Posts Tagged ‘Junot Diaz’

Diaz on GTA IV

June 30, 2008

Diaz reviews GTA for the Wall Street Journal (link via Maud). Apart from the immediacy of Diaz’ prose, which I have come to enjoy immensely, there are also some weightier issues that Diaz deals with — like art, and what it does to people and so on:

GTA IV sucks you the hell in but its narrative doesn’t move me in any way or shake me up or even piss me off. I get madder when I crash my car in the game than when Niko makes a stupid decision in the cut-scenes (the movie-like interludes that players don’t control). GTA IV for all its awesomeness doesn’t have the sordid bipolar humanity of “The Sopranos,” and it certainly lacks the epic flawed protagonists that define “The Godfather” and its bloodier lesser brother “Scarface.” Successful art tears away the veil and allows you to see the world with lapidary clarity; successful art pulls you apart and puts you back together again, often against your will, and in the process reminds you in a visceral way of your limitations, your vulnerabilities, makes you in effect more human. Does GTA IV do that? Not for me it doesn’t, and heck, I love this damn game.

If “Battlestar Galactica,” a show on the Sci Fi channel for God’s sake, is able to create characters as compelling and troubling as race traitor Gaius Baltar and tackle issues as profound as genocide and religious fanaticism without once losing its thrill-factor, GTA should be able to do the same. Niko, as a character, doesn’t surprise, and the choices he confronts don’t make me want to put the game on pause in order to mull things over; they don’t implicate me or reveal me in any way.

For me, GTA IV is more an example of our evasions as a culture, more of a fairy tale, more of a story of consolation than a shattering cultural critique or even, dare I say it, great art. GTA IV is a game that allows you to forget how screwed-up and complicated things are in the real world; it could have done more, it could have put that screwed-up complicated world front and center.

The real world is currently the hardest, most troubling piece of real estate around, and even GTA IV, which wants to dial everything up to 11, can’t, to paraphrase Hammer, touch it. Doesn’t make the game any less worthy or awesome. GTA IV doesn’t have to be “Moby-Dick” or “Beloved” to be the Greatest Game of a Lifetime or even to be worthy of discussion.

What’s interesting though is that GTA could have been exactly what some folks are claiming it is. For all its over-the-top aberrance and brash transgressiveness, GTA IV doesn’t really wrestle with the radiant feverish nightmare labyrinth that post-9/11 America has become. Which is too bad. When you’re as lost as we are in this country, maps, no matter from where they come, are invaluable. It could have been that popular art blade that cuts through all pretensions and delusions; it could have been the map that we’ve been needing. But for that to have been possible GTA would have had to have put a small portion of the people playing the game at risk of waking up, even if only for a second, from the dream that is our current world.

Rockstar Games could have had a field day with Niko as immigrant, Niko as veteran from a war that was screwed up from the start, with Niko as aspirer to an American Dream that might never have existed in the first place. It wouldn’t have taken much to have made some plot alterations, to have had Niko ducking ICE special agents, to have had him actually struggling to get the girlfriend of his dreams, robbing, stealing, killing in order to dress up to local standards, or to end the game with Niko being deported back to Europe. Any one of these narrative additions would have made Niko’s journey and his successes all the more poignant, all the more surprising — would have put a face, a very real, hard face on the American Dream, which for many aspiring Americans, throughout our country’s long checkered history, is a nightmare.

Take a look!

Bible, titles of some classics and Oscar Wao

May 3, 2008

Here are a few links from the latest Hindu literary review edition:

Have fun!

Books to look forward to!

April 15, 2008

[1] Eurocrime alerts us to the news of an Adam Dalgleish mystery from P D James to be published in September;

[2] Maud Newton points to a preview of Junot Diaz’s next book.

[3] Over Paper Cuts, Dwight Garner points to (in his opinion) the quote of the week:

Here is John Sutherland on Salman Rushdie’s new novel:

If “The Enchantress of Florence” doesn’t win this year’s Man Booker I’ll curry my proof copy and eat it.

