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Monthly Archives: December 2014

…either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

-Derek Walcott, ‘The Schooner Flight

This is a novel I’d been looking forward to ever since I read Diaz’s second book of short stories This Is How You Lose Her (a heartbreaking and beautifully written collection about love and loss). As I’ve noted in previous posts, living in Cambodia often makes it difficult (and expensive) to get good books. However, on a recent trip home to Australia I discovered a copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao on a table in a Goulburn $2 shop. Just what a Pulitzer Prize winning novel was doing buried beneath a pile of romances I’ll never know. Was my stumbling across it merely happy accident, or was it fate? In the spirit of this novel I think I’ll choose to believe the latter.

I was completely swept away by this book. It is beautifully written, complicated, and totally different to anything I’ve read before. To be honest, I found myself more than a little intimidated by The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It led me to think about my own writing and to feel (in the face of Diaz’s masterpiece) that a novel is (for me, at least) an impossible task. However, after reading more about the book and about Diaz I came to realise that while writing is ridiculously hard, it is supposed to feel this way. And that the agony is, in the end, worth it.

Oscar Wao is Junot Diaz’s second book (he published a collection of short stories titled Drown in 1996) and his first novel. (Did I mention that he won the Pulitzer Prize? For a first novel?) Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey in the United States. Oscar Wao criss-crosses back and forth between both of these places.

How to describe The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a book that is so many different things at once? Simply put, it is a sprawling family drama centred on Oscar de Leon, an overweight comic book nerd and a wannabe Tolkien, and narrated by Yunior, an omniscient voice who also appears in many of Diaz’s short stories. Oscar is a romantic, but a flailing one. The ongoing journey of the novel – and the thread that ties all the others together – is Oscar’s quest to get laid, at least once, before he dies. From this simple core Oscar Wao stretches out into all kinds of fantastic and faraway places. This is not just a novel about Oscar – it is also about his mother, his sister, his grandfather, and the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo that terrorised the Dominican Republic for 31 years. This is a novel about how larger histories affect individual lives. As Diaz comments in this interview with Slate, “Oscar is utterly unaware of this history and yet also dominated by it.” Oscar cannot escape from his larger past – as the aptly chosen poem by Derek Walcott (printed at the beginning of the novel) indicates, he is either nobody, or a nation.

Oscar Wao is not always easy to read. It jumps around in time, is full of long footnotes that disrupt the flow of the story, and uses lots of Spanish words and phrases (which, to an Australian who learned Japanese and German in school, can be pretty baffling). However the fact that Oscar Wao is such a good book makes up for these difficulties. Instead of being frustrated I wanted to read more carefully in order to understand. I also loved all of the characters and was invested in their lives. There are some fantastically strong women in this book – Lola, Oscar’s sister, and Beli, his mother – but I found myself most drawn to Oscar and Yunior. I love Oscar’s voice and the way he uses comic book and Lord of the Rings analogies (according to Diaz in Slate, Trujillo was the obvious Dark Lord of the novel). And Yunior, in spite of (or perhaps because of?) his inability to stop hurting the women he loves, is intelligent, funny, and sympathetic.

What really amazes me about Oscar Wao, however, is its structure. The novel is divided into three parts, is told from the perspectives of five characters, and spans nearly six decades. Diaz notes that “the book was supposed to take the shape of an archipelago; it was supposed to be a textual Caribbean”, and it does feel that way. Sprawling and disconnected, and yet somehow still part of a unified whole.

It was realising how carefully and beautifully Diaz had structured Oscar Wao that got me despairing about my own writing. How could I possibly create something even close to Diaz’s intricate, sophisticated, and yet still so readable story? But while trying to figure out how to write about Oscar Wao I stumbled across these two interviews with Diaz from Slate and Bookslut in which he talks a lot about writing, and how difficult it is for him:

[It is] in that process of writing what I’m not supposed to be writing that I find my way to what I am supposed to be writing … [my emphasis]

This is a tiring and demoralising way to go about writing. But I don’t know any other approach.

This is exactly how I feel (I have since pasted the above quotes over my desk); that most of the time what I write is complete shit and a waste of time, and why bother? But without the shit and the time wasting I will never get to anything good. And this is why writing is so fucking difficult. But – as a novel as wondrous as Oscar Wao demonstrates – it can also be so fucking worth it. Diaz is no doubt exceptionally talented, but it is heartening to know that he feels as intimidated by the task of writing as I do. I highly recommend The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to everyone, but especially to other writers. It is a reminder of just how good words – when placed in the right order – can be.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was first published in 2007. Junot Diaz is the author of the short story collections Drown (1996) and This Is How You Lose Her (2012). He currently teaches writing at MIT.  

