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Posts Tagged ‘Junot Diaz’

Every time a new Tim Winton novel comes out I somehow find myself thinking, Ah, another story set in a coastal town in Western Australia, with a small cast of off-beat, earthy (yet never quirky), and slightly ‘broken’ characters, many of whom are known by their nickname, written in trademark ‘muscular’ prose with warm humour, and always, always the use of the word ‘saurian’ – an ever-present friend that has become so much of a trademark that it borders on a tic*.  Oh, and, of course, the Miles Franklin Award sticker on the front cover!  Perhaps this is why it has taken me some time to come around to reading the wonderful Breath.  That pretty much sums him up doesn’t it?  Well, the answer, as it turns out, is both yes and no.

Reading Winton is an engaging, physical experience.  You not only see the environment and people he depicts, you feel them.  In the Miles Franklin Award-winning (I warned you!) Breath, the prose is pared back to raw essentials – and what wonderful essentials they are.  There are no bells and whistles here; this is the antidote to those who dislike (or are at least a little weary of) the pyrotechnics of Dave Eggers, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer and their ilk.  Instead, there is a precise economy.  The result?  Writing that reaches a new-found power.

It is fair to say that it ‘sings’ – and I use that word deliberately, because I relished the way in which the senses are so engaged, particularly sound.  Breath is such an aural experience, perhaps no surprise for a writer whose last novel (also a Miles Franklin winner) was entitled Dirt Music – if you can make music out of dirt, then think of the music you can make out of everything else!  The earth ‘hums’, oars creak in their rowlocks, wattlebirds ‘buzz’, kids’ bikes ‘whirr and clatter’, styrofoam surfboards ‘squeak’.  And then there is the ocean, the roaring surf, whose repeated descriptions over the course of a book might veer toward sameness in lesser hands, but Winton sustains the dynamism of the seascapes beautifully.  We get an early taste, and, like Bruce Pike, out narrator, we are hooked (p27):

Waves ground around the headland, line upon line of them, smooth and turquoise, reeling across the bay to spend themselves in a final mauling rush against the bar at the rivermouth.  The air seethed with noise and salt; I was giddy with it.

Later, Bruce tells of the first time he surfed ‘Old Smoky’ – the offshore giants that only get going in huge storm swells, (p113):

… the sight of the thing pitching out across the bommie drove a blade of fear right through me.  Just the sound of spray hissing back off the crest inspired terror; it was the sound of sheetmetal shearing itself to pieces.  The wave drove onto the shoal and the report cannoned across the water and slapped against my chest.

There is such energy in these passages; the writing whizzes us forward as if we are on (or watching!) those waves too.  And even when Winton does not describe the sound of something, such as the dour local baker’s ‘loaves like house bricks’, you still hear them in your head, clunking down onto the shop counter with supreme finality.  Elsewhere, Pikelet remembers (p67) coming home “at dusk with my ears ringing from the quiet.”  Music, it seems, is everywhere.

We first meet Bruce as a 50-year-old paramedic when he’s called out to what looks like an apparent teenage suicide.  But he sees through the dressed up situation to the truth that the mother wants hidden and his paramedic partner cannot see.  We then return to Bruce’s childhood growing up in Sawyer, a sleepy coastal town (I warned you!), where he is known as ‘Pikelet’ by his daring sidekick Loonie.  Pikelet and Loonie make fun by diving into the river and holding their breath, holding onto the ‘saurian’ tree roots (bingo!) on the bottom.  They also hold their breath and hyperventilate until their vision becomes tunnelled and they see stars.  But it is the surf that enthrals them and soon they find themselves in awe of ‘Sando’, a mid-30’s surfer dude married to the moody Eva.  They learn to surf and see Sando, a man who rides the biggest waves, as a God; and they become his disciples.  Sando soon takes them to offshore and distant breaks which, by turns, get larger, more thrilling, and more dangerous.  They become addicted to the thrill, obsessed by it.  For Pikelet, there is in surfing “the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.” (p29).

Interestingly, in these opening pages of Bruce’s childhood, we see Loonie much more clearly.  Loonie takes centre stage, “greedy about risk”, whilst Pikelet is slightly more circumspect and unsure of himself.  I enjoyed this slow revealing of our narrator – we get to know him far more gradually than we do Loonie who bursts onto the scene and demands attention.  The most we get on Pikelet is his reminiscences of his very first – and unforgettable – wave (p40):

And though I’ve lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.

Indeed, Bruce goes onto think that (p50):

More than once since then I’ve wondered whether the life-threatening high-jinks that Loonie and I and Sando and Eva got up to … were anything more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath.

