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09-15-12: Junot Díaz Reveals 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao'

Sing, Listen and Read

Editor's Note: Here's a book that rewards re-reading, and deserves a new review. The musical analogy herein is important; this book bears a very close resemblanve to the sort of song you can listen to again and again, every time hearing new nuances and sounds.

He who tells the tale may not at first wish us, his readers, to believe that he is in fact the subject of the story. It may not be true. But from the first sentence of Junot Díaz's superb 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,' it is clear that we're privy to a voice that is itself story. Yunior, who first popped up in 'Drown.' here establishes himself as a voice so compelling, one is tempted to compare him to singers — Aretha Franklin or Luciano Pavarotti — more than a prose voice. The raw power that Díaz summons with such ease connects with readers at the same powerful emotional level. It is literately irresistible.

At its core, 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' indeed lives up to its title and gives us just that — the story of the man who comes to be called Oscar Wao, an overweight, withdrawn Dominican ghetto boy who immerses himself in what is now called "geek culture" — that is, "sci-fi," comics, and fantasy fiction, all the escapist wonders that swarm our senses with tantalizing glimpses of worlds that are not, and will never be ours. But as Yunior tells the story of Oscar, he zips back and forth in time in our world, telling the story of Oscar's mother, his grandfather and the Dominican Republic. Yunior, a much harder case than Oscar, is not immune to Oscar's charms, nor to those of geek culture. He tells us Oscar's story, all of these stories, with hints of the voice of a fan. He uses the language of fans of world-building fiction to build a world that is part of our world from the perspective of a fan. It's a remarkable feat and so insanely, lovingly, achingly enjoyable on every level that it is hard to stop reading.

Díaz creates a galley of histories and history, or characters who pop to life for Yunior and the reader in prose so compelling that it never matters who we are with, where we are or when we are. He's frequently hilarious, touching, scary and cruel, but we don't feel the difference so much as the continuity, the thread of vibrant life from one scene to the next. Yunior gives us lots of historical footnotes — yes, literally written as footnotes — that are every bit as compelling as the increasingly tense story of Oscar and his doomed family. While he eschews any specific sense of the fantastic, he manages in the same words to embed a feel of just how fantastic and unexpected life can be. Expect to find lots of references to The Lord of the Rings (Oscar wants to be the Dominican Tolkien), comics and science fiction literature here, but served up with the raw power of the rough-and-ready streets.

Díaz keeps the plot pretty simple in some regards; this is the story of a family that originates in the Dominican Republic but bounces back and forth to the States. But Yunior tells this simple story in his own way, and that keeps the reader guessing and excited as we go back to meet mothers and fathers (if the latter is not absent) and then forward into our brave and present future. Díaz maintains a giddy level of excitement as the layers are peeled away and added back, as Oscar lumbers towards his fate.

'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' is a perfect example of an un-self-conscious paean to the act of reading; it is a book written for those who find joy in the written word. Díaz fills every sentence, every aside with the exact adolescent enthusiasm that makes young men collect comics, hoard copies of The Lord of the Rings and read them over and over. He employs their language and their perspective (which will certainly bring joy to that audience), but he does so in a manner that lets everyone in on the fun. Now, life is not by any means perfect. Heroes die. The War of the Rings exacts a price. But approach life like a kid entranced by the powers of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, look at your lost love through the lens of The Lord of the Rings, and for a moment, the sadness and the terror will be swept up with — and indistinguishable from — the joy of those who read and love those books, or any books.

09-13-12: Archive Review: Ken Macleod Surfs 'Newton's Wake'

Concise Space Opera

Editor's Note: My recent encounter with the wondewrful fiction of Ken Macleod made me realize that I'd not brought my reviews of his earlier novels up to date. I begin to rectify that with this review, now properly indexed ande archived of his wonderful space opera, 'Newton's Wake.'

With science fiction the future's the thing. Whiz-bang, we're in the twenty-third century; or the twenty-fifth century; or thirty-five years in the future. And so, dropped in the future, surrounded by the future, and headed for the future in the future, it's easy to neglect the past. But the past is there, all right; even in the future. There's that mysterious time, for the reader, between now — the time when the reader is opening the book — and the future, or that point in the future when the story begins.