The podcast of the hour is undoubtedly Sarah Koenig’s Serial – a compelling production from the creators of This American Life. However I have become addicted to something a little different: Kumail Nanjiani’s The X-Files Files, an analysis of (almost) all 203 episodes of the 90s TV cult-classic The X-Files.

My own obsession with The X-Files began at 11 years old, when a school friend came over one afternoon with a VHS tape of “Paper Clip”, the second part of a double episode that opened season three (read more about my experience growing up with the show here). The X-Files feels as much a part of my childhood as birthday cakes and after-school netball, and as an adult I find myself revisiting the series every few years in the same way I do old photo albums. I was surprised and delighted to discover, when I came across Nanjiani’s podcast last month, that I’m not the only one who feels this way about The X-Files.

The X-Files Files is released through Feral Audio, a collective based in LA that allows its podcasters full creative control. Host Kumail Nanjiani is an actor and comedian best known for his roles in Silicon Valley and Portlandia (he also co-hosts another podcast about video games – The Indoor Kids – with his wife Emily Gordon). Nanjiani fell in love with The X-Files growing up in Karachi, Pakistan. Watching the show as a kid Nanjiani “started to see the world as a much bigger and weirder place”, and as an adult he remains a huge fan. With The X-Files Files podcast Nanjiani hopes to introduce new viewers to the show (his timing is perfect, too, as The X-Files is now available on Netflix) while at the same time providing existing X-Philes (long-term fans) with a wealth of new commentary. Nanjiani initially intended to skip over his least favourite episodes, but he has now committed to covering all of them – a good decision, I think, given that his commentary on the less popular instalments often makes for the funniest podcasts.

In each podcast Nanjiani discusses one or two episodes (usually two) with a different guest. Many of the guests are friends of Nanjiani’s (Rhea Butcher, Devin Faraci, Dan Harmon), and his wife co-hosts a number of episodes (Emily’s X-Files Files are among my favourites). As the podcast grows in popularity, however, Nanjiani is attracting more high profile guests. He has interviewed the composer of The X-Files theme, as well as producer Steve Asbell, writers Glen and Darin Morgan, and Dean Haglund (Langly of The Lone Gunmen). There has even been a Tweet of interest from Gillian Anderson, and with six seasons still to comment on there is plenty of time for Nanjiani to get more ‘big names’ on his show.

The X-Files Files follows a fairly loose structure. There is a wonderfully relaxed feel to this podcast – Nanjiani records at home, often in his backyard, and visits from his cat (Bagel) are not uncommon. Conversations are allowed to meander, sometimes resulting in episodes that are more than two hours long. Both Nanjiani and his guest for the week watch the episode(s) beforehand and make notes to prepare for the podcast (Nanjiani suggests this is the best way to listen). Discussion starts out general, but Nanjiani has introduced a few regular segments, such as talking about how the writers/directors/actors felt about a particular episode, looking at the Nielson ratings from when the show first aired, and – my favourite – pulling comments and conversations from the original X-Files Internet message boards.

I think one of the reasons The X-Files Files works so well as a podcast is the nature of the show it is analysing. As writer Darin Morgan notes in episode 28, these days most TV series’ focus on just one continuing plotline. The X-Files, however, was different every week. One episode could be a deadly (pardon the pun) serious story about a serial killer, and the next could be a humorous take on a freak show. This was great for the writers of the show, but it is also good for Nanjiani’s podcast, allowing for varied and interesting discussion. The second reason The X-Files Files works is Nanjiani – he is very funny, obviously a huge fan of the show, and not afraid to talk about how the series has moved (as well as entertained) him. He is a perceptive critic, as well. While he often raves about the things he loves he also carefully analyses what doesn’t work.

Some of my favourite aspects of the podcast are the discussions of X-Files trivia (such as Mulder’s porn addiction and his penchant for sunflower seeds), and the comments on how very different the 1990s were (clothing, hairstyles, cell phones, the Internet). I also love it when Nanjiani talks to writers from The X-Files – my favourite podcast so far is Darin Morgan’s, where he and Nanjiani discuss “Humbug” and “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” – two of the best episodes of the series.

I really have nothing negative to say about this: it is my perfect podcast. And though it’s taken a couple of weeks I’ve finally caught up with Nanjiani and have now started watching the episodes before listening. I began, as fate would have it, with “Paper Clip”, which has reminded me of just how much The X-Files has been a part of my life and has (probably more than I realise) influenced how I think. Now I wait for The X-Files Files every week the way I used to wait for a new X-Files episode. All I need now are some Mulder and Scully action figures, and my life will be complete…

The X-Files Files started in June 2014, and is currently up to episodes five and six of the third season. You can follow The X-Files Files on Twitter, and read the Sub-Reddit here. Kumail Nanjiani also co-hosts The Meltdown on Comedy Central with Jonah Ray.