Originally from my Goodreads 2010 post.
This is from a combined response to three books I did for my current MFA program. I would separately note that while this is a fine book, it seems to be a bit over rated by many. It is a good story and it is well done, but it does not have the many layers that I expected, especially after reading Junot Diaz.
Response to Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat, Idoru by William Gibson, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Attempting a combined response with these three books does not make sense at first blush, but contrasts are often interesting and illuminating, so I will attempt it. My real hesitation is that Diaz’s writing from a craft perspective brings so much more to the table that it may overwhelm the observations of the other two. That too may be worth knowing and understanding. Why does one book, out of three strong books, strike me as more powerfully done than the others?
All three books do world building. Diaz is building the world of a Dominican immigrant family and Danticat is doing something very similar from a Haitian perspective. Same large island, two very different voices—although the perspectives of violence and history have similarities. Both are first person, giving the personal power to the book, but Diaz’s first person is the more interesting from technique. Diaz writes what I consider a Shakespearian tragedy. You know it is going to end badly, but there are three acts (despite breaking the book into more parts, they feel like three major acts) and they are so well done, that you enjoy the ride toward tragedy. You feel for the characters, but still have fun. This is because of the voice.
What hits you immediately is the constant reference to popular culture of a particular kind—fantasy, science fiction, comic book. This is the vernacular of the protagonist. Yet, what is more interesting is that the protagonist is not the narrator. The first person is actually talking about her brother—or is it her ex-boyfriend who is the narrator, we are not sure until later. What is more interesting is that this first person shifts later on to a different narrator in Acts II and III. We get early warning that familiarity with two things will help the reader have fun: sci-fi culture and a bit of Spanish: “…Oscar showed the genius his grandmother insisted was part of the family patrimony. 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 than Stan Lee, and was a role playing fanatic. (38)” As our intro to Oscar continues, “Listen palomo: you have to grab a muchacha, y metéselo. The will take care of everything. Start with a fea. Coje that fea y metéselo! Tio Rudolfo had four kids with three different women so the nigger was without doubt the family’s resident metéselo expert. (43)” These two lines alone tell you that knowledge of a certain type of popular culture is important and that the slang and voice is very real. It sounds almost like some Hispanic comedians. Rapid fire, bringing in relatives, the use of slang that if you are not part of the culture would get you in trouble (e.g. nigger) and a mix of Spanish that if you know a little you can puzzle out more, but you have to think about it and puzzle it out. This technique reminds me a bit of Riddley Walker…slow the reader down. I noticed a reference to Diaz somewhere that he did this intentionally, also to mimic the learning experience of an immigrant. There also seems to be quite the set of blogs noting that he got the accents wrong on many of the words. This does not bother me as a reader as most street Spanish is really not accurate.
Danticat does not thrust us into the language of her characters—this does not mean they don’t have a voice, but we are not sing-songing with the character. It does not have that added layer that Diaz has. “’Stay here,’ my mother said to me in Creole. (40)” Denticat keeps the foreign words foreign, “…from now on her name is Manman. (30)” and “ How much did I win? Ten gourdes. (30)” We have no problem understanding and this merely adds flavor to the text and adds a level of authority that the writer knows the language, but does not burden us with it. Two contrasting techniques. Danticat makes for faster reading, but the language is not really part of the voice, nor a layer of the actual book.
Interestingly, Gibson’s work in this regard more closely resembles Diaz’s. They both leave it to the reader to discover the meaning of the world they build. This is where good science fiction tends to overlap into good literary fiction quite often—letting the reader discover the world and figure it out on their own. The new words, whether made up or from a different culture or era are part of the work. They add another layer. That said, as an aside, Gibson’s pacing is pure genre fiction while the pacing of both Diaz and Danticat is slower and more nuanced. Pacing will be the focus of some other response. Examples of words or phrases that force the reader to puzzle out the world in Gibson include, “She propped her feet on the ledge of a hotdesk. (5)” From context we figure out the desk is plugged into the Internet and other systems. More interesting is the virtual reality descriptions. There is no lead in, we just need to figure it out. Chapter 2 starts with:
They met in a jungle clearing.
Kelsey had done the vegetation: big bright Rouseau leaves, cartoon orchids flecked with her idea of tropical colors […] Zona, the only one telepresent who’d ever seen anything like a real jungle, had done the audio …(13).
Context is for both Diaz and Gibson hugely important. We figure out “telepresent” pretty easily, but not completely. It is left for the reader to imagine and learn as one goes on.
Another interesting contrast between Diaz and Danticat is the first person use. Diaz ostensibly starts with the first person—although the first “I” does not arrive for a number of pages. Diaz, in fact, separates the “I” paragraphs from the rest (but does not do so in the footnotes—the use of footnotes in Diaz is a separate subject, but worth noting here. The footnotes are an important part of the work and it is rare to see this in fiction.). Pages 18-19 have the first person and then the rest of the Act I (as I call it) is largely third person, but we feel the intimacy. This is not an ordinary third person, but it is not really a first person, it is an intimate telling you the story from almost an omniscient view. This is really hard to pull off—certainly something I would not dare to yet. One way he does this is by dropping the dialogue quotations. Another is the way that feelings of others are conveyed. Witness the interplay between his friend who is a girl—but not girlfriend:
You have beautiful breasts, he said as an opener.
Confusion, alarm. Oscar. What’s the matter with you?
He looked out through the glass at Manhattan’s western flank, looked out like he was some deep nigger. Then he told her.
