Monday, April 29, 2013

Drown - Junot Diaz

Single mother households, unrequited love, heartbreak, junkies, life in the ghettos with immigrants trying to make a life in the US and trying to adjust to the changes, families left behind in the homeland (Dominican Republic in this case) all these make up the stories of Junot Diaz's dazzling debut collection 'Drown'.

A typical immigration from a third world country happens like this: the husband/father first migrates to the 'promised land', gets some job and after some time the family follows him there. But in several cases, it doesn't happen this way and the father becomes lost (or loses himself) and the wife/mother is left to raise the family on her own. This 'absent father' is a recurrent theme in these stories, with the mother/wife having to bear the burden of bringing up the family on her own. It is not just the financial strain that the absence of the father causes, it also results in emotional strain too. The wife does not not know where the father is, why  he has not got in touch with them and whether he will be back at all or not. Sometimes letters come from the husband saying that he would come to take them away, but it never happens. The kids are sometimes too young to know and understand the implications of their father not being with them, but it causes different emotional scars in them. When the financial situation becomes very dire, the mother sends her kids to her relatives house to stay until it improves. Though the kids are young, they can sense a humiliation in this instinctively, in the acceptance that your family cannot provide for you and hence is sending you away. Though they cannot articulate it in words, they express it with their unwillingness to mesh with their relatives even though they are welcoming. The last story 'Negocios' looks at this from the father's view as told by the son. We see the father arriving at Chicago, working crazy hours, then moving to New Jersey on foot because he has no money, hitchhiking whenever possible. He works 20 hour days the whole year and little by little he gets dislocated mentally also from his country, marries another woman has kids and completely forsakes his first family. Later he leaves them too and comes back to his first family and finally leaves them too. The son (or Diaz) doesn't condone or justify his actions, but only tries to understand what made his father behave like the way he did. Was it because he wasn't able to handle the situations he found himself in or because he had wanderlust in him always, for which the immigrant life gave avenues to explore. 

Many of these stories have 2 levels, one is the theme which is outwardly at the center of the story and other is the story that is only hinted at and alluded to by Diaz in passing and if one does not pay attention, what the author implies may get lost. The story 'Fiesta,1980' is ostensibly about the vomiting fits that the narrator suffers from whenever he takes a trip in his father's van and the trip that his family takes to  celebrate the narrator's aunt's migration to America. But Diaz also shows us a family that could be on the verge of a break up, as the narrator tells us about his father's mistress, about his meeting her. But we are never told whether his mother knows about her husband's affair or not. Is there an uneasy alliance between the couple with the wife holding on for the sake of her children. The narrator and his brother may be young, but they are not so innocent enough to not understand what an 'affair' is and more importantly know enough to keep their mouth shut and not blab about it to their mother, thus maintaining a status quo of sorts in the family. The women in the stories fall in the 'implicitly hinted at'  category. We always see them through the eyes of the narrator who are always male, we see her working 12 hours shifts, ,asking co-workers to accompany her home as she lives in an unsafe place but not inviting them over, see old photos of her which speak of an earlier life which was probably easier than the one she is living now. When the narrator describes his mother's actions after she comes home from a long day at the factory as
"We could never get Mami to do anything after work, even cook dinner, if she didn't first sit a while in her rocking chair. She didn't want to hear about our problems, the scratches we'd put onto our knees, who said what. She sat on the back patio with her eyes closed and let the bugs bite mountains onto her arms and legs."
it is an indictment of how women are treated. We see a woman who is so weary from being a single mother and rearing her kids on her own and from her job that she first needs some moments of solitude,  a temporary reprieve from the harsh realities of her life, a reprieve that probably fortifies her to continue and hence she endures even the bug bites while enjoying the precious few moments which are for her and her alone.

