Rarely have I felt so intensely ambivalent while reading a memoir. At times, I battled waves of indignation, exacerbated by Padilla Peralta’s penchant for ad hominem score-settling and his tone of belligerent entitlement. A gem from his closing paragraph: “To the haters, a final word: Demography is a bitch. Holla at me if you want me to break it down for you.” Is such trash talk the best this accomplished scholar could produce? Yet despite my irritation, I found myself rooting for Padilla Peralta’s legalization.
Like so many American readers, I was thrilled to hear the news that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize this week. I've been a fan of her short stories for decades, and back in 2006 I was lucky enough to spend about two months immersed in her work while I wrote this essay for The Virginia Quarterly Review: Some Stories Have to Be Told by Me: A Literary History of Alice Munro
Sometime in the late 1970s, Alice Munro made a policy of refusing prizes that didn’t specifically honor the quality of her fiction. When the Canadian government offered her one of its highest honors in 1983—an appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada, which would have entitled her to a pretty, gold-edged medal with the mottoDesiderantes meliorem patriam (“They desire a better country”) emblazoned around a gold maple leaf—Munro politely declined. She didn’t feel comfortable, she said, with awards that celebrated celebrity. Only awards that had been earned by particular books or by particular groups of books were okay. Munro was fifty-two by then, and several such awards had already been placed, like love letters, upon her books...
Read the full essay at the Virginia Quarterly Review
"The Sound of Things Falling" by Juan Gabriel Vásquez Reviewed by Marcela Valdes NPR.org. July 30, 2013.
If I tell you that Juan Gabriel Vasquez's exquisite novel The Sound of Things Falling is about the drug trade in Colombia, a few stock images might arise in your mind: an addict overdosing in a dirty apartment, say, or a dealer ordering the killing of some troublesome peon, or the drugs themselves bubbling in a volumetric flask. Here in America, shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire have taught us how to think about the drug trade, how to imagine it. But Vasquez was born in Colombia in 1973 — the same year that President Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration — and he has a different story for us altogether.
In this novel, nobody overdoses in an apartment. Instead Vasquez gives us delicate renderings of a sonogram ("a sort of luminous universe, a confusing constellation in movement"), of insomnia ("the dew accumulating on the windows like a white shadow when the temperature dropped in the early hours"), of a famous, abandoned car ("the bodywork cracked open, another dead animal whose skin was full of worms"). He gives us the decomposition of a young man's family in the 1990s and the ripening of a young woman's first love in the 1970s. He gives us the birth of the war on drugs and the disillusionment of a generous Peace Corps volunteer. He gives us the sound of planes falling, of bodies falling, of lives falling inexorably apart. He gives us the most engrossing Latin American novel I've read since Roberto Bolaño's 2666.
'My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain’ by Patricio Pron Reviewed by Marcela Valdes New York Times Book Review. July 5, 2013.
In the 1970s, during the years that Argentina’s last military dictatorship was busy raping, torturing and killing thousands of the country’s citizens, a large obelisk in Buenos Aires was adorned with this menacing piece of advice: “Silence is health.” That dictatorship ended in 1983, but no one recovers quickly from a bludgeon, especially not a child. The Argentine novelist Patricio Pron was born in 1975, a year before the Dirty War began. The nameless narrator of his artful novel “My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain” isn’t merely silent; he’s erased.
For eight years he has been living in Germany, popping paroxetine, benzodiazepines and sleeping pills until his mind is shot through with gaps like a censored letter. Lest we forget we’re dealing with damaged goods, Pron makes the novel’s very structure as perforated as our man’s memory. Holes appear in its numbered fragments — a missing No. 8, say, or an elided 17 — whenever the narrator hits a snag. When he gets sick, the sequence turns feverish: 22, 11, 9, 26, 3.
Only when his father sinks into a coma, in August 2008, does this bruised soul finally return to Argentina. There he finds a photograph that disturbs his willful amnesia: Dad in sideburns next to a woman who is not the narrator’s mother. Below the photo lies a folder thick with clippings about a recent missing-person case: 60-year-old Alberto José Burdisso has disappeared from the town of El Trébol; decades earlier his sister, Alicia, vanished during the military dictatorship.