Extraterrestrials versus Latin Americans in television

April 8, 2008

Junot Diaz (via Maud):

Look, in the year 2000 they cast more extraterrestrials than Latinos in television, during the entire year. [A study by Martha M. Lauzen of San Diego State University found that in the 1998-99 television season, 3 percent of female characters in popular shows were from another world/realm, and only 1 percent were Hispanic.] So my [point is], I do think it’s probably harder for a mainstream American who grows up exposed to extraterrestrials more than to Latinos to imagine the center of the universe being a fat Dominican, you know? Which is cool. That’s what art is there to do. Art is there to challenge our assumptions and our organizing principles.

Take a look!

Junot Diaz wins Pulitzer

April 8, 2008

On his winning Pulitzer, Meghan O’Rourke interviews Diaz for Slate, where, among other things he also says:

Slate: As I mentioned above, much of Oscar Wao isn’t only about its protagonist, a nerdy kid from New Jersey, but about the dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. Can you tell us what drew you to Trujillo?

Díaz: Trujillo was one of the U.S.’s favorite sons, one of its children. He was created and sustained by the U.S.’s political-military machine. I wanted to write about the demon child of the U.S., the one who was inflicted upon the Dominican Republic. It didn’t hurt that as a person Trujillo was so odd and terrifying, unlike anybody I’d ever read or heard about. He was so fundamentally Dominican, and for a Dominican writer writing about masculinity, about dictatorship, power, he’s indispensable.

I’ve always been drawn to dictators. My father was a Little League dictator. That really affected me, his control-freakery, his impunity, his arbitrary unreasonable power. So there was that. Also, my book required a Dark Lord, and what better dark lord than a real life dictator? Trujillo exemplifies the negative forces that have for so long beleaguered the peoples of the New World. Seemed the perfect foil for Oscar. This novel (I cannot say it enough) is all about the dangers of dictatorship—Trujillo is just the face I use to push these issues—but the real dictatorship is in the book itself, in its telling; and that’s what I think is most disturbing: how deeply attached we all are to the institution of dictatorship.

Slate: What do you mean when you say the “real dictatorship is in the book itself”?

Díaz: We all dream dreams of unity, of purity; we all dream that there’s an authoritative voice out there that will explain things, including ourselves. If it wasn’t for our longing for these things, I doubt the novel or the short story would exist in its current form. I’m not going to say much more on the topic. Just remember: In dictatorships, only one person is really allowed to speak. And when I write a book or a story, I too am the only one speaking, no matter how I hide behind my characters.

Slate: One could, of course, have written a more straightforward “political” novel about the depredations of Trujillo’s dictatorship. How—or why—in your mind do the stories of Trujillo and Oscar fit together?

Díaz: I guess the question for me is, how are they not related? It’s like the history of the Dominican Republic. You can’t tell the history of the U.S. without the history of the Dominican Republic, and yet people do so all the time. Oscar, like Lola, like Yunior, is one of Trujillo’s children. His shadow, his legacy, is upon them all in ways that none of them understand. Trujillo is a local version of the legacy of the New World, which all of us who live in this hemisphere carry upon our heads. The novel’s question is: How do you deal with this legacy? Do you run from it? Do you ignore it, deploy existential denial? These are strategies that add to the legacy’s power, that guarantee its perpetuation. Or do you look into the silence and actually say the words that you have to say?

Take a look!

How to find out if you are an artist

April 7, 2008

Junot Diaz explains (via Jonah Lehrer at The frontal cortex):

So 10 years ago you were the hot young writer. There was a lot of expectation placed on you. Was that a burden?

Someone said this to me and I love it: “Being a hot young short-story writer is like being a hot young up-and-coming pastry chef.” Who really knows or cares in the real world? I think most of the pressure that was on was because of me. I drive myself crazy very well, thank you. Even if the first book had had no success, I would have driven myself crazy with the second one. But no, it didn’t help people saying, “Hey, it’s taken a long time for your book, do you think you can’t write novels?” And every time I did a Q&A at a reading, there was always someone who was like, “So do you think you suck or what?”

What would you say to that?

I’m like, “God, I don’t know!” You want to say, “No, no I don’t.” But you can’t tell them until the book is done. So, of course, you’re like, “Damn, I hope not!”

Did it ever get you down? Did you feel like, screw it?