The tendency to casual violence in children finds it's outlet in two stories. In both there is a young boy, whose face has apparently been disfigured by a pig when he was a very small child and is always wearing a mask as a result. The other kids in stories torment him by throwing stones, tease him, try to take his mask off and generally treat him as an object of curiosity, something that is an object of entertainment for them. It's a reminder to all of us to not underestimate children's propensity to be cruel. 

In 'Drown', we see the extent to which a person will go to conform to some societal norms while breaking others and seeing no contradiction between the two. The narrator is a small time drug dealer and his friend Beto is one who has plans and ambitions for his life and he is gay. The narrator himself could be gay (or bisexual or even just curious) as he doesn't reject the passes made by Beto. But the culture of machismo, so venerated in Latin American makes him to gloss over his own feelings and causes a distancing in their friendship. It's an irony that the narrator has no qualms about being a druggie, but is more worried about his machismo and indeed even being seen as a friend of a gay. That 'Beta' who probably will make a better life, be a model citizen than the narrator who is most likely to end in prison, if not a violent end is not of any consequence, as being seen as macho and being a punk is more conforming to society than Beta's lifestyle. Such is the state of the world.

'Aurora'  is a story of heartbreak, unrequited love and the manner in which loved ones hurt each other, narrated by a junkie, whose dazed eyes and emotions we follow as he takes us on a glazed  trip through the run down haciendas, with unflushed toilets, puke everywhere, crap in the living room with the  narrator having a love-hate relationship with Aurora. . When the narrator describes his going around in the dark haciendas like 
"I go from room to room, hand out in front of me, wishing that maybe just this once I'll feel her soft face on the other side of my fingers instead of some fucking plaster wall"
he could very well be describing his and Aurora's entire life as they stagger around like Zombies, hoping that for once they will find something good, but always going towards their self-destruction. Even the prose for this story is like this, staggered and slurry vignettes from the narrator's life. It is also an indictment of a country that seems to have nothing going for it and gives an understanding as to why the people in these stories are willing to brave so much to migrate, anything to get out from the hell hole they are trapped in (It's another thing that life in America is not always quite as they imagine).  For sheer writing prowess, this is the best story in the collection.

Diaz's writing has a sing-song quality to it, the rhythmic cadences giving it a musical feel. Whether it be describing the heat and dust of the Dominican republic, the narrow ghettos, the coffee plantations, the sea ("the surf exploding into the air like a cloud of shredded silver") the 'Caribbean' comes to life. The liberal sprinkling of Spanish words in the stories also add to the musical quality of the writing. Diaz achieves all this with seeming ease, casualness, and a very distinct voice that is breathtaking in a first book. Though the themes of the stories themselves give a sense of deja-vu, the characters and the writing does the alchemy of the stories being familiar but unique and fresh at the same time and that makes this a must read. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Sportswriter - Richard Ford - The Bascombe Trilogy - Book 1

When we first meet Frank Bascombe, a sportswriter living in 'Haddam' a fictional suburb of New York early morning on Good Friday he is at  his son Ralph's grave as it would have been Ralph's thirteenth birthday. We meet his wife, referred only as 'X", learn that they have been divorced some time after their son pass away and she is living separately with their other two kids in the same suburb. We see the gray morning with the fog just lifting, get a whiff of the sudden smells one gets This is our introduction to Frank one of the more memorable fictional characters, a person who as this trilogy begins is aspiring to be in a state of expectation, in an air of mystery because as we all knows facts tend to bring us down while expectation keeps our hopes alive, even if it is for just a little while and one knows that bad things are just round the corner. He has also a trip to Detroit with his current girl friend (business cum pleasure trip for an interview) and an Easter lunch planned for the weekend. But over the course of the weekend, his aspiration is put to the strictest test, situations change, mysteries change into brute facts which offer no succor, all the while Frank trying to get back the air of expectation.

