Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

When Europeans discovered the New World, they triggered "fuku americanus" (or just "fuku"), a demon curse and doom brought down upon North America and particularly potent in the Dominican Republic. Diaz' book is a truly North American tale, weaving together both Spanish and English, in the story of one Dominican family pursued by implacable fuku.
Obese, nerdy, and ultimately winsome, Oscar wants passionate, true love, but he can't even get a girl to kiss him. In a culture priding itself on the romantic prowess of its menfolk, Oscar is a failure. He's a computer-game geek with no sex appeal. But, this is not just Oscar's life story, it is also that of his sister, his mother and his grandfather, and of the Dominican Republic under the bloody shadow of Trujillo. Oscar, a first-generation citizen of the USA, lives in New Jersey, but his fuku, his roots, are deeply in the DR.
Until I went to Puerto Plata as a tourist, I couldn't even find the DR on a map, had no idea that Santo Domingo is the oldest city of the New World, and outside of a couple of baseball players, did not even know that the USA was home to a large Dominican community. In language liberally flavored with urban swagger and Spanish slang, on pages peppered with explanatory footnotes, Diaz gives us the fusion and separation of two Americas.
Reading this book was an experience - it was totally different from anything I had ever read before. I'm going to be a really poor reviewer here because I think Walter Mosley expressed it so eloquently in his statement on the book's back jacket cover - I'm just going to quote him: ". . . a masterpiece about our New World, its myths, curses and bewitching women . . . it is a rousing hymn about the struggle to defy bone-cracking history with ordinary, and extraordinary, love." So well-put and I couldn't agree more.

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

Literary equivalent of watching a movie filmed with a hand-held camera. Choppy scenes - immediate feel of being there as the trauma of the past bleeds into the present. Keith Neudecker stumbles out of the dust and carnage of the World Trade Center and back into his estranged wife's life. Sooty, bloody, clutching a stranger's briefcase, he arrives on Lianne's doorstep. DeLillo shows the impact of 9-11 on North American society through Keith, his family and acquaintances. In the last chapter, after exploring how the trauma has affected the national psyche (Lianne develops a hatred-tinged paranoia focusing on her Muslim neighbor, her mother ends a long-standing relationship because of her lover's political views, Keith has an affair and becomes a professional gambler), DeLillo shows us what happened to Keith when the plane hit his tower. Along the way, he has also intertwined the story of Hamad, one of the hijackers, relating 9-11 from his viewpoint. DeLillo manages to make it all work to create a picture of things changed forever in a moment. It's a strangely detached tale, told through isolated conversations and snippets of events. I felt as though the book was remote and somewhat cold and the characters like paper dolls. A shadow play. Not really my favorite style, but I can appreciate DeLillo's mastery and do see why he had garnered accolades. But, I just couldn't get involved with the characters and was glad when I reached the last chapter.