We follow Pikelet as he experiences the to-ing and fro-ing of the triangular relationship that he shares with Sando and Loonie.  Both Pikelet and Loonie in turn experience moments of intimacy with Sando.  When Loonie breaks his arm, Pikelet is taken out big-wave hunting by Sando; then Loonie travels to Bali with Sando and Pikelet is left behind, commiserating with Eva as she recovers from yet another knee operation.  These alternating moments of intimacy with their cult-leader are like the ins and outs of the tide, with Pikelet and Loonie increasingly at polar ends as a space opens up between them that cannot be filled.  Pikelet’s obsession needs a new home whilst Sando is away and it finds an unexpected outlet.

I’ve made much of the sound of this story, but Winton engages every sense fully.  Pikelet’s chief memory of high school is the bus ride (p44):

… the smells of vinyl and diesel and toothpaste, corrugated iron shelters out by the highway, rain-soaked farmkids, the funk of wet wool and greasy scalps, the staccato rattle of the perspex emergency window, the silent feuds and the low-gear labouring behind pig trucks, the spidery handwriting of homework done in your lap, and the heartbreaking winter dusk that greeted you as the bus rolled back across the bridge into Sawyer. 

But, quelle horreur, not content with his trademark ‘saurian’, Winton has to tread on my territory, finding a place in his pared-back prose for the dilettante (p217) as we find out more about Eva’s past aerial skiing – she turns out to be every bit the adrenalin junkie that the boys are.  All I can say is: ‘Back off Winton – dilettante is mine!’  (Ah, but the sad truth is I admire him even more now than I did before, damn him!)

‘Breath’ is, of course, a recurring motif, but it is not over-used.  There is the hyper-ventilating Loonie and Pikelet, the holding of breath beneath pummelling waves, the stop-start snoring of Pikelet’s father, the briny breath of the sea, and the unravelling obsession of characters’ relationship with breath and breathing.  We know Bruce is a broken man, but he eventually finds an outlet for his thrill-seeking in his job as a paramedic.  Others are not so fortunate.

Breath has strong autobiographical undertones – Winton nearly drowned as a youth and was always scaring himself surfing big waves.  But it seems its author is anything but broken.  This book ticks all the Winton boxes and therefore seems ripe to be characterised as ‘just another Winton’.  Yes, it is these things, but it somehow seems more than them too.  Breath’s raw energy and pared-back essence is masterful and it deserves all the praise it has garnered to-date.  I’m already looking forward to the next time I pick up a book and see the word ‘saurian’…

* Saurian: of, relating to, or resembling a lizard.

Breath by Tim Winton

Penguin

ISBN: 9780143009580

265 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award (2007) and The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2008), and, for what it’s worth, Time Magazine’s #4 rated book of the decade (2000-09), The Brief Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz came to me with a reputation very much proceeding it.  And right from the first few pages you know you’re in for one hell of a ride, with rippling humour, narrative pyrotechnics and boundless energy that draws you happily into Oscar’s life and the Dominican world: a world of fukú – the strange curse or doom that seems to plague most families, of the infamous and ruthless dictator Rafael Trujillo whose reign of violence terrorises the country, and the Dominican Diaspora.  It tells the story of Oscar de León and his continual failure to find a girl, his sister Lola, their fierce mother Beli – and her traumatic childhood in the DR – and the story of their family’s ‘Fall’ as depicted by the brutal demise of Beli’s father Abelard, a doctor, who tries to keep his family safe from the lecherous Trujillo, whose spies are everywhere.  And thus it is very much the story of the Dominican Republic and its fraught history.

Narrated in turns by Yunoir de Las Casas – Lola’s sometime boyfriend – and Lola herself, we witness the childhood of Oscar de Leon, a “fat, sci-fi-reading nerd” growing up in Paterson New Jersey, a unique and very un-Dominican Dominican male.  This allows Díaz to explore the theme of masculinity.  Oscar is so much of a nerd that he: “Could write  in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe that Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic.”  He is the ultimate outcast, shunned even by those who have similar interests and heartaches: he soon realises “his fucked-up comic-book-reading, role-playing-game-loving, no-sports-playing friends were embarrassed by him.”  It is his complete lack of success with girls – as marked by his early ‘golden age’ zenith when he is but seven, and a much slimmer version of the fat adolescent he would become, when he has a short ‘relationship’ with two girls at the same time – that continues to define his search for love in his teenage and college years.  In high-school Oscar falls in love with Ana, but she maintains her relationship with her Army boyfriend who continually beats her; Oscar can’t give her up.  Getting into Rutger College, nothing changes.  Not even the proximity of Yunoir – who volunteers to look after Oscar during college as a means of courting favour with his sister Lola – works.  It is this ongoing search for love that ultimately spells trouble for Oscar when he finally gets his girl.  He finds that escaping the grasp of history and cultural expectation is a tough and often impossible task.

