Monday, December 15, 2008

Post 2666 Reading, or, My Bloody (Literary) Fate

What does it mean that the last four books I’ve read deal, in some way, with horrific violence? All four were written by Latinos, and all four are, at times, funny. Draw what you will from these observations. I’ll draw something in a minute, but let’s back up.

The first, claro, was 2666, the book I’ve been waiting a year to read, the book I devoured last month, the book I now own a few copies of, the book I went on and on about a few posts south of this one. Having discussed it at length, I’ll not go into it now except to reiterate that the book deals (in part) with the mass serial rape/killings of women in a fictional (stand-in) border town in Mexico. I knew I would be stewing on the book for some time and figured I ought to get a little distance, maybe follow it up with something dissimilar, which I thought I did. Senselessness (my Night Times review also pimped below) seemed, on first glance, a slightly different book. It is brief whereas 2666 is long. That is where the dissimilarities end. The book is often hilarious, often brutal, and, like 2666, it will stay with me for some time. If I was looking for a easily digested novella to distract me from the sprawling maze of 2666, I could’ve done better. While Senselessness is a quick read (I think it took me 2 days, and was due to deliberate stretching out) it is not an easily forgettable book. In many ways, it’s the book of the year (or 2nd behind, well, guess!). It also felt like a companion to 2666, though the two are not that alike. The narration is different. Senselessness is in the 2nd person, 2666 the 3rd. But both books employ run-on sentences and extended paragraphs. Both deal with torture, though Senselessness is almost always funny (when not dealing directly with the genocide), and 2666 is only occasionally funny, and it’s a different kind of humor—sly, subtle.

So I moved on. I picked up He Who Searches by Luisa Valenzuela. I can’t say I liked it very much, but it was interesting. It appealed to me because, again, it is short. Like 2666 (a book I fear I am drawing parallels to in my daily life) it is a puzzle of sorts. And the opening consists of a brief account of a man being tortured, even raped with a gun. Yeah, I managed to find another cruel story without even trying. I plodded on with the book, honestly confused by much of it. There are moments that crackle, but overall I was happy to have it finished, back on the shelf and away from my eyes.

Thinking that I had read enough books about Latin Americans being tortured and/or killed, I opted for what I thought would be a change: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. Díaz, for those who don’t know, wrote a critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Drown, that dropped in ’96. People had their eyes on the guy, and he spent 10 years writing the follow up, his 1st novel. Some might fear that the critics who fell backward to praise his 1st book might have forgotten about him after a decade of nothing new. Didn’t happen. Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer and a heap of accolades, rightfully granted.

The book is pretty damn good. It’s very exciting stuff written in a charismatic voice that effortlessly combines sci-fi and fantasy references with street-tough 1st generation Dominican-American slang. And Spaniglish. Seriously, get the Spanish-English dictionary out and keep it next to you when you read this novel.

I knew the book was about a fat fanboy nerd who gets shunned by the girls he too-quickly falls for. I figured it would be a possibly heartbreaking story with some laughs and maybe a few amazing turns of phrase, much like Drown was. Wouldn’t you know it, the book is far greater than that, far more ambitious, and far bloodier. It spans generations and goes back to the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo Era, which— you guessed it— has plenty of rough stories waiting to be told. Oscar’s Mother’s and Grandfather’s tales, and Oscar’s as well, all reflect each other in moments of torture and pain. Dear god, it is a rough tale at times. Be warned: here there be tigers, tigers dressed as policemen. But the book is hilarious. Imagine that? (I should say that it was hilarious to me, a nerd from the ‘80s; the funniest thing being the Dungeons and Dragons references, like when Oscar, describing his near fatal beating, tells a friend that he lost about 110 hit points. I mean, only a geek like me, who played my fair share of D&D back in the day, would get that.)

So there we have it: four books in a row dealing with violence, most of which were funny. What does this say about Latino writers? I can only surmise that this is the best way to deal with unbelievable trauma. You have to laugh. If you don’t you’ll go mad. Just a thought, don’t quote me on this.

Next up? I’m going to try The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. I’ve been eyeing it for a while and I think the only reason I’ve avoided this particular author is because I hated the movie he wrote, Smoke. By this looks to be some fun PoMo detective shit, and that sounds all right by me. I need a break from the (funny) rape, murder, systematic genocide and torture that has colored much of my reading as of late. Those who have read Auster may laugh as they read this, assuming they know something I don’t. Can the trilogy be full of brutality? Am I fated to read only books that in some way work in stories of slayings? Is this my gruesome Stephen King youth come back to haunt me? We’ll see, he said with a little apprehension.