Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lalapipo versus Oscar Wao

I was just having an argu-sation about gender with a couple writer friends the other day, that made me think: what price equality? Scorcese would fail miserably with an attempt to incorporate a Merryl Streep or Frances McDormand type in Casino or The Departed. Likewise, I don't really care what Candace Bushnell thinks of boxing.

So, a few weeks ago I read a book called Lala Pipo, by Hideo Okuda, in one day. It wasn't just that my previous employer published it (there's your full disclosure), or that I like funny stories about perverts. It was simple, direct, "honest," very clear in its conceit, and yes, a hilarious send-up of so many societal ills that would seem macabre in any other light. Think Chuck Palahniuk and Todd Solondz, or Tom Perotta and Ron Jeremy.

A few nights ago I started The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Juno Diaz after months of feeling like I really ought to. This book too, I could not put down. It isn't just that the narrator makes brilliant and copious use of the f-bomb or name drops otaku icons with just as frequently. Or that I like funny stories about masturbators, as well as comic books and Tolkien. It was experimental while germaine, historicist while postmodern, metafictive while populist genre-rific.

What these two titles share is a narrative conceit, comparable to the game "Telephone" or a relay race. The books are made of a bunch of stories that take place in genetic-geo-temporal proximity, and share one prescient theme bifurcated by two other ones. In Lala Pipo I'd argue it's sex bifurcated by labor and "the city." In ...Oscar Wao, I'd argue it's family, bifurcated by language and sex.

But this is where I run into an enormous conflict. "Oscar Wao" is more deserving of praise, perhaps because it tries harder and accomplishes more, but it fails so magnanimously, so obnoxiously, at one thing, that it becomes almost impossible for me to give the entire book, both my thumbs. And that one thing, is the narration of Oscar Wao's older sister, Part 2 of the novel.

Part 1, mind you, is one of the most amazing "short stories" I've ever read in my life. So are Parts 3 and 4. The last part of the book is just fine (awesome if you feel comfortable making fun of gentrifying New New Yorkers without calling attention to yourself). Point being, if you want to read an exercise in amazing beginnings, start with this novel.

But man if I didn't want to burn the book halfway through Part 2. It was so full of cliches, unironic stereotypes, and really poor qualifications of female issues (literally: menstruation, hair, breast cancer). It makes one wonder if Diaz does it on purpose. I am reserving judgements against Diaz's own gender, but this is the most astounding schism I've ever encountered in such a brilliant novel. Imagine watching "Glenn Gary Glenn Ross," or some Lars Von Trier like "The Celebration": a chamber piece, if you will. Now imagine one of the main leads is replaced by Paris Hilton or a tenth grader in fourth grade remedial math.

In contrast to this, "Lala Pipo" is no "Glenn Gary..." or "The Celebration" (and just so it's clear, I'm not comparing the narratives of "Oscar Wao" with either of those films. Just the chemistry of characters, and intensity of performances.). But "Lala Pipo" isn't trying to be anything like that. It's more like an episode of some FX original sitcom. It's just really entertaining. And, well, all the women in the book are kind of... stereotypical idiots. Truly the lesser half.

And this is where I come back to the argument about writing up gender.

Do I laud a misogynist his expose on perverted men because he's been forthright?
And do I then fault a genius his very short attempt at a woman's bildungsroman because it feels disingenuous?

1 comment:

Aaron Stewart Ahn said...

Given that in the first few pages of Wao, there are references to John Christopher's Tripods and Superman's villain Darkseid, it's painfully obvious that Junot Diaz himself probably is still a virgin just like his other Battlestar Galactica obsessing brethren. He just needs to carry that Pulitzer around, get to know some woman, and the depictions will improve.