There were no surprises. Her eyes went soft, she put a hand on his hand, her chair scraped closer, there was a strand of yellow in her teeth. Oscar, she said gently, I have a boyfriend. (75)
We have already started to suspect (and this is never really confirmed) that the narrator, who comes in occasionally in the first person, as in the footnotes, has interviewed all of Oscars contacts. In fact we as the reader think that the narrator is probably Oscar’s sister, then we decide may it is not. “That night he and his sister fell asleep on the couch. (74).” But, we have “And that is how I ended up in Santo Domingo. (105)” Certainly, we know that later on in the book it is not. We, as readers, are not 100% sure if the writer is a different “I” between the main text and the footnotes, or if the book is really a set of interviews that are then transcribed by the narrator – Lola’s ex-boyfriend. Ultimately, we decide he has written the whole thing, but the POV changes along the way make it interesting. Again, I am being pulled into examining Diaz’s work more than the other two—illustrating that it is the more powerfully written, even from simply the craft perspective, novel.
Both Gibson and Diaz make use of the reader’s knowledge of popular culture in a variety of ways, never insulting the reader, but rather inviting them to explore it more if they have not already. One that I found interesting in Gibson was a reference to “…that country singer her mother liked, Ashleigh Modine Carter. Kind of a meshback thing, but with money. (23)” This is funny at a couple of levels. The reference to the Carter Family in a futuristic book and the slang meshback, which is current and fairly southern (the protagonist in this scene is in Seattle). Diaz litters the entire book with popular reference, which the narrator makes a point of being in your face about. The narrator in Diaz’s is, indeed, using the lexicon of Dungeons and Dragons, sci-fi, comic books in no small part as a tribute to Oscar, rather than because he would use that himself. The point being you need to understand this lexicon if you are to understand Oscar. Most of his references are overt, very often Lord of the Rings, but a few are fairly obscure for the modern reader, but totally accurate for one who was into this in the 1980s and 1990s. “Jack Pujols of course: the school’s handsomest (read: whitest) boy, a haughty slender melnibonian of European stock… (130)” is referencing Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock (who is British). The reference is interesting at many layers. Elric is albino, so not only is he white, he is really white. He is also a bit of a doomed character, which ultimately this Jack Pujols is also. Elric is also of a noble race that views the rest of humans (which are actually a different younger race) as below them. Utterly below them. The Melniboneans also tended to torture and in other ways treat the non-Melniboneans badly.
This trickling in references that have important meanings and do lead us to understand that the narrator is ultimately Lola’s boyfriend and not Lola. “Even your humble Watcher, reviewing her old pictures, is struck by what a fucking babe she was.” The Watchers were part of the Fantastic Four comics—I never really read comics, but knew this—that observed and compiled information without interfering. His references do get quite obscure when he uses “Breasts of Luba” which I believe refer to a common figurine/statue that the Luba tribe of Africa is known for. Then, as is my nature, I did some online searching and I now believe that Diaz may have been referring to a comic book Love and Rockets, with “Luba” by Los Bros Hernandez. The protagonist is fiery woman with enormous breasts. Part of the underground comics scene of the 1990s.
Before moving away from Diaz, which really could take all of the analysis, I have to mention one last reference the narrator makes that made me laugh. “(The fucking of poor prietas was considered standard operating procedure for elites just as long as it was kep on the do-lo, what is elsewhere called the Strom Thurmond Maneuver.) (148)” I remember well when Strom had to acknowledge that not only had he had a child through an affair, but a black woman as well. Strom was once quoted (which I steal from Wikipedia and they take from Timothy Noah’s book) as saying: “I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the niggra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
All three books have a similar protagonist age—at least to start with. The young teenager. However, Diaz and Gibson never go the ‘young adult’ route in language. Danticat does keep the language simple and short as the young woman/girl is first introduced to us and as she fearfully gets used to New York. The simple, young feeling works in Danticat to emphasize the situation. The language is good, the descriptions good, but there are few hidden layers. The 14 year old in Gibson is rather adult and her language reflects this. Contrast Gibson’s girl of 14 observing the woman next to her in the plane, “Then she smiled. It was a slow smile, modular, as thou there were stages to It, each one governed by a separate shyness, or hesitation. (58)” With Sophie meeting a woman with her mother for the first time, “Jacqueline was wearing large sponge rollers under a hair net on her head. My mother bought some face cream that promised to make her skin lighter. (51)” One feels significantly younger and less sophisticated than the other—as she is. This works, however it does make Danticat’s a bit more of an easy read and one ends up not slowing down for meanings. Yes, the quoted line from Danticat illustrates the discrimination that blacks feel in a subtle manner, but truthfully this has been done to death. Diaz in the early line about the young boy being melnibonese does it much better and conveys not only the skin tone, but a host of other history.
Different authors use parenthesis in different ways. One way that Diaz used that was interesting, within the context of narration and POV, was that often the parenthesis were where you felt you were getting an actual quote from an interview: “It felt unbelievably good to Beli, shook her to her core. (For the first time I actually felt like I owned my skin, like it was me and I was it.) (185-6)” No similar use of parenthesis, or of footnotes, exists in the other two books.
In summary, Gibson uses rather classic techniques and is quite genre, albeit good genre, in his writing style. He has two protagonists and alternates between them every chapter, which is a classic technique. He reveals his world through the story rather than through telling. He has a couple of twists that depend on the new world and technology at the end. Danticat is a rather classic immigrant coming of age story that is well done, but does not have the superb flare of Diaz. It was fun to have rather coincidental similar themes between Diaz and Danticat to contrast similar—at a basic level—stories that are told so differently.
As an epilogue I would state that all three were very readable, enjoyable, and well done, but Diaz’s stands out as the innovative one that conveyed multiple layers and was truly distinctive.
Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Detroit. Thorndike Press. 2007. Print.
Gibson, William. Idoru. New York. Berkley Press. 1997. Print.
Danticat, Edwidge. New York. Vintage Books. 1998. Print.