That segment of time — the future's past, and the present's future — does require some definition. Indeed, that's the propelling force for many a science fiction novel; how did our world become this world? And having become this world, what might it next become? Few writers have such a mastery of blending the past, present and future as Ken Macleod. However, in his previous work, readers have been required to invest in a series to fully enjoy the breadth of his clever historical revisions. Now that experience is available to novice readers and fans alike, in his first standalone work, 'Newton's Wake: A Space Opera'. Full of the same low-key and intelligent humor as his other work, 'Newton's Wake' lives up to its subtitle and then some. Macleod stuffs his space opera so chock full of ideas, riffs and references that readers will constantly enjoy the pleasant feel of incipient information overload. 'Newton's Wake' has the grand arc, the huge characters and the rigorous structure of any musical opera and also offers the light comedic touches one associates with the wittiest of Mozart's works. All this while casually slagging Microsoft; once again, Macleod demonstrates his wit with bracing brevity.

'Newton's Wake' begins as a bit of "combat archaeology" goes bad. The Carlyle Clan pretty much owns the wormhole network that connects the known universe. When Lucinda Carlyle steps through the gate on the planet Eurydice, she knows that she's found a planet worth snagging. But when she blunders into an ancient artifact on the planet, she triggers a machine that threatens to disassemble the Universe as she and humanity now know it. Just how — and what — they know are the mysteries that will pull readers through one brain-boggling escapade after another.

Macleod lets us know early on that sometime after now, the military AI's of earth took charge in what is referred to as the "Hard Rapture". Some humans remained, some went running, some made bargains and some simply disappeared into the machines. Who went where and why is not clear, at least not at first. The great fun of 'Newton's Wake' is twofold. There's the science-fictional joy of finding out the complex history of Macleod's future while the end result of that history is dismantled right before the characters' —and the readers' eyes. Then there's the linguistic construct — the novel 'Newton's Wake' — that Macleod offers as a document of those events. The language in 'Newton's Wake' is a pure and complex joy, a mélange of ping-ponging, self-referential jokes and jargon that's so dense it might take a work of non-fiction equally long — or longer — to explain. But the joy is that readers will experience all the erudition of that non-existent work of non-fiction in the space of a couple of packed paragraphs in Macleod's enjoyable tale.

The plot that unfolds in Macleod's future is complex and mysterious. What's happening is inexplicable even to those who are experiencing it; and every time the reader is just about caught up with the future's past, another element of the future's present throws that past into utter doubt or an entirely different light. Lies, myths and misunderstandings fragment the plot then click together with smooth precision. It's a breathtaking performance and a reading experience that has no parallel. Macleod's world is so packed with details that detain the reader in a techno-backwater or an isolated cutting-edge camp, there's little time to catch your reading breath. But Macleod doesn't disappoint when it comes time to put the picture together. He doesn't over-explain and he doesn't wave his hands. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, and whether it's a train or the light of day, you'll be happy to hit it at faster than the speed of light. This novel is after all, titled 'Newton's Wake'; and that wake is celebrating the end of physics and science fiction as we think we know it.

Macleod doesn't let his characters get lost in all this scintillating intellectual action. From the unfortunate Lucinda Carlyle to the unforgettable resurrected folksingers, Winter and Calder, Macleod gives us humans we can cling to in the chaos of a future that's all the more alien for being the sole work of humans. He even gives his machines a character we can clutch; whether it's Shlaim, the human ghost resurrected to act as a virtual slave within a spacesuit or The Hungry Dragon, a starship infected with a viral intelligence, Macleod makes his machines as canny as the humans who inhabit them.

But beyond the complex and shiny surface of 'Newton's Wake', there's a universe of subtext that's every bit as compelling as the story itself. Macleod peppers the reader with jokes and references in every sentence, every paragraph. Nobody in the past, present or future of fiction and science fiction emerges unscathed or unmentioned. Macleod is canny enough to make sure that none of his cleverness gets in the way of the story. But 'Newton's Wake' is like one of those complicated pictures that proves itself to be composed of equally complicated pictures. Like it or not, there's an army of grad students waiting to write dissertations on Macleod's work. In the interim, the average reader can just sit back, enjoy the ride and love the language.

