I know what you're thinking -- whitegirl, don't do it. You'll make an ass of yourself, chavera, and I mean an ass of yourself, you're no Sam Anderson-as-Barthelme[hell, you're no S.A.-as-Richard Price1 for that matter] and besides, didn't you learn the first time? Age 12, "Correr" -- your short story that infused clumsy junior high prose with a stolen West Side Story sidestep and the tangy slang you'd ripped off from Little Professor Bookstore's "urban fiction" section1? Six years later, your high school boyfriend read "Correr" out loud at parties, doing his best Georgia-by-way-of-San-Jùan accent. It always amused a crowd. I promise: I'm not trying to sound like The Watcher. It's just that I can't get that voice outta my head --said I'd re-read it yesterday and only got half it re-read but still ... I apologize for any memory lapses/inaccuracies.
Did you read it once? Twice? What did you get the second time around -- I feel so far like it's a whole different book this time, so much that I missed, and this nasty habit of glazing over during dream sequences ...
Still cringing? Maybe nauseous? Itchy? Omg, what's she gonna speak in -- Spabrew? Hengish? [Spabrew sounds like flavoured water, Henglish sounds like an antacid, I love Jews]. I took eight years of Spanish, si, and Ingrid making fun of my terrible accent all that time ...
Anyhow, nu, who cares. Enough about memememe, this is about Oscar Wao and his celebrated short and wondrous life. I got some thoughts knocking around, I’m gonna give ‘em to you, you tell me what you’re thinking. Good?
Let's begin, bevakasha.
So I’m wondering this: shit was tough –Nazi evil dictator tough, to destroy you is no loss tough – in the DR. “Violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation and terror.” We’re told straight off that “everybody in Santo Domingo has a fukù story knocking around in their family,” then later that there’s a specific fukù following Oscar’s lineage, originating from Abelard's misstep.
Where, then, does responsibility end and fate begin? And does it matter – why things happen? Humans have been attributing the concrete to the spiritual/abstract since day one, we all know this, the Talmud, Aboriginal mythology, Native American spirits through Mohammed and Abraham in the desert and our friend Jesus with all that prophecy that’s been coerced by contemporary evangelicals to explain condemnation rather than life itself.
Is it those matching dreams -- the ones had by Abelard, Oscar, Beli, and then Yunior, etc. -- that make this particular genetic strand stand out? How precisely does all the talk of superpowers or the supernatural or comics and dungeons, dragons, other worlds and twilight zone insanity ... make this book work so g-damn well?
What exactly about this family’s fate could be chocked up to curses, and how much was just the way things were then, shitty for anyone under Trujillo?
“If you ask me I don’t think there are any such things as curses. I think there is only life. That is enough.”Socorro, blinded by grief/postpartum depression, steps in front of a truck -- fukù? Cited as “the very worst kind of luck”? Or physics and Psych 101?
(Lola, pg. 205)
“The curse, some of you will say.
Life, is what I say. Life.”
(Lola, pg. 210)
Beli falls for a shmuck in white pants who inspires a punch to the face the first time they meet and is all kinds of sketch from the get-go. Look, I get it, the hunger "to be in love and to be loved back" when you've felt unrequited for so long. But when that guy who cheated on his girlfriend to be with me eventually cheated on me to be with someone else – that’s not a supernatural curse, that’s an asshole.
Oscar – Oscar, who meant well, who we love and believe in – doggedly pursues a woman who tells him every way up and down that she’s bad news, her boyfriend tells Oscar he’ll kill him and he pursues her anyway.
And Abelard – he could’ve made better choices, yes? It’s better to die a revolutionary than to live as a servant to tyranny, but this man didn’t go out blazing – didn’t speak out, didn’t defy on principle (and neither did his father) – never did his family any favours, really, there were better routes than a last-minute panic attack?
Grasshopper, there's nothing I hate more than a game of "who's got it worst," 'cause pain’s relative, and I’m a Jew after all. There are families all over with serious fukù shit going on (hell, take my Mom for example3. Was Oscar a victim of fukù, or was he dealt a hand no worse than your average bad hand?
Alright – it was mostly dudes. But sometimes those dudes did get laid. Sometimes, yeah? The greasy kid in the trenchcoat always seemed to be doing a lot more fucking with his greasy ruddy-faced girlfriend than any of the hotshots were with their tight cheerleader lovebunnies. The cool kids gossiped in the cafeteria and the Trekkies were in the band rehearsal room and when they came out they looked like they’d had something way more tasty than the girls still powdering. The popular kids went to prom and the geeks stayed home and fucked each other with super-powers. Like they said in Pump up the Volume: “High school is the bottom, being a teenager sucks, but that's the point, surviving it is the whole point.”
Don’t get me wrong – I fully blame an impressive string of trashwhoredom and bad decisions on the pains of my own awkward adolescence, and I came out alright, way luckier than Oscar.
What I'm saying is adolescence is hard, high school is harder. It's tough to be fatherless and have the weight of unlucky generations upon you. I know Oscar's workout regimen isn't the point, but it seemed his will was cursed ... not his way?
‘Cause isn’t it fucking scary to think Hitler was flesh & blood like the rest of us, that every generation there’s a human being born who’s so utterly rotten to the core and chock full of dictatorship while entirely free of conscience, a sociopath so sociopathic that he doesn’t mess around with Manson psycho shit but takes over an entire goddamn country, gets his underlings ready to execute unspeakable atrocities in his name?
That kind of evil just doesn't seem fathomable. That’s not any kind of ahavah. I'd like to read that book -- the argument for why Hitler's actually a one-eyed monster. Saddam Hussein was a swamp creature, eventually done in by a more clever & cunning kind of animal (4).
