Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Arrival of Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz's 1996 collection of short stories, Drown, has begun to seem like an ethereal dream in recent years. That sparkling set of tales featuring Dominican immigrants in New York and New Jersey featured great humor and empathy and was written in a dazzling array of styles and voices. But for 11 long years, it was all we had from Diaz.

During those years, I had begun to wonder if Diaz's fate was to be a Dominican Harper Lee. Had I mistaken a one-hit wonder for the debut of a virtuoso? With the release of his new novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Diaz answers any possible doubts about his tremendous talent.

My personal history with Drown predates my role as the bookstore's buyer. I was the staff manager at the time of its release and was one of several people on the staff that read contemporary literary fiction. However, I was just about the only person who relished good short story collections. Then, as now, a good short story engenders more complaints than compliments. A story's brevity is seen as a fault rather than a virtue.

At the time, I knew only one publisher sales rep by name, the Penguin rep Laura, and occasionally she put a galley in my hand for consideration. When she did, I was sure to read the book. Unlike now, when the bookstore is flooded with hundreds of readers copies a month, a recommended galley was to be cherished. I only saw a handful of these before I became a buyer.

Laura sought me out on the main floor where I was helping a customer in the new fiction section. She held a slender volume in her hand, and when the customer moved on she said in a hurried voice, "Arsen, you have to read this book. I really want to know what you think." I took the book from her and thumbed through it. The titles "Aguantando", "Negocios" and "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie," jumped out at me. They seemed different, exotic and in the case of the dating one, humorous. I looked at Laura and she seemed even more hyped up than usual. "We think this could really work, but we need to get readers who appreciate stories."

I took the book home that night and started it immediately. Within three days, I had completed the 10 stories. Diaz's prose entranced me, and the world of Dominican immigrants intrigued me. I called Laura (this was before I was using email) and told her how enthusiastic I was about the book. I also requested that Diaz come to the store for a reading. Once the book came out, I was a one-man band in Boulder, constantly pushing the book on anyone who would listen.

Why had it struck me so strongly? In part, it was the immediacy of Diaz's writing. It sounded like he was sitting right next to you speaking the lines. The writing was so artful that it seemed to be without artifice. In part, it was the subject. What did I know of the Dominican experience? Not much. But somehow it resonated with the immigrant stories my Armenian relatives had told me, even though those stories were set 30 to 60 years earlier and involved a very different culture.

Diaz never came to the store to read from Drown in 1996 or 1997. That didn't stop us from selling over 100 copies in hardback. The next year, I became the store's buyer, and each season when the Penguin mailing came, I eagerly went through the Riverhead catalog searching for his promised novel. It was never there. Laura moved to New York a few years later, and gradually Diaz's debut began to fade in my memory.

When I first saw the catalog listing for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao this spring, I simply didn't believe it. Was this some cruel publishing prank? I was sure the rep would come in and tell me the book had been postponed. But soon after the catalog, a reader's copy followed, and then best of all, a few months ago we confirmed a signing with Diaz. The long wait was finally over. And yet, I found myself paralyzed, unable to read the book through most of the summer.

A series of long-awaited books that had become disappointments hung over me. Amy Bloom, Nathan Englander and Ron Carlson are all great short story writers who's 2007 novels simply didn't meet my expectations. Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, his first full-length novel since Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, was so silly I couldn't get past page 50. This was a tremendous letdown since I consider Kavalier and Clay one of the best novels of the past 10 years.

It was with great trepidation that I approached Diaz's novel in the waning days of August. As I waded into it, I soon found that all my fears were unfounded. Finally, a book worth the wait. Actually, it is a book worth any wait. Diaz's voice is as confident and intimate as it was in Drown and his characters are as fascinating. Stylistically, Diaz simply cannot be matched by most of today's writers. The narrative varies from first-person to second-person to third with an ease that makes these jumps in point of view seem almost natural. The book also slips back and forth through time, ranging from today to the 1940s with an equal sense of ease.

All that would be enough to make the story of the obese lovelorn Oscar, his stubborn and willful sister Lola, their powerful intimidating mother and their Dominican family one of the best novels of the year. But Diaz's novel is not just another stylistic mind-bender like Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, or a comic exercise in smart literary criticism like Brock Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, it is a remarkable account of the long-lasting effects that life under a dictator can have for generations of people. Diaz is exploring the influence that fear can exert on the lives of people even years after the dictator has died and the families have moved thousands of miles. In short, it is sadly a novel about the most common human experience of the last century. All of the novel's stylistic playfulness serves the purpose of revealing an amazingly powerful and important story.

Diaz's dictator is Trujillo, the man who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. We have seen him in other novels, most notably Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies. But here we don't really confront him directly. As Diaz said at his event in Boulder the other night, he's more interested in the silences of history. His Trujillo is a shadow man. His appearances are limited to a few brief scenes, but his malevolence hangs over the whole novel. He's a man who ruled his country with the assent of many people. It is these people and their willingness to acquiesce that haunt the Dominicans as much as the evil dictator does. It is this complicity, along with the horrible acts of violence, that still cannot be spoken about.