“You don’t ever want to know certain things,” the son thinks, staring at the photo of his father and the woman, “because what you know belongs to you, and there are certain things you never want to own.” Reason enough to eat another Xanax.
But having discovered Dad’s interest in Alberto and Alicia, the protagonist must find out: Who are these siblings? Why did they disappear? How is his father connected to them? And what, exactly, was Dad doing during those crucial years when Argentina’s democracy imploded? Suspense swells through the early sections, as Pron nests mystery within mystery, carefully tending the big enigma: What trauma drove the narrator to Germany, and into the fuzzy comfort of pills?
'The Hare' by Cesar Aira Reviewed by Marcela Valdes NPR.org. June 26, 2013.
To love the novels of Cesar Aira you must have a taste for the absurd, a tolerance for the obscurely philosophical and a willingness to laugh out loud against your better judgment. His latest novel to be translated into English, The Hare, is set in the Argentine pampas at the end of the 19th century. But don't let any veneer of realism fool you. Despite its gauchos, Indians and lyrical descriptions of Argentina's sprawling plains, The Hare doesn't approach the accuracy of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Aira's last pampas novel to be published here. It's more like an episode of Star Trek, crossed with Lawrence of Arabia.
As in so many of Aira's novels, the hero is an earnest man with a faintly ridiculous mission. Tom Clarke, a British geographer and naturalist, roams the pampas in search of a mythical rabbit that not only jumps but flies. With him ride two Argentine sidekicks: a chatty 15-year-old boy and a taciturn gaucho with his own secret mission. Together the three horsemen visit a series of Indian tribes, becoming more and more entangled in local politics until Clarke is declared commander-in-chief of an Indian confederation and the region erupts in war. Near the book's climax, the Englishman strips off his clothes, dons Indian greasepaint, and watches a flock of giant ducks usher an enormous egg into the ocean.
Even that bizarre synopsis is too solemn for Aira's novel. From The Hare's first chapter, when a drunken dictator pirouettes on the back of a galloping horse, the plot is only loosely attached to logic. Clarke's journey through the pampas resembles a vast space voyage: long rides through desolate landscape punctuated by conversations with extraordinary grotesques. One of the tribes he meets lives underground, indulging in promiscuous sex and bartering coal for liquor. Another speaks in "monstrous sentences" designed to be incomprehensible. For better or worse, such tribes are more ontological experiments than historical re-creations. And Clarke himself is hardly more rational. His war-winning battle strategy? It's "the Great Sine Curve of the Mapuche armies, a line that would have exploded the maps if anyone had tried to trace it."
'And the Mountains Echoed' by Khaled Hosseini’sReviewed by Marcela Valdes The Washington Post. May 20, 2013.
Nuance is rare on the bestseller list. In most cases, ambiguity is stripped away to appeal to the greatest number and lowest common denominator. So it always renews my faith when a popular novelist shows a decided preference for moral complexity. It suggests that readers crave more than simplistic escape. Or perhaps it just means that some writers, like Khaled Hosseini, know how to whisk rough moral fiber into something exquisite.
Hosseini’s first two novels, “The Kite Runner” (2003) and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” (2007), spent a combined total of 171 weeks on the bestseller list. He knows how to please a crowd. In his case, the secret ingredient might be intense emotion. I’m not an easy touch when it comes to novels, but Hosseini’s new book, “And the Mountains Echoed,” had tears dropping from my eyes by Page 45.
The killer scene is set in Kabul in 1952, in a home so heavy with fruit trees and privilege that when 10-year-old Abdullah crosses its threshold, he feels as if he has entered a palace. Abdullah is the son of a broke day laborer; his mother died giving birth to his sister, Pari. The previous winter, the cold seeped into his family’s shack and froze his 2-week-old stepbrother to death. Now his father has walked Abdullah and Pari across miles of desert, from their tiny village to the great city of Kabul, in hopes that one brutal act — a bargain with two rich devils — will save their family from the next ruthless winter. Later, Abdullah will think back on that terrible afternoon and remember a line from one of his father’s bedtime stories: “A finger had to be cut, to save the hand.”