We also trace the relationship between mother and daughter, Beli and Lola, how Lola finds her mother’s breast cancer.  Told from Lola’s point of view, theirs is a troubled relationship, Beli is very cruel, and it is Lola who brings up both herself and Oscar, though only because Beli is working multiple jobs.  Eventually, Lola runs off with a dead-end boyfriend to a dead-end town, until Oscar gives her away.  Lola is sent to her grandmother, La Inca, in the Dominican Republic as punishment.  It is here that we are drawn further into the distinctive Dominican world and the family history: the childhood of Beli and the father she never knew.  The portion of the novel that deals with Beli and her relationships, including her pivotal love of ‘The Gangster’, is particularly engaging; it alternates between witty-hilarious and fizzing violence.  The story of Abelard’s sorry fate – of being a father to attractive girls in the reign of Trujillo – is also wonderfully depicted though, perhaps if I’m allowed to split hairs, slightly long.

The narration is punctuated throughout by streams of colloquial Spanish and strides atop many various – and often long – footnotes which deal mostly with the terrible nature of Trujillo and his henchmen.  These historical notes bubble along beneath the surface of the Dominican story.  The Spanish that is liberally dispersed throughout might not be to everyone’s taste.  There were many times where I could have done with an English-Spanish dictionary or ready-access to babelfish  – I’m sure it would have added to the experience.  For example:

And then the big moment, the one every daughter dreads.  My mother looking me over.  I’d never been in better shape, never felt more beautiful and desirable in my life, and what does the bitch say?  Coño, pero tú sí eres fea. 

We non-Spanish speakers are left at a loss as to what Beli says to her daughter, though we can guess at its direction given our understanding of her character. (Roughly translated:  ‘Coño, but you are ugly’.  I’m still not sure what Coño means!).  In the very next paragraph we get another helping as Lola reflects:

Now that I’m a mother myself I realize that she could not have been any different.  That’s who she was.  Like they say: Plátano maduro no se vuelve verde. 

Translation: ‘(A/The) mature banana does not become green.’  This is a wonderful little expression, but unless we have our translation handy, we lose out.  This gives rise to a debate about how much a writer should demand of their readership.  The book would undeniably be lesser had it not contained the Spanish because it adds Dominican flair and personality to the story and its characters.  However, it does seem a little excessive at times.  But there is so much energy and heart in the writing, so much to admire, that you forgive the excess and are swept along in its dizzying force.  Yunoir’s narrative voice is particularly energetic and spirited, and of course, what with Oscar’s sci-fi interests, the literary and cultural references from the likes of: Star Trek, Star Wars, the Watchmen, Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, Ursula Le Guin, Akira & anime, DC & Marvel; the list just goes on and on, the references too numerous to note.  Even the title of the book is a nod to Hemmingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and Oscar’s pet name of ‘Oscar Wao’ is given to him in mock homage of Oscar Wilde.

Another point worth noting is the choice of the name Oscar.  It is perfect for the character, and makes me think of other famous fictional Oscars, such as the eponymous Oscar of Peter Carey’s Oscar & Lucinda, and the truly wonderful Oscar, (little Oskarnello!), of Gunter Grass’s mighty The Tin Drum; (apparently Carey loved The Tin Drum so there is no surprise he wanted to create his very own Oscar).  There is something in the name Oscar that attaches certain character traits to its owner without, it seems, the need for depiction – a certain amount of pluck and courage, the ability to ‘punch above one’s weight’ – (which for Oscar Wao is saying something!).  Of course, that could be just me!  What do you think?  I’d love to hear your thoughts – are there any other famous fictional Oscars?

Díaz reportedly took ten years writing this book, and I’m sure during that time there were moments of doubt regarding whether it would ever see the light of day, perhaps even whether a manuscript might be finished at all.  It is endurance – an endurance that Oscar’s family and all Dominicans have in abundance as they fight the scourge of poverty and the weight of history.  For those of us who love great reads, I thank him for persevering and showing us all what it sometimes takes to achieve a dream, to see a vision come to life.  As Díaz himself might write: The beauty!  The beauty!

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Faber & Faber

ISBN: 9780571239733

335 pages

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