In Which The Fourth Chapter of the Lord of the Rings Is Written By Junot Diaz

My Second Book Problem – And Ours

by Jeff Goldberg

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Diaz

Oh, second books. You’ve got to appreciate how crappy they are. Especially when I loved the first books so much. And, to be clear: it has nothing to do with the pressures of reaping so much critical acclaim on one’s first publication that one ends up spending a decade writing and rewriting the second book in an attempt to produce something the critics will think worthy of the person they previously called the greatest new voice of a generation. No, that’s not it. It’s just to mess with me.

There have been a rush of disappointing second novels lately from authors who burst out of the gate with critical successes. Let’s briefly review:

 

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First Book: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

If I told you that I was so obsessed with this book that I read it four times, ruined the ending of the movie for everyone in the theater by yelling out what was going to happen, and actually stalked Jeffrey Eugenides for a couple of hours, it would only scratch the surface of my love.

Second Book: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Oh, god, I hate critics. “It’s the story of a gene.” “It’s the story of a gene.” Stop quoting the goddamn dust jacket, critics! This is not the story of a gene. It’s a rambling, Rushdie-esque failed-attempt at an epic novel in a bid to satisfy critics. And, yes, it succeeded in satisfying critics, so good work, Eugenides. But you did not satisfy me.

I know a guy who was on the Pulitzer Prize committee that year and he said this book only won because everything else was even worse. Seriously.

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First Book: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

I’ve been complaining about Foer’s meteoric rise to literary stardom for years now, mainly because I went to college with him and he is way more successful than me. I liked this book when I first read it but then I realized I totally knew this guy. Plus, I started reading all these reviews about how the book was taking novels in a new direction by having its characters talk in a semi-invented language. Yeah, a new direction if you’ve never read A Clockwork Orange.

Second Book: Impossibly Loud and Super Duper Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I actually won this book in a raffle at a Foer talk, so I didn’t even have to give him my money. But I haven’t read it yet because I am too consumed with jealousy and rage.

To be fair, it isn’t Foer’s fault that Hewlett-Packard based an entire advertising campaign off of his book cover. But I’m going to fault him for it anyway.

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First Book: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This is the best novel about studying ancient Greek. Ever. Seriously. Read it.

Second Book: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

I couldn’t read this book because of that freaky doll head on the cover. I mean, I tried to read it. But I kept thinking about that doll head.

Tell me this doll head isn’t freaking you out. Is that even a doll? Or is that a real head? How can you read this book while these questions remain unanswered?

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First Book: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Actually, I wasn’t looking forward to her second book because I thought this first book was totally overhyped. But, at least I read the first book.

Second Book: Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

I have become way too jealous of Zadie Smith’s success to ever read anything she every writes again.

Third Book: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Didn’t she win the Man-Booker Prize for this or something? Oh, man, my blood is boiling. The only thing keeping me from jumping off a bridge is the fact that the Man-Booker Prize is not available in the U. S. of A., so there’s no way I could have won it instead of her. Also, I haven’t written a book.

Why isn’t the Man Booker Prize available here? We’re a former colony too!

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First Book: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

This novel literally broke my heart. I mean it. My heart was ripped in two I loved it so much. I had to spend three months in the hospital for complicated heart surgery after reading AHWoSG. The doctors told me I should never read anything by David Eggers again.

Second Book: Something about velocity by David Eggers plus an insert that negated the entire point of the novel (and that I had to print out from the web because it wasn’t included in the copy I bought).

I’m way too afraid of David Eggers’ power to say anything bad about him. But let’s just say you should always listen to your doctors.

“Pick Fights” — Why? (mp3)

“Dumb Hummer” — Why? (mp3)

Why? myspace and wiki

David Eggers as rendered by MS Paint

This is David Eggers as he appears in every photograph ever taken.

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First Book: Drown by Junot Diaz

Breaking with the format, it’s actually a collection of short stories, but it’s worthy of all the attention it got. I loved it, and even got into a fight with some girl about the story “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” when she claimed it was misogynistic because it gave advice to men on how to scam women. Clearly she was making moronic conclusions about a touching, self-deprecating story simply from reading the title. What kind of person does that?

Second Book: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Of all the second publications listed above, this is the least onerous. But it’s still onerous, because it’s not as great as the first publication. It’s actually two novels smashed together. One’s about Oscar Wao, a fat, nerdy boy who is obsessed with comic books and sci-fi. The second is a history of the Dominican Republic under the dictator Trujillo.

Diaz doesn’t commit to the historical fiction, dropping much of the most interesting writing into footnotes, and it’s a shame, because this is where the novel really succeeds. Despite all the critics claiming this book teaches us that to truly understand a character you have to understand the history of his country and his people, the critics are all—as always—wrong and this book teaches us no such thing. Oscar has not become the way he is because of his family’s tumultuous and fascinating past; he has become that way despite it. We do not understand Oscar better by knowing the history, and, in fact, Oscar is diminished in comparison.

It’s because we’ve all read the sci-fi/comic-book obsessed nerdy-boy novel before. This has become the old-new thing, where suddenly it’s okay in fiction to allude to comic books. All the cool kids are doing it. Jonathan Lethem named a collection of short stories after this trend. Michael Chabon’s been forcing comic book ideology down our throat for years. And Rick Moody already wrote a novel about a nerdy, comic-book obsessed boy who makes unnecessary allusions to the Fantastic Four. So is Diaz actually going to allude to the Fantastic Four again and get away with it? Is alluding to the Fantastic Four now like alluding to Shakespeare? Or is Diaz actually alluding to Rick Moody? Oscar, despite his ethnicity, is just like all those other nerdy characters I’ve already stopped feeling sympathy for.