'Destiny and Desire' by Carlos FuentesReviewed by Marcela Valdes The Washington Post. February 1, 2011.
Carlos Fuentes is known for writing serious books about Mexico, and despite all its silliness, his latest novel, "Destiny and Desire," is clearly not intended as an exception. The book fairly smokes with acid commentary on Mexican history ("It has all been betrayal, lies, cruelty, and vengeance") and political manipulation ("Throughout Latin America homage is paid to the law only to violate it more thoroughly").
Giving himself fuel to burn, Fuentes sets "Destiny" in a law school, a prison, a presidential palace and the headquarters of a telecommunications billionaire who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mexico's richest citizen, Carlos Slim. For those who like a flash of magic, there's also a heaven where angels play poker and a windy graveyard dominated by the ghost of Mexico's old ideals.
The novel opens, however, in a much sweeter location: the postcard-perfect beaches of Mexico's Pacific Coast. There lies our narrator: the decapitated head of 27-year-old Josue Nadal. A bloody noggin may be a surprising choice for raconteur, but Josue's story feels familiar. It starts with his idealistic strivings and ends with his disastrous introduction to the backrooms of Mexican power.
The day that marks his fate occurs when Josue is 16. Bullied by classmates for his long, thin nose - "Anteater snout," they call him, along with "Monster schnoz" and "Elephant honker" - he finally defends his honor by punching the schoolyard leader. He's saved from a retaliatory beating when one of his tormentors suddenly turns coat and jumps to his aid.
Josue's new ally is Jerico, a 17-year-old as mysterious as James Bond: He claims to have no family and no last name. Such freakish isolation might give a normal young man pause, but Josue's domestic situation is equally strange. He has no memories of a mother or father; he's been raised by a chilly guardian who barely speaks, and, like Jerico, his expenses are all covered by an invisible and anonymous "senor."
Having triumphed over the epithet-shouters, Josue and Jerico seal their alliance by committing themselves to a "project for life." Their goal is intellectual independence: "We would not permit anyone to inculcate in us opinions that weren't ours" - no small feat for two lonely musketeers enrolled in a stern Catholic school. Their first step is to debate the merits of Saint Augustine and Friedrich Nietzsche in the gym showers. Nietzsche, however, proves a kind of gateway drug. Soon enough, the boys have moved from sharing books to sharing mentors to sharing an apartment to sharing a favorite whore.
What they don't share is Jerico's will to power. The older he gets, the more Jerico craves public position, while Josue aches mostly for love. They might have run happily along parallel courses - one chasing votes, the other chasing skirts - if it weren't for two interfering factors. Powerful men have stakes in their careers. And Jerico likes criminals. "Above all things," he tells Josue, "I admire the man who murders what he loves."
In theory, all of this - cynical social commentary, anonymous benefactors, dangerous friendship - could be marvelous. But the unavoidable fact is that not a single character in "Destiny and Desire" won my affection, or even my curiosity. Fuentes suggests alternately that Josue and Jerico are like the Greek demigods Castor and Pollux or like the biblical brothers Cain and Abel. Sure. The problem is that they feel too much like ideas, not enough like men.
And their female paramours are worse: a mute whore whose husband becomes paralyzed after an energetic sex act; a femme fatale who is all ice and calculation; a drug-addicted nymphomaniac who nicknames one of the boys "Savior." Had these women strutted through an old Chandler novel, I may well have enjoyed them, or at least enjoyed laughing over them. But Fuentes lacks Chandler's lightning style. On being asked by a taxi driver, "Where to chief?" Josue falls into high-toned reverie:
"Where to? It was enough to look outside the car at the vast desert of the Anillo Periferico, the outer beltway that foreshadows the funeral that awaits us if we don't choose to turn ourselves into ashes first. Sacrificed after all, we die on the cement perimeter that reflects and celebrates a new city that has shed its old skin . . ." and on and on for more than a page. Wading through this soliloquy, I found myself empathizing with the cab driver, whom I imagined drumming his fingers on the wheel, impatient for the plot to lurch ahead.
