11-15-12:Junot Díaz Explains 'This is How You Lose Her'
And Yet, We Never Seem to Get It
"I'm not a bad guy," Yunior tells us in "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars," the opening story 'This Is How You Lose Her,' the latest collection of short stories by Junot Díaz. And Yunior, who been with us since 'Drown,' the first collection by Díaz, is indeed not a bad guy. Bad is not the problem. "Guy" is the problem. Yunior is a man, and men, who are good at many things, are bad in their relationships with women. Yunior wants to do better, but he collapses under the gravity of his own desire to do so. He's unable to perceive the effects of his actions on the women he's with. Nothing makes it over his event horizon. And this is how he loses her, again and again.
But though Yunior may not for most of this book have a clue about what to do, his voice — and the other voices, those of the women in his life — are so remarkable, we have little care about what he's doing or why. As readers, we just want to listen to the music of life as it is lived, as Junot Díaz tells it. Every word is rich with humor, with imagination and verve. 'This Is How You Lose Her' is the literary equivalent of the best album of bittersweet love songs you have ever heard, and like that album, it's one you'll be listening to, reading, again and again. Díaz knows how to find the music in language.
The nine stories here are dominated by Yunior's voice. From the opening to the finish, "The Cheater's Guide to Love," Yunior takes us through his troubled life and searing self-education in just what it means to have a relationship with a woman. The stories are funny, bitter, and full of the kind of honesty that is both hilarious and scalding. Few will be able to read these stories without being moved, generally into a zone of great discomfort. But Díaz makes the discomfort paradoxically enjoyable, in the extreme, by virtue of the honesty and accuracy of his observations and the joyous, scarring and scary prose he uses to express them.
The prose here always striking and the psychological nuances are stunning, but so is every other aspect of these stories. In "The Pura Principle," Yunior's brother, dying of cancer, starts acting out. Here, the plotting is careful and casual, as Díaz sneaks up on the readers and smacks us upside the head. "Alma" is a second-person miracle of economy, close to prose poetry but all sinew and snap. Díaz likes a challenge and comes back to the second person in "The Cheater's Guide to Love," a powerful, utterly engaging finish that ends with a different Yunior than the one we met at the beginning of the book.
Ultimately, though, it's impossible, and unnecessary to pull this book apart into stories or voices or modes. For all that 'This Is How You Lose Her' is kith and kin to the great collections of love songs, it is also all of one piece, one vision, one man singing in many voices. The fact that it is funny as hell, disturbingly informed, and unfortunately revealing as regards to how men think and do not think — all that disappears in the pure pleasure of language and reading. 'This Is How You Lose Her' is a perfect portrait of exactly why we read.
11-13-12:Andrew P. Mayer Visits 'The Society of Steam'
Starting with the Ending
There's good reason to be cautious when you see a book emblazoned with "First Book in the *.* Series," especially if it is indicated that the series is a single story leading towards some sort of grand conclusion, rather than a continuum of standalone adventures. I'm of the mind to buy first editions (hardcover or paperback, whatever they may be) and then squirrel them away until the day the final volume arrives. That's the time to start reading; and, with Andrew P. Mayer's 'Power Under Pressure,' (Pyr / Prometheus ; January 8, 2013 ; $17.95), that welcome day has arrived for "The Society of Steam" trilogy.
Mayer's world is a well-realized alternate New York of the 1880's built on the foundation of "Fortified Steam." The series begins with 'The Falling Machine,' when, with a few smart waves of his prose hands, Mayer plunges us into a world of superheroes and heroines, of glitz-covered moral rot and Sarah Stanton, our guide to this entertaining externalization of our fears and desires. There's a mechanical man (Tom, "The Automaton"), a vile villain, and enough gadgets and clockwork to move things along briskly to a conclusion that manages to be satisfying while obviously not the end.
Mayer cranks up the terror a notch in 'Hearts of Smoke and Steam,' as we see more of the villain and his unfolding plans, not just for the immediate future, but for all futures. Mayer adds new characters to the mix and new layers to the characters we already know. What we see here as well is Myer's ability to flesh out his world with devices and desires that derive from his entertaining premise in a thoroughly logical and enjoyable manner. It's nice to see an author who pumps up the relationships as well as the intricacy of the gadgets.
And finally, things come to a head in 'Power Under Pressure,' as the world goes from bad to worse and Sarah finds herself literally at the heart of the matter. Here again, we see Mayer's nicely understated world-building skills unfolding in a very deliberately overblown world. If that sounds like a bit of a contradiction in terms it is, but though Mayer is working in a genre that demands hyperbole, he still manages to offer the nice details that reward the attention-paying reader. 'Power Under Pressure' is an excellent example of less being more, since Mayer manages to finish his story in less than 400 pages.
