The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz : This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, currently all the rage, and it’s pretty damn wonderful (wondrous) so far. Two epigraphs and an introductory chapter frame the idea of the novel a bit too thoroughly before the players are even introduced, but as opposed to someone like Zadie Smith, Diaz actually cares about his characters’ lives and not just the idea of their lives. I haven’t loved a protagonist this much in a long, long time, which probably says a lot about my inner nerd.
The Spirit Archives, Vol. 16 by Will Eisner : I’d previously read the earliest, and fairly conventional, Spirit comics from 1940 (collected in volume one), and after seeing the teaser for the new Frank Miller film adaptation (which looks all wrong, by the way, like an unnecessary extension of the lame-brained Sin City), I thought I should catch up with The Spirit post-WWII, when Eisner was defining new rules of comics storytelling and creating the so-called Citizen Kane of comics. There’s no doubt that Eisner is a master, as evidenced by his later Contract with God series (the second novel, A Life Force, is the masterpiece that the first is often claimed to be), and pretty much every seven-pager of The Spirit circa 1948 has many clever new ways of telling a standard action story. Each one is packed with detail, but with a very impressive narrative economy, and the splash pages are quite something. The minstrel character Ebony is still around, and his appearances are even more disconcerting in the 1948 comics than in those from 1940. Maybe Eisner is trying to tackle a serious subject when Ebony has a flash of a noose while on the lam after stealing a dog, but the caricatured depiction makes it seem that Eisner is simply ignorant of the stereotypes he’s reproducing. Ebony is even told, “It is your kind of villain who makes this community so unsafe,” with, unbelievably, no detectable irony. And why is it wrong when Ebony threatens to kill a bad guy, while it’s just good fun when the Spirit piles up dead bodies?
Other recent reads:
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata : A great translation by one Edward G. Seidensticker. Either Kawabata is such a great writer that the beauty of his prose comes through effortlessly in English, or Seidensticker is something of a poet himself. It is soothing to read about the coldness and darkness of wintry Japan during the heat of summer, while the warmth of the novel comes exclusively from the characters, who speak in peculiar ways, with plenty of double and other multiple entendres. I expected a 50’s Japanese novel about a geisha would probably be fairly misogynistic, but this captures the ambivalence of the character Komako’s position pretty well. A great book, masked by its subtlety.
Herzog, in the end, is probably a masterpiece, though so particular to the time in which it was written that it is hard to capture the relevance of its ideas. Do people experience Herzog’s anxieties and philosophical crises anymore? Being alive in the modern world, being anonymous, the end of moral suffering? Probably not, so a novel in which he is set up as ambassador of the human race seems a bit odd in 2008. African Americans and transvestites and homosexuals (and everyone who is not Herzog) are often lingering in the background of his world, and it is too painfully obvious that they could never be front and center in a Saul Bellow novel. But still, the greatest stylist of his era? For sure. Herzog makes novels with plots seem absurd.