But let's give Fuentes the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he adopts such turgid prose intentionally, to convey something about Josue's character. Something like: Aching to be a great intellect, Josue has trouble seeing reality. Or maybe: Abandoned by his parents, Josue finds reality so painful that he defends himself with abstractions.
Either of these could be true. Nevertheless, the author's job is to make the reader want to stay with a novel page after page. Fuentes never really pokes fun at Josue's self-importance, never gets around the young man's humorless perspective, the way Howard Jacobson got around his narrator's delusions in "The Finkler Question."
Instead, we're trapped inside the mind of a tendentious young man who is by turns boring, pretentious, insightful and ridiculous. Reader, I would have decapitated him, too.
'I Hotel' by Karen Tei Yamashita Reviewed by Marcela Valdes The Washington Post. November 11, 2010.
The building at the center of Karen Tei Yamashita's colossal new work of fiction, "I Hotel," is a creaky hotel that once stood on the edge of Chinatown in San Francisco. Built after the great quake that nearly destroyed the city in 1906, it had rusting plumbing, dangerous wiring and rats the size of cats in the basement. But for the aging workers and young radicals who found shelter within its deteriorating walls, the International Hotel was both "a fortress and a beacon."
For Yamashita it is also the girder in a tremendous feat of creative engineering, because "I Hotel" is no ordinary work of fiction. As original as it is political, as hilarious as it is heartbreaking, "I Hotel" is the result of a decade of research and writing that included more than 150 personal interviews. It's also a finalist for this year's National Book Award in fiction, which will be announced on Nov. 17. Whether or not "I Hotel" wins the prize, it will be dog-eared and underlined and assigned to college reading lists for generations.
Oddly enough, the novel began with a request from Wisconsin. Provoked by a questionnaire for Asian American writers that she received from a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Yamashita decided to write a book about the Asian American movement in California during the 1960s and '70s, of which she herself had been a part. Diving into archives and tracking down first-person participants, Yamashita put as much fact-collecting into her "Yellow Power" research as any historian.
When it came to dramatizing her facts, however, Yamashita may well have channeled I.M. Pei. "I Hotel's" table of contents includes a series of drawings that lay out its narrative architecture: 10 linked novellas, each exploring a different narrative technique (pastiche, social realism, cinema verite, etc.) and each focusing on three different main characters. (Yes, Hollywood, that makes for 30 star roles!)
One novella presents the story of a Japanese American criminology professor through a series of FBI-like surveillance reports. Another juxtaposes the marriage of two Third World Liberation Front activists against Ferdinand Marcos's declaration of martial law in the Philippines. My favorite novella features a roast pig contest directed by a Filipino migrant-worker-turned-chef with a taste for tall tales.
All the novellas, in turn, are cantilevered off a larger story about how the International Hotel inspired and protected its inhabitants. The radical intellectuals of the Asian Community Center, the veterans of the International Hotel Tenants Association, the artists of the Kearny Street Workshop and the Maoists of the Chinese Progressive Association: All of them found work space, think space, love space in the crumbling hotel. And all of them fought fiercely against the developers who wanted it demolished.
The term "Asian American" blurs together wildly different linguistic and religious cultures. As one narrator says, "Maybe we all look alike, and maybe the laws lump us all together so we got to stick together, even though we're really different and can't understand each other and our folks back in the old countries hated each other's guts."
"I Hotel" resists this lumping. Its wild narrative architecture springs from a need to delineate separate Chinese, Japanese and Filipino histories, as well as separate aesthetic, political and intellectual positions. It's as if Yamashita wanted to capture the diversity of an entire cultural ecosystem, displaying each distinct species -- idealistic gay Chinese poet, wisecracking Filipino Marxist, Japanese Black Panther strategist -- in all its particular glory, and its particular pain.
"I Hotel" may be a political book, but it's no ideological tract. Yamashita obviously admires the fervor and idealism of the activists in her novel, whether they're demanding more Third World professors at U.C. Berkeley or making charcoal drawings in a Japanese internment camp. But her activists are often as problematic as they are inspiring.