This is a novel of minutely detailed moments of the present and memories (which are moments of the past) which are intertwined with rather than a linear novel moving from point 'a' to 'b' to 'c'. This could be initially disconcerting to the reader as a card drive from Frank's home to the his girl friend's (Vicki) home could take more than 20 pages, which are filled with Frank's ruminations of moments from the past. One could get antsy from all the waiting for any 'action' (as used in conventional fictional terms) to happen but this technique serves the purpose of slowly drawing us into Frank's world without us even being aware of it. We get know about his parents (briefly), his short lived writing career his marriage, his son's death, it's aftermath and the slow dissolution of the marriage towards it's inevitable end. The present too is not too good for Frank, as relationships flounder, his interview doesn't go well and his life undergoes another series of changes.

Coping with a loss and coming to terms with it is very difficult things. Lives can go completely spiral out of control, families get torn asunder and the life one has known before changes into something completely unrecognizable.  After his son's death, Frank too takes this route, goes on a bike road trip, takes a sabbatical from his job to teach at a distant college, has affairs. It's not something particularly likable, as we see his wife coping with their loss all alone while Frank goes off on a tangent. Even in his relationships, he is concerned about ensuring that his carefully developed ways of coasting in his relationships is not affected any other thing, even if it means blocking out the feelings of others. But what redeems Frank is that there is no justification from him about his activities. Selfish he may be, but he is not a hypocrite (though he feels a pang of jealousy when he suspects that his ex-wife could be in a relationship). And he is a big softie at heart in-spite of all the posturing, as is evidenced from the long trip he at the end to honor a acquaintance's last letter to him, though he himself is at very low point personally as well as professionally. The trip though has a positive effect on him and seems to set him up for the future which will be seen in the next books.

It would have been easy for Ford to create a scenario where Frank's son's death is what sets him up in this path of dreaminess and expectation. It would have been simplistic and reductive.But no, Ford adds another layer to his very nature, which as gleaned from the past, is one where it is very difficult for him to open up as much as possible to another person (completing opening up to another being just a pipe dream). The death just tipped him of the edge  of his inherent fear of impermanence and drives from one career to another, one place to another and one woman to another, all the while aware that end of the current situation could be near. In the present, we see that Frank has somewhat come to terms with the impermanence, knows that it cannot be avoided and evolved a different method to see it to. It's not defeating impermanence, but to stare it down, take the blow, get up for the count and start again.

Frank's philosophy to get through life could be both a curse and a blessing, for the greatest illusion that most human beings have is that they are unique in their suffering and grief, when the fact is that every other person has his own cross to bear and each one bears it in his way. Throughout the novel, we meet people who have suffered their own losses and are trying to somehow come to terms with it. It's not just Frank, his lover Vicci is under some emotional turmoil, you see the ex-football player, who after an accident has lost the use of his legs and is wheelchair bound and seems to be suffering from mood swings, a casual friend of Frank whose wife has left him and who has had a gay encounter and is unsure how to handle it. So many people, so many problems, problems that are different, problems that are similar, but the irony is that for all the shared sorrow in the world, for all the consoling one expects and indeed receives (if lucky) from others, he or she soon finds out that it cannot be shared to the extent that it alleviates your pain permanently, at the most what one gets is a temporary relief. Frank is a person who is aware of this and hence is not interested in shared confidences, he has enough on his own plate without getting too much into the turmoil of others. His idea is to have easy going relationships, with no major secrets shared, no major expectations from each other and to let the relationship run it's course all the while awaiting new and unexpected things to happen. But not all are like Frank, people do tend to believe in sharing their sorrows and expect others to reciprocate and this contradiction, rather the difference in wavelength causes most of Frank's relationship's to be short lived and end with recriminations, mostly from the other side, not Frank's. He has a stoic disposition, trying to live in the moment and always with an expectation. This ensures that the grudges are not held for too long, the relationship remains at least civil and both parties can move to other things without too much of a guilt.

