Archive for December 27th, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the Condensed Epic

In its review of fiction in the Aughts, New York Magazine implicitly compares The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—the decade’s “signature novel”—to Infinite Jest—“the big buzzy signature meganovel of the nineties.” According to Sam Anderson, Junot Díaz’s 2007 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, represents the Aughts’ literary downsizing, from 1000-page epics like David Foster Wallace’s to 335-page condensed ones like Díaz’s.

Díaz certainly is a meticulous writer and editor: It took him 11 years to write Oscar Wao after his breakthrough 1996 short story collection, Drown. It can take that kind of time, however, when your ambition, like Díaz’s, is to relate the story not just of a single protagonist, but of his lineage and indeed, the culture that created it. In this way, Oscar Wao is a condensed epic: the tale of the de León family as a representative of the Dominican Republic during the Age of Trujillo. It’s a project that would take most writers twice as many pages and Wallace 10 times as many.

The first thing you notice when reading Díaz though is the smoothness of his prose. Liberally using Spanish words and expressions,* Díaz infuses his language with that Spanish quality of words flowing one into the next. There is an effortless fluidity to his prose: Continue reading

The Corrections and the Big Novel

In James Wood’s influential review, “Human, All Too Inhuman,” of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, he discussed what he calls “the littleness of the big novel.” His point, put somewhat crudely, was that as the ambition of novelists grows to include encompassing the entire geographical, political, and philosophical spectrum, works of fiction end up losing their humanity. As Smith herself said, “It is not the writer’s job to tell us how somebody felt about something; it’s to tell us how the world works.” As a result, Wood claims, the movement that he termed “hysterical realism” produces work that “knows a thousand things, but does not know a single human being.” 

About a year after Wood’s condemnation of contemporary fiction first appeared in The New Republic, The Corrections was published. Jonathan Franzen’s novel certainly does not lack the kind of ambition Wood talks about: The Corrections spans cities, countries, and continents, covers multiple generations, deals with financial disasters and Eastern European political instability, looks at modern academia and middle-class suburbia. In short, the book does seem to know a thousand things.

And yet Franzen’s story remains wholly grounded and deeply personal. At its heart, The Corrections is a story of a Midwestern family, the Lamberts. The Lambert patriarch, Alfred, is a stubborn, straight-laced, intelligent, and principled man who is suffering from early but unmistakable signs of senility as the novel begins. As Franzen puts it: Continue reading

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