Chen, a dashing professor of Chinese literature, for example, teaches his proteges about Mao's cultural revolution but neglects to mention that "everything that Chen loved about art and literature had to be destroyed or changed" to fit the revolutionary ideal. Other radicals commit greater and lesser crimes: stealing cars, abusing women, stockpiling guns, sabotaging colleagues they consider too capitalist. Even the most generous characters, like Ria Ishii, who organizes a garment workers' collective in 1973, are forced to confront the limitations of their Marxist aspirations. "I know what you think," one of the old garment workers tells Ria, "but I am not the revolution."
"Yes, you are," Ria replies. The older woman shakes her head. And three decades later we know she's right.
Such scenes of intellectual and physical humbling come faster as "I Hotel" marches through the 1970s. Collectives fall apart. Important battles are lost. Protest chants ("The people united will never be defeated!") begin to sound more and more like wishful thinking. The disappointments might have been overwhelming if it weren't for the zing of Yamashita's prose, which is full of waggish jokes and saucy mash-ups. The sliest of them may be a series of line drawings spoofing the long-standing rivalry between the playwright Frank Chin and the novelist Maxine Hong Kingston.
In the end, the way "I Hotel" accounts for the Asian American movement is both sweet and sour. And for all the losses Yamashita records, there are, we know, great achievements as well. High among them is this beautiful book.
by Marcela ValdesThe Nation. March 13, 2008
Never one to proceed by half-measures, Roberto Bolaño dropped out of high school shortly after he decided to become a poet at age 15. The year was 1968, a time as wild in Mexico City, where Bolaño and his parents were living, as it was in the United States--but much more dangerous. There, student protests, rock 'n' roll and sexual liberation were the pursuits not only of poets but also of activists and leftist guerrillas, and the Mexican government greeted them with a dirty war. Four unlucky students died at Kent State in 1970; some 300 were killed in the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968. Yet for Bolaño, who'd just arrived from a small country town in Chile, the atmosphere of the big city was intoxicating. Years later he recalled that the capital had seemed to him "like the Frontier, that vast, nonexistent territory where freedom and metamorphosis are the spectacles of every day."
Bolaño's own transformation began with a five-year period of isolation. Rather than join the party, he shut himself in his bedroom to consume book after book after book. The poet Jaime Quezada, who came to visit the family when Bolaño was 18, recalls that the young writer was living like a hermit. "He didn't come out of his bed-living-dining-room," Quezada has said, "except to go to the toilet or to comment out loud, pulling on his hair, about some passage in the book he was reading."
Young and broke, Bolaño stocked his shelves by shoplifting from bookstores all over Mexico City. His captures included volumes by Pierre Louÿs, Max Beerbohm, Samuel Pepys, Alphonse Daudet, Juan Rulfo, Amado Nervo and Vachel Lindsay. But the book that changed his life was Albert Camus's The Fall, in which a lawyer who hangs out at an Amsterdam bar named Mexico City resigns himself to a life of calculated hypocrisy. Bolaño explains in his essay "Who's the Brave One?" that after reading it, he was possessed by a desire "to read everything, which, in my simplicity, was the same as wanting to or intending to discover the mechanism of chance that had led Camus's character to accept his atrocious fate." Bolaño's library was his own private Frontier.
by Marcela ValdesThe Virginia Quarterly Review. Winter 2008.
Any account of Roberto Bolaño’s life has to be divided into at least two stages: before the publication of The Savage Detectives in 1998, and after. Before there was rage, poverty, and obscurity. After, there was rage, security, and fame. In essays, lectures, and interviews, Bolaño’s friends often mention his kindness, his loyalty, his doting love for his two children. There’s no reason to doubt that their statements are true. In private, the man who is now widely recognized as the most influential Latin American novelist of the past three decades could have been a peaceful gentleman. But in public, in print, Bolaño preferred war. Before he died of liver failure in 2003, he told several interviewers, “My motto is not Et in Arcadia ego, but Et in Esparta ego.”