Frank's journeys take him through what could be called the by-lanes of America, the places that go unnoticed and even if noticed not dwelt upon much.  There is this inexplicable (but temporary) high that we get as we walk down a street on an evening and catch glimpses of the other house via the covered but well lit windows, hear some murmuring, wonder about what is going in each house and in general feel at home (to use a cliche). For a brief moment the street itself becomes a sanctuary from all our problems, though we may only know most of our neighbor's by sight. This similar cozy feeling of recognizing a place and feeling comfortable in it's environment is what we get throughout the novel, where we feel that we could be and are/were part of such suburbs, whether it be the smell of early morning dewy grass, the run down houses in the suburbs of a dying industrial city which has seen better times (Detroit), the remote eateries which are open even on Easter (waiting for whom?), the sound of distant train screeching, a car starting in the street, the sound of a song or the smell of cooking wafting out from a neighbor's house, Ford does all this seemingly effortlessly, he never lingers for too long on a landscape or a moment which is not directly related to Frank's thought process at that moment, but still making sure that an image has been registered in our mind. Ford also brings in the societal mores and behavior pattern in the suburbs like if it is a divorce, the man is to be blamed and having close knit divorcee clubs (separate for both men and women) which contact 'X' right on the day of the divorce.

When one reads a book, he has to be careful in ascribing motives to the events, theme etc of the novel on the author as it is difficult to make a distinction between when an author speaks and when the character speaks and we could easily go wrong in our understanding. And in this age of heightened political correctness, we tend to lose our sense of humor and as a result there is a great possibility of even random, harmless references to be considered as in bad taste. After taking this into account and also ensuring that political correctness doesn't impair our reading, one has to say that there are some places in this novel which are plain disturbing, even more so because they are so evidently in contrast with the fluid grace of the other parts. There is this character of a pastor from an African country who is a tenant in Frank's house. He is referred to as a 'Negro boy', a kind of valet by Frank's friend, Frank's himself makes some disparaging remarks about it and also stereotyping Africans. (polygamy, big pricks etc). Through the novel, the words 'Negro', 'Black' are used in all places to refer Afro-Americans.  Add to this the character of Salma, an Arab with whom Frank has an affair. It is hinted that she was part of some terrorist organization, did kill someone etc.  All the other white characters do not have any such extraneous attributes, life stories, behavior attributed to them. Could it be that Frank is a closet racist but there are no indications to the same?. Contrast this with what another character says. This is a new-age person, some one who is supposed to look at the whole world as one, but makes a condescending  comment of the sort "blacks too have to live".  Here Ford shows the paradox of someone who is supposed to treat everyone as equal being patronizing and hence the reference to 'black' is not jarring here and indeed is necessary to show the hypocrisy of the character.  

Loss, grieving, recovery, beyond all this what Frank is looking for in this novel is the sudden moment which occurs, a moment at which we are finally at peace with oneself, a moment which seems to be both happy and sad at the same time, a moment which we want to stretch for eternity. A feeling like, in Ford's words "of wind on your cheeks and your arms, of being released, let loose, of being the light-floater."  Is it too much to ask, a moment where a person feels to be one with the universe, but the laws of nature mandate that these moments are far and in between and when they occur they soon pass, leaving one longing for it's next arrival. What Frank does in the novel is not just searching for the moment, but also trying to make sure that the moment persists as long as possible, so that it can be his sustenance until it's next occurrence. "Is life itself an illness or a syndrome?" is a query asked by Frank which he himself replies "Who knows". The book may sound pessimistic but is not, neither is it some kind of manifesto of living the so called "holistic" life, the trilogy is about a simple "everyman" just trying to get through everyday life. It is this trying to make sense of things, somehow plodding along , with no deep rooted rancor towards the cards dealt to him which is due to his resignation that such bad cards cannot be avoided than any 'Zen' like nirvana, having an almost childish expectation that a gentle breeze is just around the corner which is contrasted with the cynical view that the breeze may soon turn into a storm, but ready to face both them with either lightness or fortitude as is required, that makes him such an enduring character for all his warts and makes one follow him through the next books of the trilogy. Those however are for another day and post.