To Diaz’s credit, he has turned the act of making allusions to Lord of the Rings into its own art form. There are so many allusions to LotR that this book could practically be the fourth in the series, set in the Dominican Republic.

The Eye of Trujillo

By the time you get to the end, allusions to LotR sound natural and provide actual insight into the characters. It’s like teaching the reader a new language, repeating something over and over until the reader glosses over it as if it is a standard pattern of speech.

More confusingly, the sci-fi/comic-book obsessed nerdy-boy Oscar is NOT the narrator of this novel. The narrator is oversexed and popular, a likable, socially adept ladies man who should have had a larger presence in the story. So why is he making so many references to anime, comic books, science fiction, and Lord of the Rings?

It’s like Diaz started writing the novel from Oscar’s point of view, then switched tactics during revisions but left in all of Oscar’s allusions. In fact, at one point the narrator even tells the reader not to ask why he knows so much about anime. Since when does the narrator need to tell the reader to stop questioning his contradictory grasp of anime? And since when does the reader listen to that kind of thing?

Jeff Goldberg is a regular contributor to This Recording. He lives in New York.

You can buy The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao here.

PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING

There was a little birdhouse in your soul.

How many fugly pictures of Hillbot can we post in a calendar year?

The meaning and import of the sporting life.

17 thoughts on “In Which The Fourth Chapter of the Lord of the Rings Is Written By Junot Diaz

  1. I haven’t read the Brief Wonderful Life…but last night I heard an extremely touching and illuminating interview with the author on KCRW’s Bookworm. It seems totally worth checking out…

  2. Such bizarre claims. Whiteboy comic book scifi nerds are all over the literature as window-dressing but nerds of color who are basically claiming that you can’t understand the Third World (or people of color history for that matter) without genret talk–still one in a million. Also the writer of this piece has nothing to say about the history or the language or the women characters in OSCAR WAO which is nothing like you’ll see anywhere else. Diaz is pushing English into the 21st Century (which means he’s pushing it into Spanish and five other tongues, including nerdish.) The review in this post is cursory at best and Sounds to me like an I-haven’t-published-a-book-yet hater. This novel is extraordinary and and exceptionally innovative and I promise you in ten years they’ll still be talking about it. As for Jeff Gold . . . who?

  3. Eliza,

    To me, a comic book scifi nerd is a comic book scifi nerd, regardless of race or creed. I don’t think an author automatically gets credit for shaking up what has become a stock character simply by repainting that stock character in a different color.

    That being said, I agree with the rest of your comment. The complex female characters, the mixing of languages, and the history interwoven into the novel (especially the history!) are excellent, and worth the read alone. But I still don’t believe that the title character is made more interesting just because the book is really good when he’s not in it.

    Oh, and what do you mean I only “sound” like an “I-haven’t-published-a-book-yet hater”? I thought I explicitly stated that I am an “I-haven’t-published-a-book-yet hater”!

    Jeff Gold… who?

  4. I agree with Eliza. “Repainting” a character in a different color? That made me want to hurl, Jeff. How very Orientalist of you.
    As for why Yunior knows about anime, isn’t that intrinsic to the story? Yunior’s story doesn’t exist without Oscar. He sees some of himself in the overweight, nerdy dude. The more he tries to distance himself from Oscar, the more it’s painfully obvious how insecure he himself is about finding love. And who gets love in the end? Yunior loses Lola, but Oscar gets the woman of his dreams, if only for a brief and wondrous
    moment.

  5. Hmm… The term “repainting” was not meant to reference any kind of American or European history of racial stereotyping–it is, in fact, a visual-art metaphor that is commonly used in literary-art discussions; though that’s not much of an excuse so I’ll man up and apologize for using it in what was a completely inappropriate place.

    As for the narrator not existing without Oscar, I won’t comment on that. Though, as I’ve said, I think the good parts of the novel are the history of the family and country. We can argue all day about whether it makes sense for Yunior to have such a keen grasp of anime/scifi/comicbook lingo (it doesn’t) but my feelings about Oscar remain the same.

    And now, to comment on that: Yunior is actually a character from the title story in Drown. So he does exist without Oscar, and–considering that he’s existing in one of the best and most accomplished modern short stories–he does quite fine on his own.

  6. I wish I had time right now to find some of the reviews of Alice Sebold’s (“The Lovely Bones”) newest book; they are, truthfully, some of the worst reviews I’ve ever read since people went to town over “I Know Who Killed Me” — instead, I have to go eat a burger, but I remember something about an “infant’s appetite” when someone is cradling the head of her murdered mother. Yowza!

  7. Donna Tartt’s second book was an immense meth-fueled disappointment. Having said that, her Javier Bardem haircut is pretty amazing.

    Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana also tried to turn comics references into literature, unsuccessfully. Might there have been a Prince Valiant panel in all that abstract illustration at the end?

  8. I didn’t really think White Teeth was so bad. I’m just a creature whose expectations are easily swayed and then, subsequently, shattered. For this reason I try to avoid reading reviews before I read a book. But by the time I got around to reading White Teeth it was too late, and I had already been told by the critical community that it was the best new book I would ever read. When it wasn’t, I was dissapointed.

    I liked White Teeth, but I didn’t like like it. And if I can’t have a junior high school crush on a book then I am reluctant to engage in the on-again-off-again relationship that is required for the kind of person who only graces you with affection every couple of years at best (i.e. an author). I will eventually read On Beauty, but there are too many books in line ahead of it right now. I’m not even sure what those books are. I just know that every time I go to the book store and think about picking up Zadie Smith, I end up going home with someone else.

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