That creed may have come together during the years Bolaño worked as a garbage man, dishwasher, waiter, longshoreman, night watchman, reporter, grape picker, and seller of costume jewelry—all to support his habit of writing poetry. He was forty before he could ditch the odd jobs and live off his writing; forty-five when he won the Rómulo Gallegos Prize (AKA the Hispanic Booker) for The Savage Detectives. By then, he’d lost most of his teeth. “Bolaño lived through and for literature,” one of his best friends, Antoni García Porta, wrote. He read and wrote fanatically, and if he liked to toss bombs, his targets were usually literary.
Take for example, his 2002 essay, “On Literature, the National Prize in Literature, and the Strange Consolations of Service,” a napalm shower that burned many of Chile’s most prominent writers and included this backhanded compliment to the country’s bestselling author Isabel Allende:
"Made to choose between the frying pan and the fire, I choose Isabel Allende. Her glamour of South American in California, her imitations of García Márquez, her unquestionable boldness, her practice of a literature that goes from kitsch to pathetic and that somehow resembles, in a creole and politically correct fashion, the work of the author of Valley of the Dolls, winds up being, although it seems difficult, much superior to the literature of born functionaries like [Antonio] Skármeta and [Volodia] Teitelboim."
When it came to his countrymen, Bolaño was always especially generous with insults, but he didn’t restrict himself to slighting Chileans. He once dismissed Columbia’s Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez as “a man delighted to have met so many presidents and archbishops” and Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa as the same sort of sycophant “but smoother.”
Journalists abetted these proclamations, of course—nothing makes better copy than a fight—but Bolaño hardly needed egging on. He appears to have relished the idea of making enemies. A few days before “On Literature” was published, for example, Bolaño sent the text to his good friend, the Spanish literary critic Ignacio Echevarría, who would later edit Bolaño’s posthumous collection of essays, Between Parenthesis. Bolaño attached the following note: “Dear Ignacio: Restif de Bretonne on the barricades or how to keep making friends in Chile. The neo-pamphlet will be the great literary genre of the XXII century. In this sense, I’m a minor author, but advanced.” A few days later, he added: “The reactions, frankly, mean nothing to me.”
Combative, sarcastic, high-handed, Bolaño could sound obnoxious, and the public record of trash talk has naturally led many people to see him as a sort of chest-thumping provocateur. But Bolaño wasn’t just a Norman Mailer-esque showman. His hatred of born functionaries and of people pleased to have met archbishops fits logically into his obsession with evil’s relationship to art, a subject that appears in almost all of his fiction. “Literature,” Bolaño told the reporter Luis García in the 2001, “has always been close to ignominy, to vileness, to torture.” Nowhere is this connection more clear than in Bolaño’s two little novels about Chile—Distant Star and By Night in Chile—a pair of subtle, damning romans à clef that exposed a history of collusion among critics, poets, and the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
by Marcela ValdesBookforum. Sept/Oct/Nov 2007.
Culo. Coño. Puta. Mariconcito. Coje that fea y metéselo! The number of obscenities that appear within the first twenty-five pages of Junot Díaz’s second book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, makes it abundantly clear that he’s not writing for Oprah’s Book Club. At the very least, Winfrey would have to bone up on her four-letter Spanish before she could rubberstamp this book, because more than any other author writing today, Díaz sings straight to the heart of urban Spanglish, and he’s not waiting for outsiders to catch up. His Spanish is untranslated, as is his freestyle hip-hop slang. Clearly, he’s writing for his people—Dominicans on the island and around New York City—and as far as he’s concerned, everyone else is just listening in.
In 1997, Díaz told People magazine that Drown, the short-story collection that set his name in lights, “was like a hand of love out to the community.” Love is a word that appears in a lot of Díaz’s interviews, but his affection can be scorchingly unsentimental. Drown’s ten stories spotlight issues that the Latino community mostly likes to avoid: namely, its deep veins of homophobia, in fidelity, racism, sexism, and casual verbal abuse. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao adopts a similarly critical stance, but where Drown delivers its assessments with laconic restraint, Wao bellows them out with a carnivalesque mix of fantasy and gallows humor.
