Friday, December 02, 2011

O' both your houses

Because I couldn't stop talking about how wonderful Middlesex was, my bro-in-law said, "I have a few other Pulitzer Prize-winning books too, if you want to read those."

So I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the title of which naturally reminded me of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" ... in fact, it was strangely similar enough to the Hemingway short story, and yet different enough that I liked it.

The book moves back and forth between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, between three generations enduring their own hardships, and from the Trujillo dictatorship to teen angst. From the opening lines, the reader knows it's not an entirely happy tale: the idea of a family curse is introduced and reiterated throughout. References to "the final days" and "the end" are repeatedly mentioned, so it's pretty obvious that the characters are ill-fated. Themes of family, sex, and education each alternate as both nurturing and oppressive.

Most of the book drops Spanish phrases or Dominican slang, with no translation. There are footnotes for historical references. The narrator is hilariously snide and irreverent, relating the stories with a mix of multinational street slang. Each portrait of the cursed family is depicted with and bittersweet emotion. The cultural references are brilliantly and intricately mixed: everything from Dominican slang to comic book geekdom to 80s films to sci-fi lore. Through it all, the reader really did become part of the binational, bicultural, class-straddling, racially-polarized world of the main characters.

Then, on the plane ride back home, I realized I had one more library book to read. I no longer remember who recommended it to me, but 2030 was utter crap. The characters lacked depth, the plot read like a B-rated Hollywood movie, and the science, politics, and economics described (hell, the entire book) could have been written by a 12-year-old.

In a nutshell: the cure for cancer leads to prolonged lifespans in the U.S. Young people start to hate old people to the point that there are suicide bombs at AARP headquarters. When a mega-earthquake wipes out the city of Los Angeles, the government can't afford to rebuild because it's been bankrupted by Medicare. So the Chinese offer to rebuild the city for half of the net revenue produced forever after.

I'm not kidding. It was that bad. It was painful to read on two main levels: as a history major and as a politico-wonk. I had to suspend all knowledge of the political process, election campaigns, community organizing, infrastructure, and geology, among many other things.

But I was bored on a plane for 5 hours with nothing else to do. If I hadn't been trapped in the air sans sudoku or crossword, I would never have read the whole thing. Because in the back of my mind the entire time, I kept thinking that the book was written a few years too late to be relevant: #OccupyWallStreet has shown that young people can protest unfair policies in smart and nonviolent ways, we've been post-HCR for a while now, and the separate ideas of a living will and death with dignity were flashes in the news cycle pan during the Bush Administration. 2030 tried too hard to be a social commentary; in the end, it's too shallow to spark any kind of meaningful conversation.

Not a book to read after finishing a well-written, intelligent novel that won a Pulitzer.

But at least I have more books from the library to help me erase the memories of this one...

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