Oh, yeah. Talk to my fiancée. No, I think it was an incredibly difficult struggle. I tell a lot of young people I work with that nothing should be more inspirational than my dumb ass. It took me 11 years to struggle through one dumb book, and every day you just want to give up. But you don’t find out you’re an artist because you do something really well. You find out you’re an artist because when you fail you have something within you—strength or belief or just craziness—that picks you back up again. Most of the artists I know will never, fortunately for them, have to face an 11-year hole. Fighting your way out of an 11-year hole is a lot tougher than it might seem. And I think had it not been for, like, that stupid Caribbean immigrant stubbornness that my mom bred into me, my God, I would have actually stayed down.

Jonah goes on to use one of the answers above as the starting point to discuss the difficulties involved in the artistic process:

One of the things that surprised me (and my surprise was quite naive) was just how hard it was for all of the artists in my book to make their art. The act of creation was an arduous struggle. Proust spent more than ten years writing In Search of Lost Time and even then he insisted on making numerous last minute changes to the text. Cezanne would spend years painting the same Provencal mountain, as he deliberated over each brushstroke. For Virginia Woolf, the act of writing was so intense and draining that she would often relapse into her mental illness after finishing a draft. And so on.

One of the reasons the artistic process was so difficult is that these artists weren’t simply describing stuff – they were investigating stuff. George Eliot, for instance, famously described her novels as a “a set of experiments in life.” Virginia Woolf, before she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, said that in her new novel the “psychology should be done very realistically.” Whitman worked in Civil War hospitals and corresponded for years with the neurologist who discovered phantom limb syndrome. (He also kept up with phrenology, the brain science of his day.) Gertrude Stein worked in William James’ Harvard psychology lab, then went to med-school at Johns Hopkins where she worked in a neuroanatomy lab. She would later say that her art was inspired by some of these experiments. (Her first piece of published writing was actually a science article on “automatic writing”.) My point is that it’s easy to falsely dismiss the artistic process as lacking rigor or diligence, to pretend that artists are merely trying to come up with creations that are entertaining or pretty.

Obviously, a novel makes a different set of epistemic claims than an experiment. Nevertheless, I think many artists, and certainly all of the artists I talk about in my book, are still passionately interested in reality. They want their fiction to feel authentic, to accurately capture some hard to capture element of human existence. That’s why good art is so hard to make. Just ask Junot Diaz.

Take a look!

Yet another review of Oscar Wao

December 5, 2007

John Isaac Lingan reviews the book for The Quarterly Conversation:

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao doesn’t offer a particularly new or enlightening view of the immigrant or postcolonial experiences, but this doesn’t detract from Diaz’s considerable aesthetic accomplishment. His prose is frequently exhilarating, and the sheer volume of intertextual references—Stephen King, Mario Vargas Llosa, X-Men, Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, and on—establishes a convincingly multilingual narrative voice to match the book’s themes and settings. It’s Diaz’s bursting, polyphonal attempt to fill the blank pages of his ethnic history.

Take a look (and, I am sure, by now, you are convinced that the book is a must-read).

Reading and writing!

November 27, 2007

I do not know how I missed this interview with Junot Diaz at Boldtype. Of course, there are many interesting things that Diaz has to say about Oscar Wao, and the process of writing it. Here is his answer to the first question, namely, if he was a voracious reader when he was a kid, for example:

For me, writing is an outgrowth of reading. I’m a reader way before I’m a writer. It started when I was a kid because when I read I didn’t have an accent. No one could fucking fuck with me, you know? In your head, you sound great. I was convinced that if I read enough, I could erase all the awkwardness of being an immigrant. It took like ten years before I could realize what people were talking about. For the longest time I didn’t know what people meant when they were talking about the Who. For real, bro, it’s amazing. I used to think that if I read enough it would all become clear. But of course that wasn’t true.

Take a look!

The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao

October 20, 2007

I finished reading Junot Diaz’s The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao a few days back; I liked it a lot.