At the center of the novel sits Oscar de León, an obese, Walter Mitty–ish New Jersey “GhettoNerd” who is addicted to science fiction and aches desperately for a girlfriend. “He had secret loves all over town,” Oscar’s friend Yunior tells us, “the kind of curlyhaired big-bodied girls who wouldn’t have said boo to a loser like him but about whom he could not stop dreaming.” Oscar’s an antidote to the clichéd image of the Latin Lothario, yet almost every character in Wao regards his geeky, no-play ways as an unpardonable offense. You’re not Dominican, they tell him over and over again, as if to disown him. He becomes the butt of everyone’s jokes. “You ever eat toto?” one man asks him, referring to oral sex. “Probably the only thing you ain’t eaten, right?”
Oscar’s social torture reveals why Yunior and the rest of the men in Drown and Wao adopt such fierce, womanizing postures. Deviation from this machista stance invites brutality. (“We pick on our weak,” Díaz told Hispanic magazine.) Yet one of the most perceptive things about Díaz’s novel is the way it shows how machismo can crush both the men who don’t conform and those who do. As the action unfolds, Oscar’s buoyant imagination slides toward bitterness and depression while Yunior, who narrated several of the stories in Drown and proves he’s a real hombre in Wao by sport-fucking his way through Rutgers University, heads toward an equally bleak isolation. For most of the novel, both courses seem absolutely fixed— and that’s where Díaz’s brilliance shines.
So much contemporary fiction revolves around a kind of therapeutic epiphany, where the mere realization that a certain behavior is damaging is enough to catalyze a transformation. Life, we know, is more complicated than that. Metamorphosis is painful—it’s only when problems turn ruinous that most people can give it an honest try. Even then, the effort doesn’t often pan out. This is something that Díaz appears to understand innately, and it’s part of what makes Wao so hard to put down. (I myself opened it for the first time at eleven o’clock one night, thinking I’d read a few chapters before bed, and found myself still hungrily flipping pages at dawn.) Each of Wao’s major characters— Yunior; Oscar; his sister, Lola, and their mother, Belicia; Belicia’s father, Abelard—is pushed at some moment to disaster. Not all of them get through it alive.
For Belicia and Abelard, those moments arrive in the ’40s and ’60s, in the Dominican Republic, during Rafael Trujillo’s thirty-oneyear dictatorship. Trujillo, Díaz cracks in one of his many footnotes, was the DR’s “Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up. . . . Outstanding accomplishments include: the 1937 genocide against the Haitian and Haitian- Dominican community,” in which some thirty thousand people were murdered. Díaz, who was once addicted to sci-finovels himself, plays the Trujillo–Evil Master comparison for all it’s worth, studding Wao with references to J. R. R. Tolkien, Jack Kirby, and Alan Moore and suggesting (tongue firmly in cheek) that the DR’s whole bloody, impoverished history may be due to a “fukú,” or interstellar curse. Díaz, thus, combines heartbreaking realism with the wildest sort of comic-book fantasy, moving beyond the surrealism of Borges and Cortázar and the magical realism of Márquez and Allende to break new ground. Call it comix realism— it gives Díaz a tremendous verbal and emotional range.
Because Díaz moved to New Jersey from the Dominican Republic in 1975, when he was seven, because he grew up in Section 8 housing and worked all manner of blue-collar jobs, there has been a tendency among critics to portray him as a kind of outsider, a writer from the margins. But what makes him compelling are not just his flickering portraits of urban alienation but his rich sense of Dominican history, of community. “Way too often,” he told a Other Voices, “writers of color are, basically, nothing more than performers of their ‘otherness.’ I’m trying to figure out ways to disrupt that.” The way out has been lit by Toni Morrison, whom he has cited again and again as the most lasting influence on his work. “Morrison,” he explained to Black Issues Book Review, “is not attempting to translate black American culture for a white audience. . . . That in itself is revolutionary.” It’s a revolution that Díaz himself clearly intends to continue, in his own Latino, African, Dominican, Middleearth, X-Man way.