimmick. The last chapter concerns a near future where interconnection via personal devices is heightened to an absolute extreme. Bosco, however, has lived outside of this world of social media for so long that the concert Bennie and Alex organize connects the people in an interesting and tangible way. When I finished this chapter, I felt like I had just been to a great concert myself. One of the strengths of the book is how Egan is able to evoke the passions, tensions, and feelings involved with music and youth. I used to listen to punk-rock and I connected with many of these characters.

This book is similar to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in that each chapter takes on its own narrative voice with distinct storytelling features. For instance, one chapter is a report written by Julius Jones on his interaction with Kitty Jackson, a child star, that includes footnotes with his celebrity theorizations and an explanation for why Julius ended up attacking Jackson. This story connects to a previous one where a PR magnate is hired by a military dictator to soften his public image and manages to do this by having him take photos with Kitty. The chapter is both funny and deeply disturbing as Egan points out how social media can imperceptibly twist our perceptions of people. In this sense, Egan is somewhat like Douglas Coupland in exploring how current technology makes and remakes our social structures. This book is just waiting for a wheelbarrow load of grad student papers that take it apart (maybe I’ll put one together myself …).

This is a great novel that is funny and deeply engaging. I highly recommend it.

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.

Childhood in all its pain and glory: We the Animals

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It’s done! The first book of 2013 has now been read and I’ve included a short review below. I’m going to try and keep these under 500 words and I’ll highlight what I thought was interesting, what I didn’t like, what I liked, etc. I also include a recommendation for other readers about the book at the end of the review.

 

I chose Justin Torres’s We the Animals because of the first few lines that my friend J read to me. I quote them here because they are hauntingly beautiful:

“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowl; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men … We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.” (1)

I have four brothers and I won’t hide the fact that these lines called to mind my own childhood. Torres’ 2012 novella is a hauntingly beautiful piece of fiction. It is terse, divided into small chapters usually running no more than a few pages. It is episodic, chronicling the lives of three young mixed-blood youth of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother. Their lives are raw and filled with the smoldering pain of poverty as their parents fight, work dead end jobs, and try to escape the hopelessness of chronic poverty and violence. The novella is set in upstate New York, somewhere north of Syracuse is my best guess, and it reminded me of my own childhood in a small town in Ontario. The three brothers roam their neighbourhood, kings or conquerors, all while trying to make sense of their home life. It is, in many ways, a bildungsroman as the three brothers come to maturity within the confine of a mere 125 pages.

What makes this novella particularly interesting from a technical standpoint is the narrative voice. For much of the book, it is narrated not so much in the first person as in a kind of shared first person. As the section above shows, it is narrated by we, the three brothers, with occasional individual comments. This technique begins to unravel near the end of the book as the brothers come into the final climax of the novel. The tie-in between the narrative structure and plotline is fitting and makes the novel a beautiful work from both an aesthetic and a technical standpoint. I would highly recommend Torres’ work for the narrative voice alone. While I worried that it would fail him at some point, it does not and you quickly become accustomed to seeing the brothers not so much as individual characters but instead as a kind of three-headed beast as they are called at one point.

I would highly recommend Torres’ novella to any looking for a good, short read. It is violent and blunt, but it is also achingly sweet in the way that it captures the intensity and wonder of childhood.

 

Torres, Justin. We the Animals. Boston: Mariner Books, 2012. Print.