What Mayer has managed in a quite tightly-written trilogy is to reset the superhero story in a steampunk world. These are both genres that feed on fun, that require adventure and reward the reader with a light-hearted look at the darkest of times. Mayer's prose has the feel of the time it is set in, but not so much as to be annoying; it's like a British actor doing a perfect American accent. His New York setting is a nice change up from the usual London (not that I mind London!), and his plotting and pacing keep things lively but not frantic.
Andrew P. Mayer's "Society of Steam" Trilogy has finally arrived, and readers who pick up the first book now will be ready to read the conclusion when it shows up in about a month. Mayer hits all the right notes; a touch of horror, some high-adventure, heroes and villains who deserve the elaborate contraptions that carry them across a Rube-Goldberg machine landscape, all at a pace that suggests a handcart on the way to hell. That pacing and direction are important, as we look around at our own vehicle and wonder just what we are in and where it is headed. We have some nice contraptions, it must be allowed. I do believe that for all the fun that Sarah Stanton has in her zeppelins, she'd really get a kick out of a 747. Our villains, alas, are not nearly so colorful.
11-12-12:Louise Erdrich Enters 'The Round House'
Transitions, Borders, and Never Going Back
The transition from childhood to adulthood is not the blessed time we would like to believe it to be. There are moments when joy and wonder mix with the love we feel from our families to create the sort of heaven we can only identify in hindsight, to be sure, but those moments are outnumbered by other more troubling times. The adult world is not what we expect. And the aspects of that world we think we desire often prove to rife with the kind of pain that lasts a lifetime.
Louise Erdrich's 'The Round House' captures those moments, and many more in the peculiarly insulated — and unprotected — world of an Ojibwe native American community. It's 1988, and Joe Coutts is leading a fairly typical thirteen-year-old's life. He rides his bike a lot, he plays video games, he has a gang of friends, and two stable, loving parents; Bazil, a tribal judge, and Geraldine, the enrollment expert. Everything works, easily, until the day his mother comes home late; very late and clearly traumatized. In fact, she's been viciously attacked, and someone must pay for the crime.
Erdrich's rich, evocative prose is a pleasure to read. There's a slightly rough, handcrafted feel to the novel. Joe's world — the world of the reservation — is a lot ours, but not exactly. Erdrich has a way with telling, seemingly trivial details that somehow convey a deep, emotional heft. Dialogue is sparse and has the ring of disjointed truth. Erdrich tells most of the story (uncharacteristically) in Joe's first person voice, using a dual perspective of remembered experience and lived experience. That is, an older, wiser, Joe tells the story, but himself becomes immersed in his youthful, not-so-wise perspective. This is a difficult trick to pull off, and Erdrich does it so seamlessly that you not notice but for the overall power.
The rest of the cast, some of whom we have met in Erdrich's other novels, show up from Joe's perspective, and thus, in a new light. Joe's father, Bazil, is cautious, almost to a fault, but invested with an inner compass and confidence that gives him a real sense of understated power. The Trickster figure, Mooshum, provides surreal comic relief, while Joe's friends, Cappy, Zack and Angus, are perfect boys for this story; a bit odd, a bit outcast, and yet, entirely normal. There are some very bad folks around as well, and their reveals are superbly handled by Erdrich.
At the core of this novel are concerns about the murky legalities of tribal life; how seemingly arbitrary laws and lines change jurisdiction and enforcement. The upshot of all this is that justice seems to be of little concern, and even finding an obvious offender is fraught with the potential for bureaucratic obfuscation of the truth. Erdrich does a superb job of letting us discover this through Joe's eyes, even as he becomes increasingly focused on revenge.
The problem with revenge is that, in spite of all appearances, it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. When we embark upon that path, it seems as if it is part of the healing process, though the lizard parts of our brains know better. It is simply a means of wounding both whoever hurt us and we who were hurt, with the idea of making sure that the pain, the reminder of how we were hurt, does not go away. Lesson learned, painfully.
Erdrich's masterful exploration of the collision of instant adulthood and revenge through Joe's youthful — and more mature perspectives immerses readers in her intensely detailed, impeccably rendered milieu. But that dual perspective will haunt readers even after the book is finished. The telling details are there in our own lives, and we remember our own pasts just as well as we want to. We'll remember as well that achieving vengeance is never quite so satisfying as seeking it.
New to the Agony Column
12-09-13: Commentary : Jean Ferry and Edward Gauvin Hail 'The Conductor' : Swatches of Undone Reality