Thursday, August 09, 2007

Wao! Word for word?

So, what do you say about a writer whose work you love, whose first book stands at the top of your list, whose second book took eleven years in coming? Add to this the feeling you get when that second book is great, fantastic, groundbreaking and features language totally charged to the moon. But this is until you hit the parts you've already read, way before you get to the ending, which, like most of the last 50! pages of the book, you already read a long time ago in a magazine.

Yes, I'm talking about Junot Diaz's long-awaited second book, his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Yes, my eyebrow went up when I saw the title and remembered that original story back in the Dec. 00 - Jan. 01 Winter Fiction Issue of the New Yorker. Yes, the fact that the title was the same worried me just a little. But when I started reading this book, Diaz' language packed so much energy, clapped such an embrace on the disparate vernacular of American Nerds, New Jersey street slang, Latin American Spanish, and smart English, that I fell in love with his writing all over again. I blushed at the addition of Nerd-ish (read: not less than 50 references to Lord of the Rings), and then it occurred to me that in a country where this trilogy's movies are some of our most popular, when people wait in line at midnight to buy a book about a geeky young wizard who fights with magic, that we're all ready to come out of the vestibule and embrace our inner nerds--that this addition makes a great deal of sense.

Beyond the language I couldn't help but think of Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude when Diaz started jumping generations of the Cabral family to give generational background on Oscar, his sister Lola, and their family's longstanding Fuku (curse). It makes sense for a young American writer to pay tribute through imitation to one of the greatest writers to ever walk the Americas and he even dips into Magic Realism here and there, more than once. We're also treated to a history of the Dominican Republic in quick bites (footnotes!) since the inception of Trujillo's reign--all of it crisp and interesting and necessary-seeming. We even find out that the dictator himself ("the T-zilla") played a role in slapping on this family's this curse.

All this is wonderful: great shining flying language, a new focus on Oscar's sister, mother, and grandfather... and then we get back to Oscar. And with about 75 pages to go, I remembered the details of the old New Yorker story and knew how it would end. I could only hope the book wouldn't end the same way, that the new ambition and energy Diaz had brought to this novel wouldn't dissipate in the familiar, smaller ending of the story, that he'd tie together his larger themes and make the ending about more of the family than just Oscar.
Being pretty nerdy myself, I pulled out my old copy of the 00-01 New Yorker as soon as I finished the book. (There are only 3 writers I would keep something like this for, and Diaz is one.) What did I find?
I found some lines had been added, some transitions. But the bulk of it, the story, the facts and events and their descriptions...
Word for word. From six-and-a-half years ago? To quote Oscar, "Word."

When you look at these lines, the familiar, and compare them to Diaz' newer, crisper, more electric prose, there is a difference. Just slightly less of the dynamo. But can you really expect anything more of work he did six years ago?


Blogger Jeremy said...

Hi Seth,

Thanks for the post; I can't wait to read Junot's new book.

Who are the other two writersyou'd keep a copy of a magazine for?

Thanks again.

8:42 PM  
Blogger Seth Harwood said...

Good question. They are:
Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver.

10:22 PM  
Blogger Madame Woo said...

Good Point. I had a similar experience when I read Junot's short story WILDWOOD in this Summer Fiction issue of the New Yorker.

The story was fantastic. Almost perfect. And then I started reading OSCAR and stumble across the story wedged and abridged in a way that made it almost seem superfluous.

Another thing I didn't like was the fact that OSCAR's quest for a piece of pudendum was so lame. We never get to read his writing only that single letter at the end. What a wasted life.

Hope some of your readers disagree so we can pursue this topic.

3:09 PM  

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