Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Telex From Cuba: two very short reviews

It's been six weeks now since I raced through Junot Diaz's vivid barely-fictionalized fever-dream of his childhood, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

And all these recent weeks, it's been sitting on my desk right in front of me, staring at me, challenging me to decide how I feel.

Why is this so hard? Well, of course, because of this, and this, and of course because of the bigger context in which those events reside.

About those big, hard, complicated topics, I have nothing new or interesting to say.

But that doesn't mean I don't think they are tremendously important.

And, meanwhile, there, on the shelf, sits Oscar Wao. And, so, how am I to feel?

As a book, as a work of art, as an accomplishment, Oscar Wao is everything everyone has said about it over the last decade: it's powerful, it's compelling, it's brilliantly-executed. It sears its way into your brain.

But clearly it stands differently in the context of 2018 than it did in the context of 2008.

I'm overjoyed that I read it, it was lingering on my list for far too long.

But I don't know how rapidly I'll go seek out Diaz's other works. I'll have to think on that.

Meanwhile, Rachael Kushner is absolutely the writer of the moment, with her latest book being the only thing anyone could talk about this spring. With her substantial East Bay heritage, her books had been on my radar for a while, but I hadn't, somehow, made a start. I decided to start at the beginning, with Telex from Cuba: A Novel.

It's so easy to see Oscar Wao and Telex From Cuba through the same prism, given that they are both fictionalized depictions of what it was like to be a child in a poor Caribbean country in the mid-20th century, whether that be Dominican Republic under Trujillo or Cuba under Batista.

And these are both superbly-crafted books.

Telex From Cuba, though it won many fewer awards (was it unjustly penalized by arriving just a few months after Diaz's wonder-work had swept the world away?), is, I think, the stronger work, and may find a more enduring audience.

It is more delicate, more subtle, more patient. Where Oscar Wao shakes you by the shoulders and says: "Wake up! Pay attention! This is important!", Telex crawls slowly into your consciousness, bit by bit.

And Telex From Cuba doesn't dilute its focus by jumping back and forth between the Caribbean experience and the Caribbean immigrant experience, as Oscar Wao does.

Is it more problematic, less "authentic", that Kushner is Anglo and American (it was her mother that was the Everly Lederer character in Telex, recalling her experiences as a child of an American manager of the United Fruit Company in Cuba), whereas Diaz is Dominican through and through? Perhaps.

If you want to, and can, read both books.

If, for whatever reason, you can only read one, read Telex From Cuba.

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