Despite taking on such a serious topic, Diaz keeps the novel focused on Oscar and his sister. Oscar is a nerd beyond most typical nerds. He reads comic books, writes science fiction and can't get to first base with a girl. If it wasn't for Lola's ex-boyfriend taking pity on him, he'd be friendless even in college. Lola is headstrong and at one point runs away with a neglectful boyfriend to Wildwood, New Jersey to escape the rule of her mother. We discover that Lola is carrying out the destiny set by the very mother she is running from. It's a world dominated by the women, a similarity this novel shares with the stories in Drown, and coming of age isn't easy for the beautiful women of Oscar's family.

The stories of the characters are told through various narrative devices. In response to a question Diaz fielded at the bookstore about the shifting narration, he spoke about how he hoped to keep the narrative just out of his readers' grasp, slipping through their fingers as they tried to grab hold. He wanted to make it impossible for his readers to pin down the novel as one narration. He didn't want them getting too comfortable. To further illuminate his story, he also pulls out a magician's bag of literary tricks: footnotes, italics, letters, Dominican phrases and a healthy dose of literary and comic allusions. Coursing through the whole novel and holding it together is the idea of an ancient curse, the fuku, that haunts the Dominican, and perhaps all New World, people. All of this is woven into the novel with compassion and a whip-smart wit.

In person, Diaz is a remarkably warm presence. He came out into the audience, like a soft-spoken professor, and asked what was happening in Boulder. He was mostly met by silence and anxious laughs, but over time he was able to establish a dialogue that is rare in author appearances. He fielded an array of questions and spoke at length about his torturous writing technique (needless to say, there were hundreds if not thousands of pages thrown away), the history of the Dominican Republic, genre fiction and comic books.

Afterwards, he signed books slowly, taking a few minutes with each customer and connecting with them on an individual level. He spoke to the nerdy guy about comic books, an older couple about their time in the Dominican Republic, and finally he spoke to me about the book business and touring. I learned that they had only sent him to eight cities when he toured for Drown.

I had planned to use my time to plead with him not to take another 10 years for his next book. But I couldn't even bring myself to mention it to him. Maybe if he only took five or eight years, this novel wouldn't be so wonderful. He's still young, so there's no rush. Even if it takes him a decade to write a book, I should have another four or five Junot Diaz masterpieces to savor. If that's all there is, then that will be more than enough.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Present Moment Wonderful Moment

On a cool autumn morning about nine years ago, I was a bit bored of selling books at the Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park. The conference attendees were all in their yoga classes, and the exhibit hall felt as lively as a deserted chapel. Actually, that is exactly what it was. A dark, dank church on the grounds of the Y.M.C.A. of the Rockies, without a decent view. I practiced yoga, but I had little interest in reading any of the yoga books we had on display. How much can you really say about downward dog or the sun salutation? I also didn't know the brand new bookseller that had been sent along to help us at the booth, and I wasn't in a mood to start a conversation with a stranger.

I grew restless and was upset that I hadn't brought along a book to read. The newspaper, as usual, was filled with talk of impeachment and the upcoming midterm elections. I really wasn't in the mood for politics, and I couldn't bring myself to even open the paper. I sent my buying assistant and the new bookseller off on a break, and I roamed around the booth, desperate for a diversion. I needed to appear engrossed in something, so that the woman from the aura photography booth wouldn't wander over and try to convince me to have my picture taken. The previous day, I'd told her I didn't have an aura, but that hadn't put an end to the hard sell. I also noticed that the woman with the crystals seemed to be sizing me up as a potential customer.

My eyes alighted upon a slender book sitting on our sales table: Present Moment, Wonderful Moment by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. I'm not a Buddhist, but living in Boulder does make you much more aware of Buddhism. The Shambhala Center is three blocks from the store, and several of our employees have been students of the only Buddhist university in America, Boulder's very own Naropa University. One time, the bookstore's owner, a Buddhist, had a monk come in to bless the store by throwing rice everywhere. It took over a year for my computer keyboard to get back to normal. I must admit that I also had developed a passing interest in Buddhism back when I read Herman Hesse's Siddhartha as a teenager. In short, a Buddhist book seemed like a better option than staring at photos of people standing on their heads.

Upon reading the first few passages, I was struck by the simplicity, the clarity and the humbleness of the language. Present Moment is in part an instruction manual for being mindful in your everyday life, and yet Thich Nhat Hanh takes the basic idea of being present and aware at all times and makes it interesting. My favorite section was on washing the dishes. His thoughts on soaking your hands in the warm water and going slowly, savoring the process of this simple task has stayed with me. Often, I think about trying to enjoy this chore because of his words that I read all those years ago.

By the time my assistant and the new bookseller came back, I had read over a dozen passages, and my boredom had fallen away. For the moment, I was the zen master of the bookstore's Yoga Journal booth. When the slow period struck in the afternoon, I took a walk around the Y.M.C.A. complex with the new bookseller. I noticed the breeze against my face, the sound of the wind rustling the aspen leaves, and I made a particular effort to slow down and listen to my co-worker as she told me about her life and how she'd come to Boulder. We poked our heads into different buildings on the grounds, and even saw a herd of elk wandering amid the pine trees. For that afternoon, every step seemed like a discovery.

