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:
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.
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.
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?
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!
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)
This is David Eggers as he appears in every photograph ever taken.
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.
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