As with Mario Vargas Llosa’s The feast of the goat (about which book, Diaz does not seem to be very happy — at least about the history that is described in that book), the sections dealing with Trujillo’s dictatorship are excruciatingly painful to read — though, unlike Llosa’s book, in Diaz’s, the figure of Trujillo it not so much a presence as a terrifying shadow that looms from the footnotes. Also, unlike Llosa’s book (the vivid descriptions, in which, of astrocities committed by Trujillo and his hench-men left me sickened for a couple of days after I finished reading it), Oscar Wao, is in some sense an elevating book; and, I think Jacob Russell nails the reason for that in his review:

This is not the story of Oscar Wao–it is his life, because his is the life that encompasses all the characters in the book. He is all that his mother has denied. And in the end, frees himself from her, not in rebellion, like Lola, but by affirming the antithetical drives he carries within him. In doing so, he surrenders to the curse, the Fuku… he has to. Amor Fati… and defeats it. The sacrificial victim–who, having lived the life of the victim all his years, frees himself… from the mother of his victimhood, frees her with him. Transforms the curse to a blessing…. and yet… Diaz doesn’t let us forget… such triumphs do not raise the dead, do not erase the scars, do not vanish the shadows…

… of the Trujillos that haunt us still.

I also liked Oscar Wao for the way in which it is written — using a language that is at once profanity ridden, angry, sad, comic, wise, and peppered with Spanish words (that I gave up translating using Google after the first few pages), and socio-literary allusions.

I gave one sample of Diaz’s writing (from the footnotes) earlier; here is another (in the fourth page of the novel):

You want a final conclusive answer to the Warren Commission’s question, Who killed JFK? Let me, your humble Watcher, reveal once and for all the God’s Honest Truth: It wasn’t the mob or LBJ or the ghost of Marilyn Fucking Monroe. It wasn’t aliens or the KGB on a lone gunman. It wasn’t the Hunt Brothers of Texas of Lee Harvey or the Trilateral Commission. It was Trujillo; it was the fuku. Where in conazo do you think the so-called Curse of the Kennedys comes from? How about Vietnam? Why do you think the greatest power in the world lost its first war to a Third World country like Vietnam? I mean, Negro, please. It might interest you that just as the U.S. was ramping up its involvement in Vietnam, LBJ launched an illegal invasion of the Dominican Republic (April 28, 1965). (Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq.) A smashing military success for the U.S., and many of the same units and intelligence teams that took part in the “democratization” of Santo Domingo were immediately shipped off to Saigon. What do you think these soldiers, technicians, and spooks carried with then, in their rucks, in their suitcases, in their shirt pockets, on the hair inside their nostrils, caked up around their shoes. Just a little gift from my people to America, a small repayment for an unjust war. That’s right, folks, Fuku.

If the phrase “Negro, please” is something that Diaz uses with great effect elsewhere too in the book, the sentence, “Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq” is Raja Rao-ian in its flavour.

Bottomline: a book certainly worth your time (and a writer to look forward to reading — I have already checked out from the library his short story collection called Drown).

PS: Here is the novella that Diaz published in the New Yorker with the same name as the novel, in case you wanted a longer sample of Diaz’s writing.

Update: From the comment: Jacob Russell recommends this review of Oscar Wao by Mathew Sharpe at Powell’s books.

Dictators, writers and dissertation committees

October 13, 2007

What is it with Dictators and Writers, anyway? Since before the infamous Caesar-Ovid war they’ve had beef. Like the Fantastic Four and Galactus, like the X-Men and the Brotherhood of  Evil Mutants, like the Teen Titans and Deathstroke, Foreman and Ali, Morrison and Crouch, Sammy and Sergio, they seemed to be eternally linked in the Halls of Battle. Rushdie claims that tyrants and scribblers are natural antagonists, but I think that’s too simple; it lets writers off pretty easy. Dictators, in my opinion, just know competition when they see it. Same with writers. Like, after all, recognizes like.

Long story short: upon learning of the dissertation, El Jefe first tried to buy the thing and when that failed he dispatched his chief Nazgul (the sepulchral Felix Bernardino) to NYC and within days Galindez got gagged, bagged, and dragged to La Capital, and legend has it when he came out of his chloroform nap he found himself naked, dangling from his feet over a cauldron of boiling oil, El Jefe standing nearby with a copy of the offending dissertation in hand. (And you thought your committee was rough).

From a foot note in Junot Diaz’s extraordinary The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.