So it's not luck or the paths of our lives that must be controlled by some outer force, but the outer force itself that drives us inward, off bridges, into cane fields. It's the villan that defies humanity and survives, the good guy that goes all too easy into death. We save ourselves. Or ... we don't. Zafa, Fukù -- Lola had the same lineage and she turned out pretty much okay, and I'm wondering if its cause that girl didn't believe in fate and wasn't waiting for magic to save her. Or was it just ‘cause she turned out foxy and Oscar didn’t? Beli dragged Beli out of the cornfield after all. Or was it? Is this magical realism for a new age?
LONG TALL LOLA
He, she said.
He? I asked.
Junot Dìaz. Is a he.
REALLY?! -- and I guess I'd assumed it was a she 'cause the narrator was a she, but this brings me to my point which is damn can he write women well. Eh, I know that sounds reductive. But chew on it; Lydia the mistress is the one with the plan to get Abelard and family the hell out of dodge, Lola makes her “toto” work for her and enchants Yunior the Player and won’t let Oscar cop out of his life and Beli charges chest-first into everything, forward ... and Yunior can’t seem to help cheating on his girlfriends, Oscar complains that he’s cursed and refuses to fight fate, Abelard does nothing to prevent his death besides panic (and such a smart man! Such a mensch!) ...
But Oscar. Oh, Oscar. You love him anyway, you want him to make it. He means well and he's smart and we all knew a kid that talked like that. And I guess he does in a way, he gets what he wants, and maybe that’s okay. Maybe his life was short and wondrous, emphasis on wondrous, emphasis on chutzpah ...
BUY A VOWEL
I do agree. Oy, the lesbian ghetto, etc ... and the obsessive genre divisions of bookstores ... anyone with bookstore experience got a story of their own? What's "Latino-American Lit," and what goes front & center with "literature" itself (and all that entails, all that suggests) ...
Why The Watcher, why do you think? Do you think Diaz saw himself in that character, do you think that distance made the narrative work? (I do) And Lola, the only one able to tell her own story ...
Yeah, I ain't got answers, I don't even have questions, I just have ... discuss.
AND ALSOALSOALSO ONE MORE THING
Working at a lit agency that represented a lot of top sci-fi and fantasy writers, we got piles of shitty sci-fi/fantasy novels every day. Something about creating a fantasy world that far-fetched is just awfully delicious, especially when you're young, or alone ...
Did your relation to that genre change how you read the book?
RAY BRADBURY - "ONE NIGHT IN YOUR LIFE"
And just holding her hand would be good. Can you understand that? Do you know that holding someone's hand can be the thing? Such a thing that your hands move while not moving. You can remember a thing like that, rather than any other thing about a night, all your life. Just holding hands can mean more, I believe it. When everything is repeated, and over, it's the first things rather than the last that count.
"So, for a long time," he had continued, "I'd like to just sit there, not saying a word. There aren't any words for a night like that. We wouldn't even look at each other. We'd see the lights of the town far off and know that other people had climbed other hills before us and that there was nothing better in the world. Nothing could be made better; all of the houses and ceremonies and guarantees in the world are nothing compared to a night like this. The cities and the people in the rooms in the houses in those cities at night are one thing; the hills and the open air and the stars and holding hands are something else.
"And then, finally, without speaking, the two of you would turn your heads in the moonlight and look at each other.
"And so you're on the hill all night long. Is there anything really wrong with this, can you honestly say there is anything wrong?"
"No," said a voice, "the only thing wrong on a night like that is that there is a world and you must come back to it."
THESE ARE JUST THE THOUGHTS ON THE TOP OF MY LITTLE BABY MIND.
1Award-Winner Sam Anderson's review of Richard Price's "Lush Life," written in the style of Richard Price, didn't receive the same level of internet-screamer praise as his review of Barthelme's "Flying to America," written in the style of Donald Barthelme. Personally, I love everything Sam Anderson's ever written, but I concede that I love some pieces more than others.
2In the eighties and early nineties, the West Side branch of the Ann Arbor Public Library was located in the Westgate Shopping Center, along with Little Professor's Bookstore and TJ Maxx. While her mother went 'maxxing,' Riese spent a lot of time sitting on the floor in bookstores and libraries reading books her Mom wouldn't let her get/borrow.
3'Cause I know my own story the best, let me share: my grandfather -- my Mom's Dad and Mom divorced when she was young (and this was the 50’s, it wasn’t like it is now, 50-50 those who make it and those who don’t) – and then my Mom’s Dad had to leave the country for complicated reasons. Mom was 14 when her Mom died, so she raised her sister with help from her grandparents (who both died within a few years of my birth). Long story short my Mom reconnected with her Dad when I was a kid, we went to visit him and his new family in Australia – all’s well, happiness abounds. He gets tongue cancer and passes away when I’m 9. When I’m 13, my parents divorce but they’re still best friends a year later when my Dad dies out of the blue (yup, I was 14, just like my Mom was when her Mom ...) And yeah, I’m her daughter, and I’m more or less a failure, though my brother is gainfully employed, a real mensch. Fuku? Schlimazel? Or just a rotten string of depressing events?
4George W. Bush, by some bizarre combination of blue blood and evil crazytown bullshit, became president in 2001 and was re-elected to a second term in 2004, though no one smart actually voted for him. Bush’s decision to wage a “war on terror” in Iraq was so miscalculated and poorly executed that many young people from liberal college towns don’t even realize what an evil asshole crazytown dictator Hussein truly was, I mean, the dude deserved to die for crimes against humanity (though 9/11 was not, even remotely, one of them). Anyway, Bush’s reign will be over soon. He's Mother Theresa compared to Trujillo. YES WE CAN!