It was with these thoughts in my head that I drove up to Estes Park, to that same Y.M.C.A. camp, to lead Thich Nhat Hanh down to Boulder for a signing last Tuesday. He had been in Estes to lead a retreat, and at the last minute we had gotten word that he would be willing to do a book signing in Boulder. It wasn't exactly last minute, we had about 12 days to prepare, but in bookselling, with its mapped-out schedules and elaborate author request protocol, it was extremely short notice for such an important event.

Accompanied by my buying office assistant, who happens to be a Tibetan Buddhist, I entered the small lobby of the building where Thich Nhat Hanh was staying and looked around. There were about a dozen monks or monks-in-training (sisters and brothers, as they refer to each other) all dressed in simple brown robes. Most of them were quite young, but there were a few older than me. Many were Asian, but some were Westerners. We were shown the boxes of Thich Nhat Hanh's new book, The Art of Power, that we had dropped off the previous week. He'd signed almost 300 copies for the event. We put "Autographed Copy" stickers on each book, and then we waited for him.

Normally, this would have made me antsy. What if we didn't get back to Boulder in time? We were now in rush hour -- the traffic could be terrible. How were we going to get him into the venue once the doors were open and hundreds of people crammed the entrance? Instead of being preoccupied by all these anxieties, I had quite a different feeling. If not truly peaceful, I was, at least, resigned. The sisters and brothers seemed utterly at ease. So we waited. It was a beautiful late summer day with a storm moving in over the mountains. A few drops of cool rain fell on us as we meandered outside, and I couldn't help but grow nostalgic for that day nine years ago when I'd first read the words of the man I was about to meet.

After an hour or so, Thich Nhat Hanh appeared. Everyone called him Thay, which means teacher. He was bundled up in a heavy brown robe and a simple, but thick knitted hat. He sat in the corner of the room, and I forced myself not to stare. My assistant, who I figured might be able to help me with the etiquette of the situation, was intent on getting a picture taken with him. To be honest, I had thought I'd want one too, but now that I was sitting in the same small room with him, I realized that my camera would stay in my pocket. I didn't want to put anything between me and this moment.

In a few minutes, he got up, and we moved outside to the cars. He moved slowly, yet it was not the walk of an old man, but of a meditative or thoughtful one. He is over 80 now, but he looked barely 60. My assistant managed to get one of the brothers to take a couple of pictures of him walking with Thich Nhat Hanh while I smiled in the distant background.

The event was amazing -- simply one of my most satisfying moments as a bookseller. Almost 600 people attended, and the energy in the room emanated a sense of peace and quietude that is rarely seen in a public place. Before the event even began, dozens of people thanked us for hosting it and giving them a chance to be in Thich Nhat Hanh's presence. As Thich Nhat Hanh walked to the stage with eight of the sisters and brothers, there was complete silence from the standing crowd. As he reached his seat on the stage, he smiled, bowed, and motioned everyone to sit.

His talk was simple. It started with a brief, meditative breathing exercise. He was trying to get the audience into that awareness of the present moment by concentrating on breathing in and out. Deep breaths in and long breaths out. In this exercise, I simply failed. Well, I was not a complete failure. I did not asphyxiate. My mind, as always, was racing. Occasionally, I'd focus and take a few good breathes, but mostly I was just taking in the whole Boulder scene. There were people in nice button-down shirts and there were people in torn T-shirts. There were hippie parents with their kids clinging to them and yuppies who carefully checked their blackberries in the moments before the event. But in this moment, most of them were in rapt attention and focusing on their breath. The room seemed to breathe as one.

My favorite part of the talk was when he discussed going to Vietnam this year and ending 40 years of exile. My wife and I were in Vietnam for three weeks in 2005 and fell in love with its land and people. It was easy to imagine him there, leading thousands of people in healing prayers. He explained that in every part of the country he held services to heal the wounds of the Vietnam war. He spoke with gratitude and amazement about how he was not censored by the Communist government. I found this fascinating. When we traveled through Vietnam, it was almost impossible to talk to people about the war. "It's over," they'd tell us. "Why do you want to talk about such old history?" they'd ask. It was difficult to get a true idea of how they felt, especially older people. It's easy to imagine how Thich Nhat Hanh, with his clarity and humbleness, could break through that and bring out something meaningful.

After his short talk, Thich Nhat Hanh opened it up to questions from the audience. The last question of the evening was one about love. Thich Nhat Hanh paused for a minute or two before answering, as he did with all the questions, and then he gave a beautiful answer that seems like it's worth all of the books in our relationship section combined. "Love is about being there. You must be open and available to your partner. You must be present for their suffering. You must be there emotionally. You cannot be distracted."

As he described his vision of love, I reached over to my wife, sitting beside me, and squeezed her hand. You see, it was in the spirit of those words that we met. She was the young bookseller sent to help me at the Yoga Journal booth in Estes Park nine years ago. She was the person that I made myself available to on that day, as we walked around the Y.M.C.A. camp and got to know each other.