The Morning News Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powell’s Books, is an annual battle royale amongst the top novels in “literary fiction” published throughout the year. Read more about this year’s tournament »
Shining at the Bottom of the Seaby STEPHEN MARCHE
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Waoby JUNOT DÍAZ
OK, so I’ll admit that I hadn’t heard of Stephen Marche and hadn’t read his first novel, Raymond and Hannah, so Shining at the Bottom of the Sea was something of a revelation to me. In this little Nabokovian volume, Marche anthologizes the major fictioneers of the forgotten (and entirely made up) North Atlantic island of Sanjania. The world feels rich and lived-in, rather than like some curio or, worse, a thinly veiled allegory. And, yet, my sense that Marche wasn’t commenting on anything, was merely inventing for the sake of inventing, was what ultimately made me hesitate to hand him an upset victory. His book suffers by comparison with another recent faux-reference workRobert Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas. The Borgesian wildness of Nazi Literature is underpinned by the emerging realization that the imaginary author is a former political prisoner of the real Augusto Pinochet.
And that’s where Junot Díaz edges out Marche. Díaz is mucking around in the same murky waters of nationhood and the sources of literaturebut he does it in the person of a ghettonerd. Tolkien, Dr. Who, Star Trek, Dungeons & Dragons, comic booksthey all go into the blender of Oscar’s mind and come out through the amped-up, slang-wanging Spanglish of the novel’s narrator, Yunior. How these invented realities intertwine with our own is at the heart of Díaz’s narrative and reveal him to be every bit as obsessed with invented identity as Marche, but as with Bolaño the specter lurking behind his tale is a real-life dictator, Rafael Trujillo (a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up). It gives the novel urgency, potency, and (dare I say?) relevance. It’s enough to make you feel good about what literature can accomplish in the world we all inhabit together.
|If we’re doing anything here (and I’m not sure we are), it’s showing how biases are not only epidemic, they are unavoidable.||Kevin||John||Being called Nabokovian is like crack to many literary authors, sort of the inverse of a standup comedian being called, Yakov Smirnovian.|