'Newton's Wake' does not tread a lot of new territory for Macleod, but it puts a lot of that territory into a concise, ultra-dense package that unfolds and then unfolds again. The politics are here, the present is here, both in Macleod's backwater interstellar settlements and in the mystery of the Hard Rapture, and the future is here in all its gleaming, shiny glory. Readers will be scratching their heads one minute and jumping for joy the next, flash to the future and blast to the past. It's all there —now. Macleod uses the lowest of technology, the most primitive of entertainments — the novel — to take the reader father than any high-tech virtual reality. In Macleod's mind, in his work, words are the next — and the final — frontier.

09-10-12: Charles Yu Politely Says 'Sorry Please Thank You'

Identity in Language

Editor's Note: I'm running this review again to remind readers how good this collection is, and to accompany the interview that I did after reading 'Sorry Please Thank You' without the expectation of being able to speak with the author. Yu's novel, 'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe' is also excellent.

In 'Sorry Please Thank You,' Charles Yu tells some utterly enthralling stories that seem quite unusual. Sure the subjects are a bit offbeat (a man who works for a company to which people can outsource unpleasant emotions, a letter to a self in an alternate universe), and the execution is occasionally unusual (an outline or a series of single-paragraph pages), but readers will in general find themselves in entertainingly familiar territory.

What makes these stories really quite unique is that Yu uses the written word and storytelling to do more than simply tell a story. The works in 'Sorry Please Thank You' use language to interrogate and calculate the limits of our identity. Each story is like an abacus of words. As we read, as we immerse ourselves in Yu's story-structures, the words channel our thoughts back into thought itself. The stories are a hoot to read; they're funny, touching and very weird. But they're also something very unique. They are not experiments in literature so much as they are using literature to enable the readers to perform experiments on their experience of identity, of self. That second layer of reading experience — on top of great stories filled with emotion and character — makes these stories particularly engaging.

The collection is divided into three sections (Sorry, Please, Thank You), with a coda (All of the Above). Each section includes a variety of stories. The book begins with "Standard Loneliness Package," about a man who works for a company that allows customers to outsource emotions they don't wish to feel to its workers. He soon finds himself with feelings of his own that could do with outsourcing. It sets a great tone for the works that follow. The language is sparse and restrained; it's very declarative. Yu uses that style create the weird backdrop with all its science fictional trappings and combine it with a powerful emotional foreground; and inverts them regularly. The result creates a sense of wonder intellectually as Wu explores the permutations of his concept, but also is deeply involving. The dissonance between the two effects is powerful enough to be a third force in the storytelling.

"First Person Shooter" is Yu's take on the zombie trope, as two bored workers on the graveyard shift in a mega-big box store deal with an undead customer. Like most of these stories, there's a sly, dark sense of humor at work here. "Troubleshooting" is a poignant story of regret framed by computer instruction manuals and self-help books. Here, Yu creates a vivid, emotional minefield and clever linguistic exploration of life and identity that works both as story and as a thought-provoking self-examination by language.

"Hero Absorbs Major Damage" is set in a videogame, where Yu's declarative prose is part of the world-building. "Human for Beginners" plays with relationships by way of instruction manuals, using the format and language of business to examine family. "Inventory," a story of emotional fragmentation, also works as both an interrogation of the reader's self-perception and a not-so-straightforward look at a breakup. In "Note to Self," Yu explores quantum fiction as he sets up a hall of narrative mirrors. It's funny and excitingly odd.

"Yeoman" is a tribute to the "red shirts" of Star Trek, the ensigns who were destined to die on an away team. "Designer Emotion 67," framed as a speech to shareholders, mines territory familiar to readers of Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem with a nice new twist and Yu's pitch-perfect prose. With "The Book of Categories", Yu uses the MS Word Outline format in a devastating examination of grief. "Adult Contemporary" is a psychedelic examination of the stories we construct for ourselves, and the final story in the volume, "Sorry Please Thank You," speaks to what we have not done.

Throughout these stories, readers will find an impressive, stripped down prose style that is almost alarmingly easy to read as Yu slips through narrative knots that are charmingly complex. There's a liveliness to everything in here, emotional and intellectual that elicits the best aspect of science fiction — that "sense of wonder" — without ever resorting to the usual means of getting there. 'Sorry Please Thank You' is also handsomely designed. It makes a difference. Charles Yu is a precise writer. Every word matters as much as the figures in a sum, as the beads on an abacus. It all adds up to very much more than readers have a reason to expect — a genuinely new and engaging narrative voice, asking and answering the oldest questions.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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